Chicken decapitation and battered cats: Hollywood’s history of animal cruelty

The sight of a duckling having its foot prised off in Lars von Triers new film sent Cannes audiences scurrying. But its nothing compared to these real-life horrors

If I am not looking forward to Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built when it eventually comes to UK screens, it is not because of the violence against women and children that helped earn the film an early round of disgusted reviews. No, what really fills me with dread is the prospect of seeing a duckling having its leg torn off with pliers.

Even after Peta weighed in to confirm that Von Trier didn’t really torture a duckling (the effect was achieved “using movie magic and silicone parts”), the idea leaves me feeling queasy. (Regardless, the film itself sent guests scurrying for the exit during its international premiere at Cannes earlier this month). Half a century of watching horror movies may have accustomed me to misogynistic violence on screen (which is not to say I enjoy it), but it hasn’t inured me to the mistreatment of animals.

Had Von Trier really tortured that duckling, he would have been following in a long and dishonourable tradition of auteurs treating animals even more badly than they treat actresses. Andrei Tarkovsky had a horse shot in the neck and pushed down a flight of stairs in Andrei Rublev (1966). Jean-Luc Godard filmed a pig having its throat cut for Weekend (1967). Chickens were decapitated in Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973). Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900 (1976) contains scenes of frogs being tortured and a terrified cat being strung up so that Donald Sutherland can crush it to death with his head. The director cuts away from the act (thank heaven) and I like to think Sutherland didn’t really kill the cat, but the Italians do have previous form in this regard. The writer Curzio Malaparte, in a 1943 essay about Mussolini, describes a traditional Tuscan holiday entertainment in which working-class men, hands tied behind their backs, would batter cats to death with their shaven heads.

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Bob Dylan (and doomed chicken) in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973). Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Francis Ford Coppola incorporated footage of a water buffalo being hacked to death in Apocalypse Now (1979). Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó (1994) shows a cat being manhandled; Tarr insisted the cat wasn’t harmed, but clearly he wasn’t concerned about showing it being swung around by its forepaws. Between takes of Park Chan-Wook’s revenge thriller Oldboy (2003), the actor Choi Min-Sik, a “devout Buddhist”, was caught on film apologising to the live octopuses he was eating – which makes you think of Lewis Carroll’s Walrus, weeping for the oysters he is devouring.

The Cinematograph Films (Animals) Act of 1937 “prohibits the exhibition or supply of a film [in the UK] if animals have been cruelly mistreated for the purposes of making the film”. The British Board of Film Censors (BBFC) still cuts non-faked animal abuse, although it is more lenient on arthouse than horror. Sátántangó and Oldboy were passed uncut, but the new Blu-Ray releases of Sergio Martino’s The Mountain of the Cannibal God (1978) and Umberto Lenzi’s Cannibal Ferox (1981) have each been shorn of about two minutes’ footage of, among other delights, turtle-dismembering, iguana-splitting and cute furry creatures being attacked and eaten by huge snakes.

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Pure carnage: at least 25 horses had to be put down during the filming of The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936). Photograph: Allstar/Warner Bros

But then both films come trailing notoriety, having once been classed as “video nasties”. The extras on both re-releases include interviews in which the films’ respective directors awkwardly address the animal cruelty. Martino says: “In a way, it was a constructed scene because we put the monkey and python together, but we didn’t plan for that to be the ending … So it was really unpleasant to watch.”

It is here that many cinephiles, including me, find ourselves faced with a dilemma. On the one hand, we are vehemently opposed to censorship. We are also aware that animals die every day to feed us, and we wear leather shoes. On the other hand, I would rather not watch scenes of animal cruelty, and if this makes me a hypocrite, so be it. It is upsetting enough watching a deer being swallowed by a python on one of David Attenborough’s nature specials, but Attenborough himself drew the line at reality-show contestants killing crocodiles, pigs and turkeys “just to get a shot”.

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The Adventures of Milo and Otis: there are rumours that at least 20 cats died during production. Photograph: Moviestore/Rex/Shutterstock

Humans have been abusing animals for entertainment since the dawn of time, and film-makers haven’t shown themselves any more principled than bear-baiters or bullfighters. The otherwise admirable stunt pioneer Yakima Canutt invented a device called “The Running W”, which brought down galloping horses, often injuring or killing them in the process. At least 25 horses were killed or had to be put down during filming of The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), so enraging Errol Flynn, the film’s star, that he attacked his director, Michael Curtiz. Such was the public outcry when a horse broke its spine after being ridden off a 70ft cliff during filming of Jesse James (1939) that American Humane (AH, the US equivalent of the RSPCA) was finally tasked with overseeing the treatment of animals on Hollywood sets.

Even then, it seems AH’s trademarked seal of approval is no guarantee that “No animals were harmed”. While researching my book Cats on Film, I found claims that at least 20 cats died during the production of Koneko Monogatari (1986), a Japanese film about a ginger and white kitten and his pug pal, retitled by US distributors as The Adventures of Milo and Otis, with a voiceover by Dudley Moore. AH gave it a thumbs up, and the rumours have never been verified, but it is obvious when you watch the film that animals are frequently in distress. The BBFC cut 16 seconds from the film and gave it a U certificate, but outtakes of a cat “falling” off a cliff and desperately trying to scrabble out of the sea to safety are enough to make me never want to see it again.

And here I am being hypocritical again, because while I balk at cruelty to kittens or ducklings, I can just about tolerate non-cuddly scorpions and ants being set on fire in The Wild Bunch (1969) or horrible reptiles hacked to bits in Cannibal Ferox. But hooray for CGI, which now makes any sort of real animal torture redundant. “Today, I’d film those scenes in a different way,” Lenzi admits in his interview on Cannibal Ferox’s Blu-Ray release. “I’d probably re-do it now with more help from the special FX department.”

Anne Billson is the author of Cats on Film

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