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Movie Legends Revealed | How a Horse Falling Off a Cliff Led to ‘No Animals Were Harmed’

jessejamesMOVIE URBAN LEGEND: A film that pushed a horse off a cliff led to Hollywood allowing American Humane Association oversight of treatment of animals in movies.

Any regular filmgoer is familiar with the tag at the end of film credits that states “no animals were harmed in the making of this film. This message is given with the approval of the American Humane Association, which has oversight over the treatment of animals in films” (the organization actually owns a trademark on the phrase “No Animals Were Harmed”). As you might imagine, wherever an organization has oversight of filmmakers (or any private industry), there assuredly was some sort of incident or legal ruling that led to it. In other words, companies tend not to volunteer to be overseen by an outside group. So how did U.S. filmmakers come to agree to have their treatment of animals overseen by the American Humane Association? Would you believe it had to do with a horse being pushed off a cliff?

As soon as the film industry really began to take off in the 1920s, the American Humane Association sought oversight of its treatment of animals. As time went by, the organization grew more insistent, especially as Westerns and war films increasingly popular, as both genres tended to treat horses as if they were taking part in actual battles.

In particular, the use of trip wires (to tangle horses and show them dropping as if shot by guns or arrows) was protested. However, while there were films where more than a dozen horses were killed by this technique (the filming of the 1939 Erroll Flynn film The Charge of the Light Brigade saw more than two dozen horses killed by trip wires), it was the death of a single horse that finally pushed the film industry into allowing the American Humane Association to dictate how animals were treated.

You see, in a 1939 film about Jesse James (starring Tyrone Power as Jesse James and Henry Fonda as his brother Frank), the filmmakers THREW A HORSE OFF OF A CLIFF!

cliff1In a dramatic scene toward the end of Jesse James, Frank and Jesse James are being chased by a posse. Their only way out is to jump with their horses from a cliff into a lake. Perspective was used to make a 70-foot drop seem higher, and then a stunt man jumped off of cliff along with a horse that\ was forced off using a slide mechanism. A different angle of the first shot was then replayed right after to make it appear as if the other James brother also jumped off with his horse. Then we cut to the brothers and their horses in the river getting away.

The fall didn’t actually kill the horse (as, again, the drop wasn’t that steep), but the horse was so freaked out by the fall that it began thrashing wildly and ended up drowning itself.

This incident drew a great deal of attention from the public and anger against the filmmakers; it appeared as though Congress was going to be spurred into action. As we have seen over the years, one of the things private industries are most frightened by is government regulation, so rather than let Congress get involved, the Motion Picture Association of America agreed to allow the American Humane Association to oversee the treatment of animals in films from that point on.

The American Humane Association Film Unit began in 1940 and thus “No Animals Were Harmed” was born!


In recent years, the American Humane Association has come under fire over a number of films that received the “No Animals Were Harmed” sign-off despite numerous animals dying during production. For instance, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey saw nearly 30 animals used in the film die off-set. American Humane Association President and CEO Dr. Robin Ganzert commented on the Hobbit incident, stating:

We are currently only empowered to monitor animal actors while they are working on production sets. We do not have either the jurisdiction or funding to extend that oversight to activities or conditions off set or before animals come under our protection. There are too many incidents off the set and this must stop. It is vital that we work with the industry to bring the kind of protection we have for animals during filming to all phases of production.

There is still much debate over the American Humane Association’s current role when it comes to the protection of the rights of animals in films, but whatever your thoughts are on the topic, though, this particular legend is…


Thanks to Mike Gillespie and his neat website about the history of the Lake of the Ozarks (where the stunt took place) for the information about how the stunt in Jesse James was done.

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is

Be sure to check out my Entertainment Urban Legends Revealed for more urban legends about the worlds of TV, Movies and Music!


  • Glenn Simpson

    I was reading an interview the other day with Natalia Tena, who plays Osha (irony) on Game of Thrones. They were talking about the rabbit-dressing scenes. Apparently those are real rabbits, that she said were killed ethically. So apparently, perfectly good rabbits were killed to make entertainment. Not sure how that makes it through the rules.

  • Ushio

    Because people eat rabbits? got several in my freezer ( going to turn them into burgers :) )

    If we are going that far surely any film or TV show were a person eats a burger should not be allowed to have “No Animals Were Harmed”
    either then.

  • Glenn Simpson

    If the animal is killed SPECIFICALLY to make a burger for the movie, which doesn’t even get eaten, then yes, that shouldn’t happen. It’s not even anything to do with my personal feelings, I’m saying I don’t understand where the ASPCA draws the line, and I would have thought it would have been somewhere earlier than “killing rabbits so we can show someone cleaning them”.

  • shaunn

    It’s a good question and I agree with you. In an early episode of GoT, when Tywin first appears, he is dressing a deer. I’m pretty sure that is a real dead deer that Charles Dance is cutting to pieces. Again, was a deer killed for that scene or was the deer already dead?

  • Peri Sedigh

    Thank you for this important historical article on how animals are treated in the entertainment industry. Hopefully by increasing awareness, there will be a day when truly no animals are harmed in show business.

  • Adam Weissman

    What the hell does it mean to kill ethically? I mean, okay, if a demon rabbit is trying to gun you down with AK-47s and burn you wilth hellfire, I can see an argument that killing that bunny might be ethical. But I really don’t see what constitutes the “ethical” killing of an animal to use as a prop on cable.

  • Glenn Simpson

    I went to the ASPCA site and found some guidelines, and I guess this is the one that applies:

    “If dead animals or animal parts are purchased from or provided by a taxidermist, an animal shelter, a slaughterhouse, a food supplier or another source, American Humane Association must be provided with documentation that demonstrates that the animals were destroyed in the normal course of the source’s operations and were not killed for the production”

    So if there’s someone out there killing rabbits as a normal part of their business and selling them, then the ASPCA does’t have a problem with the movie production that buys them. Although hopefully they would be looking into the entity that sold them.

  • Adam Weissman

    It sounds like ASPCA is lisitng the AHA guidelines, but the American Humane Association and The ASPCA are two separate organizations.

  • Glenn Simpson

    Hrm. I didn’t catch that transition, you’re right…

  • Rafael Jasso

    “Because people eat rabbits? got several in my freezer ( going to turn them into burgers :) )”

    Do people still eat rabbits these days? In the country I live, rabbit meat is practically never sold at stores anymore.