Sanada on the almost-beheading of Tom

One inch from dead – The day Tom Cruise almost lost his head

HOLLYWOOD — Tom Cruise was an inch away from serious injury or even death by beheading on the set of The Last Samurai.

The incident, apparently triggered by a mechanical failure of an animatronic horse, has been rumoured for months since the scene was shot. But Cruise, his director Edward Zwick and the film’s co-producers have all downplayed the danger during preparations for the Dec. 5 release of the film.

Finally, though, one of Cruise’s Japanese co-stars — master swordsman Hiroyuki Sanada — has confirmed that the rumours are true.

Sanada, who also trained Cruise in samurai martial arts for the film, says now that he was the one who nearly sliced into Cruise’s neck with a heavy sword during a stunt for the so-called Fog Battle in the epic film.

“I think so, yeah!” Sanada says when The Sun asks him if he saved Cruise’s life by stopping the sword one inch from the superstar’s neck. “You know, I was so scared. If I hit him, I cannot live any more!”

The incident occurred in a studio set-up with Cruise riding a mechanical horse that was supposed to jerk him backwards at the precise moment that Sanada’s sword swung through the air where Cruise’s head had just been. On the second or third take — Sanada is uncertain which — the horse jammed, and the swing of the sword was directly aimed at Cruise.

Sanada, a veteran of at least 50 Japanese samurai movies, colourfully recalls the moment:

“So everyone screamed: ‘Ahhhhhh! King Tom’s gone!’ I just managed to stop my sword an inch from his neck. It was so hard. I was drenched in sweat! My God! But Tom never blinked! It was the biggest moment, the most dangerous moment. After that, I never hit him, he never hit me.”

In subsequent takes for that scene, Sanada also switched to a soft, rubberized sword.

When the subject came up later in the day at Cruise’s press conference, Cruise dismissed the incident as nothing.

“Did they say that, that I almost got my head cut off? No, I didn’t, at least not to my knowledge. Maybe I wasn’t looking.”

But, when The Sun told Cruise exactly what Sanada had said, Cruise suddenly “remembered” the real incident on the mechanical horse: “Oh that! Yeah, yeah, yeah. But I trusted him. It was an inch. It wasn’t in my neck!”

Zwick, although reluctant to expand on the issue, says that Sanada’s training and discipline saved Cruise from injury.

“Sanada-san is one of the greatest martial artists I’ve ever seen and has more discipline and control … (he doesn’t finish that thought) … There was a moment where, if he had not had such control, that he could have possibly seriously injured Tom. He (Sanada) just stopped himself because he’s remarkable and well-trained.”

Zwick says he won’t overhype the incident. “You know, you choose not to focus on those moments of what-if. As it turned out, there was nothing of any consequence that happened.”

With tongue planted in cheek, however, he says that killing Tom Cruise on a movie set would not be a good thing: “For all of us, that could have been a career-ender, I suppose.”

Co-producer Paula Wagner, who is also Cruise’s business partner, says that Cruise’s athleticism and training help him to survive dangerous stunts: “Tom is an actor who knows his limits and he prepares for danger extraordinarily well.”

Co-producer Marshall Herskovitz says that Hollywood films are shot under a rigorous safety plan.

“You’re prepared,” he said. “In this case, we all breathed a huge sigh of relief and went back to work.”