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stunts Stunts are actual or simulated dangerous physical activities, undertaken during movie production or sometimes performed live, for public entertainment.

The once private world of stunt work is increasingly in the news, with the growing media interest in the technology of film-making. In the early, golden years of the movies, stars cultivated the myth that they were, in real life, the kinds of characters that they portrayed on the screen, and they were usually unwilling to disclose that others stood in for them in risky or highly skilled sequences. Nowadays, most film actors openly admit that they have stunt doubles and these professionals are acknowledged in their own right.

Stunts were first recognized by silent-movie production companies in the early 1900s, in newly-discovered Hollywood. With genuine cowboy farming dying out, but cowboy movies becoming popular, it was no surprise that production companies recruited former or out-of-work cowboys to recreate their rough-and-tumble skills on film, largely for the entertainment of city dwellers. It was a natural progression for these strong, skilful, and fearless characters to be employed to perform risky sequences in a whole range of other early movies, notably the amusing but dangerous scenes in comedies, such as the Keystone Cops. Yakima Canutt was one of the founders of this profession. He progressed from being a real cowboy, and world champion rodeo rider, to working as a stuntman in silent movies. He became recognized as a ‘stunt co-ordinator’ and worked on stunts until the late 1960s, serving as ‘2nd unit’ director on some of the greatest movies ever made, including Stagecoach, Gone with the Wind, and Ben Hur. A stunt co-ordinator is a person who works out the mechanics and rigging needed to execute stunts, and a so-called ‘2nd unit’ films most of the stunt sequences.

Some stuntmen became recognized actors in silent movies, and this trend has been repeated in recent years. Ben Johnson, for example, graduated from being a stuntman in many John Wayne movies to being a very accomplished actor.

A movie stunt, as it is known these days, is usually a section during an action sequence when an actor/character appears to carry out a spectacular leap, jump, fall, punch, or something similar. It is for this kind of sequence that a stuntman (or stuntwoman), called a ‘stunt double’, usually stands in for the actor. Even when an actor is physically capable of performing a stunt, studios usually prefer to use a stunt person (especially if the scene can easily be filmed so that the person cannot be identified), because of the insurance risk and the huge cost that would result if the production were to be delayed, or cancelled because of an injury to a star. In the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the character ‘Indy’ (played by Harrison Ford) had to jump off a rock, falling about five metres, onto the back of a passing horse, knocking off the rider and throwing the (trained) horse to the ground, and then stay mounted as the horse stood up and galloped away. Harrison Ford, paramount professional that he is, desperately wanted to perform this stunt himself, and he was certainly capable of doing so. But the risk of breaking a leg or getting a black eye or a tooth knocked out were simply too high. I (Vic Armstrong) as stunt co-ordinator had also been engaged to perform the stunt, but managed to persuade Harrison Ford to let me do it only by appealing to his good nature. I told him that he would deprive me of a small fortune in lost ‘stunt adjustment’ (the fee for a particular stunt, paid over and above the stuntman's salary) if he did the stunt himself, and he actually apologized and let me do it!

Other types of stunts are undertaken as public spectacles. These include motor cycle jumps performed as part of a stadium-type show or other public event. The famous American stuntman Evel Knieval brought this type of stunt to Europe. He was subsequently upstaged by the English super stuntman Eddie Kidd, who, sadly, paid the price of his profession and was seriously injured during one of his spectacular jumps. There are many other categories of public stunt, including jousting (based on the medieval sport of fighting from horseback), high-diving into small tanks of water, and crashing cars purely for the spectacle and the amusement of an audience. In the early 1930s and 1940s ‘barnstorming’ was very popular: intrepid aviators deliberately crashed their aircraft to amuse spectators! Such public spectacles have a long history, predating the movies. They can be traced back at least a thousand years, to the amusing or gymnastic feats performed by jesters and tumblers to entertain the court or other audiences.

Movie stunts, which started as an invisible yet integral part of film-making, have become so popular that they have spawned their own movies, notably Hooper, written and directed by the famous modern-day stuntman Hal Needham, and the television show Fall Guy, for which I wrote the first treatment.

Modern technology and new materials have contributed enormously to the stunt business. In the early days, stuntmen would perform high falls onto hay, but this was replaced by the miracle of empty cardboard boxes, which, when stacked correctly, would collapse and break the fall. As they say: ‘it isn't the fall that hurts but the stopping’! Cardboard boxes have since been superseded by the airbag, with multiple chambers to stop it collapsing if it develops a tear. The multi-chamber airbag has enabled stuntmen to fall more safely from much greater heights.

A device called a ‘fan descender’, which I invented in the early 1980s for a movie called Green Ice, enables a stunt person to fall from great heights at a controlled speed. It has been used all over the world, on such movies as the Indiana Jones trilogy, through to Titanic, and recently earned an award from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.

Stunts involving vehicles have been popular since at least the days of the Keystone Cops. A few years ago, a cannon, detonated by black explosive powder, was developed to flip cars over for such stunts, and this has recently been replaced by the less dangerous air cannon. Both systems were devised by Hal Needham. Rolling-over of vehicles used to be achieved by running the wheels onto a ramp. But nowadays, compression of the suspension caused by wheel ramps is avoided by the use of the more accurate and safer ‘pipe ramp’ — a long metal pipe set at an angle of approximately 45 degrees to the ground, on to which the vehicle is driven, lengthways, so that it slides along the under carriage, lifting the vehicle and rolling it over. With the advent of better metal materials for the roll cages that strengthen cars, and better welding techniques to fix them in place, car-crash stunts have become safer. Fire retardants and fireproof clothing, along with miniature breathing apparatus, have greatly improved the chances of survival during fire stunts.

With all these advances in technology the stunt person has had to modernize as well. In Great Britain there is now a system of qualification. Aspiring stuntmen and women have to attain advanced proficiency in several disciplines, such as horse riding, sword-fencing, martial arts, diving, gymnastics, swimming, etc. Applicants must also be members of the actors' union Equity, in recognition of the professional performing skills of the modern stunt person. Even after joining the Stunt Register (the governing body for stunt work in the UK), stunt persons still have to go through a long apprenticeship, during which they must be supervised by a qualified stunt co-ordinator.

The British stunt business really got off the ground in the late 1940s and 1950s, led by such icons as Joe Powell, Jock Easton, George Leech, Paddy Ryan, and Ken Buckle. They were the real groundbreakers, pooling their own money to drive to such places as Almeria in Spain, to try to find work on American epics that were being made in Europe because of lower wage costs. Nowadays, stuntmen travel first-class and command top wages. Britain also produces world-class stuntwomen, including Wendy Leech, who doubled the heroines in the Indiana Jones trilogy, Superman, and several James Bond movies. British stunt people are now considered the most proficient in the world.

Vic Armstrong