Exploding buses and plane crashes: why stuntmen are the unsung heroes of film

A bus explodes on Lambeth Bridge in London during filming for Jackie Chan’s new film The Foreigner. Steve Parsons/PA Wire

Had you been enjoying a peaceful wander along the Thames last Sunday things wouldn’t have remained calm for long. Because that morning a double decker bus exploded on Lambeth Bridge. Many panicked. But the explosion turned out to have been a stunt for Jackie Chan’s latest movie, and the stunt was subsequently criticised as insensitive, particularly by the father of a 7/7 victim. Many onlookers were shocked and upset, but at least no one was hurt. Many other film stunts have gone terribly wrong in the past.

Sadly there is a long history of serious accidents and fatalities on set. The silent years were particularly dangerous – not least because many of the spectacular visual stunts were done for “real”. Stunt pilot Dick Grace, for example, suffered a broken neck while deliberately crashing an aeroplane for the World War I aviation epic Wings (1927) – miraculously he recovered and was back performing stunts within a year. Others have not been so lucky. Three stunt pilots were killed during the filming of Hell’s Angels (1930), and Top Gun (1986) is dedicated to Art Scholl, who died while attempting to capture a pilot’s-eye view of a diving spin from his camera-plane.

Movie fatalities are not confined to action-heavy aviation pictures. Brandon Lee died on the set of The Crow (1994) when a gun was accidentally loaded with a live round rather than a blank. Three actors – including two children – were killed on a night shoot for Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) when a pyrotechnic effect detonated too close to a helicopter, which then spun out of control and crashed. And Roy Kinnear suffered a heart attack and died after falling off his horse on the set of The Return of the Musketeers (1989) – an accident that prompted director Richard Lester to give up making movies.

Then there are the indirect deaths. Silent film star Wallace Reid was injured while making The Valley of the Giants in 1919: he was given morphine to ease the pain and later died from addiction to the drug. And it was filming close to the US atomic bomb test sites in Nevada for The Conqueror (1955) that has been blamed for John Wayne, Susan Hayward, and director Dick Powell, all contracting cancer.

Given this roll-call, it’s legitimate to question whether the art of motion picture stunts is worth the risk. But where would the movies be without stunts and stuntmen (and women)? Film would be indelibly poorer without the gravity-defying acrobatics of silent film comedians such as Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton, who performed many of their own stunts for real. And in the days before CGI, the epic battle scenes for films such as Birth of a Nation (1915), Spartacus (1960) and The Longest Day (1962) had to be re-enacted by hundreds of extras. CGI-enhanced effects of modern blockbusters can often seem less realistic than doing it the old-fashioned way.

Top stunts

We all have our favourite movie stunts. By common consent one of the greatest stunt performers of all time was Yakima Canutt, an extraordinary horseman whose work can be seen in countless Westerns and adventure movies. Canutt’s most famous stunt was in Stagecoach (1939), where he plays one of the Commanche horsemen chasing John Wayne and his fellow travellers across the salt flats. Canutt jumps onto the leading horse, is shot by Wayne, and then falls to the ground. The horses and stagecoach then pass over him. He can just be seen, in long shot, getting to his feet after the coach has passed. He repeated and improved on the stunt for Zorro’s Fighting Legion (1940) where, doubling for Zorro, he not only let the stagecoach pass over him but then flipped around to climb onto it from the back.

Canutt is just edged out for my favourite stunt by Rick Sylvester, who doubled as Roger Moore’s James Bond in the pre-title sequence of The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) for the scene where Bond, pursued by KGB assassins, skis off the top of a mountain and free-falls into space before opening the parachute that we didn’t know he had. The story goes that Bond producer Cubby Broccoli had seen a picture of Sylvester parachuting off a mountain in an advert – only to be told that it had been faked. Sylvester, unfazed, agreed to do it for real. It’s often been claimed as the greatest movie stunt of them all – though Sylvester, with the charming modesty of his breed, maintains that he had little to do and that gravity deserves much of the credit.

There have been some positive outcomes from film tragedies. It was following the mistreatment of horses on films like The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936) and Jesse James (1939) that the American Humane Association set up a Hollywood office and began to monitor the treatment of animals on set. And the Twilight Zone tragedy led to important changes in the too often derided health and safety regulations applied to the film industry.

Thankfully not all accidents end in tragedy. Some can even be quite funny. The outtakes of Live and Let Die (1973) show Ross Kananga, again doubling for Roger Moore, skipping over the backs of crocodiles. The take we see in the film was the fifth: on each of the first four it doesn’t quite go right, and on one take the last crocodile nips his foot.

Today’s movie stuntmen are a hardy breed of professionals who accept there is always a risk. The stunt business is more regulated than it was in the everything-goes silent days – but it’s also more professionalised. So I, for one, hope we don’t see an end to the tradition of doing stunts for real – it looks so much better than CGI.