There’s something exhilarating about sitting safely in a movie theater while watching death-defying stunts on screen involving trains, planes, cars and giant boulders heading towards our hero.
We look with admiration, without really knowing who we are looking at.
That changes with “Danger on the Big Screen: 50 Movies Celebrating Cinema’s Greatest Stunts” by Scott McGee (Running Press), which is part of the Turner Classic Movies library.
McGee, Senior Director of Original Programming at TCM, names those who have created, choreographed and performed stunts for over 100 years. Readers will come to know these unsung heroes through repeated references throughout the book and will better understand how their accomplishments – and sadly at times their sacrifices – inspired and influenced what we watch today.
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Each chapter examines a different movie (or series of movies), making it a handy reference guide. It is also very informative from the first chapter on the dangerous work of the great silent film actress Lillian Gish in “Way Down East” (1920) until the last entry on “Baby Driver” (2017), a film which mixed car stunts with music and rhythm.
Along the way, McGee draws lines from Douglas Fairbanks in the 1920s to Marvel movies 100 years later; from Buster Keaton to James Bond; and from “Stagecoach” to “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, among many other examples.
Some of the earliest stuntmen were actors like Fairbanks, whose work was defined by a youthful spirit and a “look what I can do” attitude; comedian Harold Lloyd, the Everyman audiences could relate to; and Buster Keaton, whose 1928 film “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” has what McGee calls perhaps the greatest stunt in movie history as a two-story house falls on Keaton with only a “perfectly placed open window” saving him from being crushed.
Western actor Tom Mix may not be as well known as these three, but his combined skills as a cowboy, horseman, stuntman and showman have earned him his nickname “rent man”, as he was guaranteed to draw crowds to thousands of movie theaters. every week. McGee isn’t shy about whether Mix did all of his own stunts entirely, including the famous horse jump across a chasm in “Three Jumps Ahead” (1923).
It wasn’t until John Ford’s 1939 film “Stagecoach” that “real” stuntmen appeared on film sets, including Yakima Canutt, the godfather of the stuntman who was the first to use stunts as a science. Among his inventions was a step that was attached to a horse’s saddle to allow the stuntman to transfer to another moving object. Surely you’ve seen a variation of it, like in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”.
He was the first stuntman to be officially recognized by the Motion Picture Association of America, winning an honorary Oscar in 1966. The stuntmen of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” paid tribute to Canutt by re-enacting his “man under the horses” of “Stagecoach”. with an “Indy Under Truck” scene.
A chapter on the silent version of 1925’s “Ben-Hur” and the 1959 Charlton Heston epic illustrates how times have changed between the two films, especially with regard to the safety of stuntmen and horses.
McGee delves into fire stunts in a chapter on “The Thing From Another World” (1952), including the “shocking moment” stuntman Tom Steele was on fire for 25 seconds “full burn” with the aide from seven other stuntmen who double acted but also doused him with kerosene and controlled the burn for his safety.
Steve McQueen’s love of cars is detailed in the chapters on “The Great Escape” and “Bullitt”. The entry on “John Wick” is particularly interesting as we learn how ballet was used to create the film’s violent physics to retain human emotion.
I appreciate that McGee includes stunt women throughout the book alongside the men, starting with that opening chapter on “Way Down East.” Gish spent three weeks filming the famous climax in zero-degree weather where his character collapsed on a freezing ice floe heading for a waterfall. This left him with permanent problems in his right hand which had been in the water.
Jeannie Eppera’s work included voice acting for Kathleen Turner in “Romancing the Stone,” including that popular scene of Turner and her co-star Michael Douglas sliding down a muddy hill. Eppera considers it the most difficult stunt she has ever done.
McGee is an engaging presence when he presents movies at TCM events and that comes through in the book. He has the gift of twisting a sentence so as not to state the obvious. “…Airmen buzzed as they buzzed, high in the sky,” reads his description of the stunt performers on the set of “Hell’s Angles” the day after their late night.
He writes that Howard Curtis and Mickey Gilbert took “a splintered wooden face from an exploding wagon” dubbing for Paul Newman and Robert Redford in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”.
And Remy Julienne, a former pastry chef known for his legendary car stunts in films such as ‘The Italian Job’ (1969) “left his skid marks all over Europe, in brutal and grueling car chases” . Julienne was the right man to carry out the pursuit with 18-wheel tankers in the Bond film “Licence to Kill”.
Speaking of Bond, even those films go back to the classics, as ‘The Living Daylights’ director John Glen pointed out, saying, “All the techniques that we used, I’m sure were available in Buster Keaton’s Day.”