When actors were really shot at

No, you did not read this article’s title wrong. Back in the early days of cinema actors really got gunfire directed at them, by sharpshooters who were aiming at set pieces close to the actor, like windows, barrels or walls. On-screen it looked like the actor really got shot at, because well, they did. By real bullets! Shooting with real bullets was common practice in the early days of both silent, and sound films. It has even been reported film studio Warner Brothers hired a Marine Corps machine gunner for just such effects.

Why it happened? Because special effects mimicking a bullet impacting a body were simply nonexistent at the time. This also resulted in rather tame violence compared to today’s movies, because when the script called for an actor to get hit by a bullet, he would simply fall down without any noticeable wounds on his body. To be fair, this was not only a result of special effects not being that advanced at the time but can also be credited to the 1930 Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America’s Production Code sometimes referred to as the Hays Code, which forbids, among other things, the depiction of violence in detail. This code was strictly implemented between 1934 and the start of World War II, but at the end of the war more and more cinema violence found its way back to the silver screen. Then somewhere around the 1950s explosive squibs were starting to find their way to movie sets around the world.An explosive squib is a pyrotechnic special effect device used to simulate a wound spurting blood from a bullet impact. They are also often referred to as bullet hit squibs or simply blood squibs. There is some conflicting information on which movie was actually the first ever to use squibs, but all signs point to it either being the Polish film Pokolenie (1955) or the American western Run Of The Arrow (1957). Amazingly enough, the use of real gunfire on movie sets only resulted in one casualty or one reported casualty at least. In the American silent film The Captive (1915) extra Charles Chandler got killed by a gunshot to the head after a bullet was accidentally left in a rifle. The scene called for a group of soldiers to shoot down a door and director Cecil B. DeMille wanted them to use live ammunition to give the scene more realism. When a second take of the scene, this time with blanks, was being filmed the accident happened. But this one reported casualty does not mean there were no near misses because there were plenty.

James Cagney, a famous stage and film actor who was active between 1919 and 1984, was involved in numerous near misses on set. One day when such an incident happened again, reportedly while he was working on Taxi! (1932), he was fed up and declared to never work with live rounds ever again. These experiences, among others, were an integral reason for his involvement in forming the Screen Actors Guild in 1933, of which he also served a two-year term as its president between 1942-1944. While the traditional explosive squibs have been around since the 1950s, the air squibs are gaining more and more popularity these days. The downside to traditional squibs is that filmmakers would often need a pyrotechnics license or a special effects license to use them, depending on the filming location. But with air squibs, there is no need for certification so that anyone can use them safely. This type of squib involves a small amount of stage blood and a little air from a bike pump, meaning there is no need for metal plates or rubber mats to serve as protection from explosives.So next time when you are watching a classic film where a character gets shot at, especially movies that were made before 1955, just know there is a very high probability that the actor in question is really literally ducking gunfire for your entertainment. It will make you appreciate their efforts, and the movie, even more.
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