From the origins of the movie industry, film locations and studio backlots have been killing fields, where thousands of actors and extras have died or sustained serious injuries, but nearly every one of the fallen then got up and joined the crew for lunch.
In October of 2021, in a tragic accident during the filming of the Western movie Rust, cinematographer Helyna Hutchins died when actor Alec Baldwin wielded a gun that he thought was unloaded. This month, a New Mexico District Attorney charged Baldwin with two counts of manslaughter, setting off another round of a stalemated debate over the allocation of responsibility in Hollywood’s fatal mishaps.
While this calamity cannot be reversed, it can be remembered. And, if remembered with its full measure of misfortune and misery, the circumstances of Hutchins’ violent death on a filming location can shake the long-established power of Hollywood to make light of death.
For decades, a ticket to watch a conventional Western movie came with a license to take a break from ordinary respect for human life. Placed in rows in a theatre or situated on sofas in home entertainment centers, movie-viewers have watched with free-and-easy amusement as men killed each other, whether in showdowns between rivals on Main Street, in mounted pursuits of outlaws by solid citizens or in battles pitting white soldiers and Indian warriors against each other.
After watching a cinematic carnival of carnage, the people — who would respond with alarm and dismay if they had to watch one person violently end the life of another in immediate, three-dimensional reality — can say to each other, “That was sure fun!”
By the middle of the 20th Century, the attitudes cultivated in movie theaters had moved into every zone of entertainment. Visiting Disneyland in the late 1950s, a writer for the Saturday Evening Post noted a popular attraction on Tom Sawyer’s Island: children could “fire air-operated, bulletless rifles at the plastic Indians.” “From the top of a log fort, you can sight in with guns on a forest in which Indians lurk,” another journalist reported in 1960, “The guns don’t fire bullets–they’re hydraulically operated—but the recoil is so realistic that you’d never guess they weren’t the genuine article.”
Purposefully and artfully staged to look real, these killings — whether at amusement parks or at movie theaters — were clearly understood to be fake.
The death of Halyna Hutchins on October 22, 2021, fractured that understanding.
Who killed her?
A network of people who worked as a team in an industry historically locked in a paradox: pursuing authenticity in portraying violence that audiences are supposed to know is fake.
Someone brought live ammunition onto the site. Someone put a real bullet in a gun that was intended to add a note of authenticity to the movie. The armorer gave the gun to the associate director, evidently without properly inspecting the contents of its chambers. The associate director handed Alec Baldwin that gun, assuring him it was a “cold gun,” completely empty of ammunition. Alec Baldwin was holding the gun when it discharged, killing his coworker. The ending of her life was unintentional and inadvertent. But her death was as irreversible as it would have been if a killer with purpose and intent had fired the bullet.
In accepting the gun and complacently accepting the assurance that the gun posed no danger, Alec Baldwin will live the rest of his own life with self-reproach, regret, and sorrow. The death of Halyna Hutchins will always be a burden on his income, his career, his reputation — and his soul.
Over the last century, Hollywood’s unrelenting effort to transmute episodes of violence into lighthearted entertainment has racked up a track record of misfortune that, blessedly, has rarely ended the lives of individuals, even as it has delivered hardship, indignity, and injustice to a significant sector of North American society.
Hollywood’s filmmakers — producers, directors, casting agents, make-up artists, and costume designers — were convinced that American filmgoers would be discontented if real Indians did not appear in Westerns to be killed or ridiculed by white actors as deemed necessary by the script.
Sure of their ability to define what constituted “real” in Indian identity, filmmakers sprayed twentieth-century Indian employees with brown paint and outfitted them with wigs when they showed up with insufficiently dark skins and hair of an unsatisfactory length.
A book by one of the co-authors of these reflections, Picturing Indians: Native Americans in Film, 1941-1960, presents an inarguable case for the lasting power of the cinematic stereotypes, including of the violent Indian, that, to this day, remain cemented into popular thinking.
In the movies’ portrayal of the nation’s westward expansion, the plot demanded caricatured versions of Indian people as the necessary opponents, rivals, and foils for white settlers. Most injurious of all, Native Americans were captured by the cameras as inhabitants of a distant past and not of contemporary folks whose lives mattered in the present.
The decision-makers of Hollywood unmistakably did injury to Indian people, robbing them of their full humanity. Intended or inadvertent, wrought by individuals who worked together in a collaborating network, that injury lingers as a legacy from the recent past.
The burden that Alec Baldwin’s soul differs from the burden that Hollywood’s filmmakers created for themselves, with their eagerness to profit from the simplification of history and the distortion of popular understanding of Indian people’s complex identities and lives.
For all the differences in these stories, the tragedy of Halyna Hutchins’ death offers the film industry an opportunity that it can and should accept. A memorial for this innocent victim could help to address a long-running historical dilemma.
A tribute to her memory could change the industry’s course, calling a halt to the determination to reduce violent death to light and inconsequential entertainment.
The burden that rests on Alec Baldwin’s soul is not his — alone — to carry.
Patty Limerick is the director of the University of Colorado Applied History Initiative and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Liza Black is an associate professor of history at the University of Indiana, and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. Her book is “Picturing Indians: Native Americans in Film, 1941-1960.”
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