The movie studio “Big Brass” was panic-stricken in emergency talks demanding, “Wadda we do if the sonofabitch dies?!” after David Niven was rushed to hospital.
Back in 1961, Gregory Peck led an all-star ensemble cast in The Guns of Navarone with David Niven, Anthony Quinn, Stanley Baker, James Darren, Anthony Quayle and Richard Harris. The iconic World War II adventure followed an Allied commando unit seeking to destroy a German fortress that was threatening Allied naval ships in the Aegean Sea. Yet this thrilling classic came at a great cost for the actors who suffered terrible injuries in near-fatal accidents on set.
Long before CGI, the Hollywood stars needed to capture a thrilling shipwreck that was filmed at Shepperton Studios.According to The Telegraph, a replica Greek fishing boat called a caique was raised up on hydraulics in a 200 x 200 ft tank full of 6000 gallons of water. During the scene, the actors were thrown around as hoses fired water into aeroplane engines, which were shot back at them. All the while tanks were dumped from above as wind machines blasted toward them.
The unbelievable saw Peck swept overboard and almost crushed by hydraulics, while Niven went under too, getting his coat caught in the machinery. It was reported at the time: “Peck sustained a three-inch gash on his forehead; Quinn and Niven twisted their spines; Baker wrenched his neck and Darren was completely knocked out by a wave, and almost drowned.”
If that wasn’t enough, Niven caught a near-fatal infection via a cut lip in dirty water, when filming the scene of him setting up explosives to destroy the titular guns. The Guns of Navarone was almost shut down entirely as Niven was rushed to hospital in the early hours, suffering “in a critical condition, struck down by septicemia.” In his memoir, he later noted: “The grim times before antibiotics”.
Director J Lee Thompson recalls years later: “We had to decide whether to abandon the film – because we still had some important scenes to do with him – and take the insurance.” A studio executive was then rushed in for some emergency talks.
Niven referred to this studio executive as “Big Brass” who said: “Wadda we do if the sonofabitch dies?” Niven recalled: “The sonofabitch, pumped full of drugs, went back to work against the doctor’s orders far sooner than was prudent, completed the crucial three days’ work and suffered a relapse that lasted seven weeks. The Big Brass never even sent me a grape.” Only thanks to his tenacity was the iconic war movie completed.
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