Stunts have been a part of filmmaking almost since the very beginning of the art form. The best ones can drop jaws of the most jaded cinema-goers, the less death-defying ones often go unnoticed. But they should all be applauded, whether small or large scale, because stunt performance is a risky business, even with the best safety precautions. While CGI may have made large scale action sequences easier to depict, there’s nothing quite like a good practical stunt to blow an audience’s mind. Words by Stuart Barr
ITV/REX/ShutterstockBuster Keaton’s elaborate visual gag from Steamboat Bill, Jr (1928) (ITV/REX/Shutterstock)
Stunt work was a free-for-all in the early days of cinema, performed by anyone able and willing to jump through a window for a few bucks. This began to change with 1923’s Safety Last!, which ironically given its name was innovative in developing special safety equipment, famously allowing star Harold Lloyd to breathtakingly dangle from a tall building’s clock face.
Lloyd’s contemporary in the silent era was Buster Keaton, another stunt ‘auteur’. One of cinema’s great clowns, Keaton’s most memorable stunt featured in Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928). An elaborate visual gag – and one that has been copied many times since – this daring stunt saw the star avoiding being crushed by the falling frontage of a building because he is standing in just the right spot to fit through an open window. It doesn’t matter how many times you see this, it still impresses, with the difference between success and failure a matter of inches.
In general, the evolution of the stunt has followed the fashions of the film industry. For instance, the Western was a hothouse for innovation during the genre’s pomp, which spanned the silent era through to the 1960s. Western stunt performers often came from rodeo backgrounds, such as Yakima Canutt, who performed the famous jump onto the horse team and then drop to be dragged behind the titular Stagecoach in John Ford’s 1939 classic.
The Western was a hothouse for innovation during its pomp... with stunt performers often coming from rodeo backgrounds.
The swashbuckler fought the Western for audiences in the pre-war period, with such films as The Mark of Zorro (1920) and Captain Blood (1935) introducing stage fighting techniques. The likes of Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn dueled across the silver screen with dazzling skill, mixing their flashing blades with elaborate stunts. That skill (especially in Flynn’s case) was often due to fencing instructors such as Ralph B Faulkner, Fred Cavens and his son Albert Cavens.
In the post-war period, Japanese cinema found an international audience. Akira Kurosawa’s samurai films matched many of the Western’s concerns, with lone-wolf heroes dispatching justice that matched their own codes of honour. However, Kurosawa and fight choreographer Yoshio Sugino would develop their own indigenous style of fight choreography that was very different to Hollywood’s swashbuckling. In the epic Seven Samurai (1954), for instance, the samurai duels are closer to the quick-draw gun fights of My Darling Clementine (1946) or High Noon (1952) than the theatrical swordplay of The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). No wonder it adapted so well to the Western premise for The Magnificent Seven six years later.
A further evolution in fight sequences came in the mid to late 60s, with the small but productive Hong Kong film industry producing such wuxia films as King Hu’s Come Drink with Me (1966) and Chang Cheh’s The One-Armed Swordsman (1967). These films developed a highly stylised form of martial arts stunt choreography, incorporating acrobatics and wire work that allowed their stars to fly across the screen.
Advances in technology in the 60s and 70s resulted in ever more spectacular stunts. Blood squibs, air rams, and crash bags allowed stunt performers to fall further, jump higher and ‘die’ harder than ever before in such groundbreaking films as The Wild Bunch (1969). The loosening of restrictions on screen violence also saw the kind of realistic ‘swashbuckling’ that stuntman William Hobbs brought to the bloody swordfight choreography of Robin and Marian (1976) and, much later, Rob Roy (1995).
Blood squibs, air rams and crash bags allowed stunt performers to fall further, jump higher and 'die' harder than ever before.
In the 70s, the car chase replaced the cavalry charge in contemporary thrillers, as seen in such hits as Bullitt (1968), The French Connection (1971) and the big budget James Bond franchise. With them came more innovation: the corkscrew jump performed by Loren ‘Bumps’ Willard in 1974’s The Man with the Golden Gun used computer simulation modelling in the stunt’s planning. Car chases become so popular through the 1970s that during his decades later introduction of a TV screening of action/horror hybrid Race with the Devil (1975), British filmmaker Alex Cox remarked: “If Howards End had been made in 1975, it would have had a car chase in it.”
Car chases raced into the southern hemisphere in the mid-70s, peaking with George Miller’s thrilling Mad Max films. For Mad Max 2 (1981), Miller conceived a film in which character and plot advanced purely through action, climaxing in a car chase that was an update of Ford’s Stagecoach, with leather clad punks leaping from car to car rather than horse to horse.
Like the Western, the wuxia genre also faded in Eastern cinema only to be replaced by a tougher, more realistic style of martial arts, defined by the short career of Bruce Lee. His death left a vacuum that Hong Kong studios struggled to fill over the following years. However, a young stunt performer in Lee’s last feature, 1973’s Enter the Dragon, was Jackie Chan and he was groomed to be Lee’s successor.
Unsuccessful as a Lee clone, Chan found his own success in the late 70s and throughout the 1980s as a martial arts action comedy star. In 1976, Chan formed The Jackie Chan Stunt Team, building a troupe of multi-talented stunt performers. By 1983’s Project A, the team had become an official organization, marked by the film’s most audacious stunt, an action centrepiece that was both thrilling and an amazing homage to Safety First! with Chan himself dangling from a clock tower.
Chan’s films often feature a beleaguered girlfriend character playing the comic foil around which unbelievable action and incredible stunt sequences happen. One notable example is Maggie Cheung in 1985’s Police Story. Being the straight woman to a clowning martial artist requires a gifted stunt performer to convincingly appear guileless, but during the 80s female protagonists became more common. Asian action cinema had featured female stars since the 60s (from Pei-Pei Cheng in Come Drink with Me, through Cynthia Rothrock and Michelle Yeoh) but such US films as Aliens (1986) and Terminator 2 (1991) would also give women a chance to shine in action roles, leading to opportunities for female stunt performers.
Shaw Brothers/Kobal/REX/ShutterstockFemale action star Pei-Pei Cheng in Come Drink with Me (1966) (Shaw Brothers/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock)
This led to some difficulties: female characters often wear more revealing costumes than their male counterparts, making incorporating padding into their outfits more challenging. Experienced stunt performer Tammie Baird told The Guardian in 2016 that she decided to research protective clothing used by women athletes and discovered that figure skaters use gel padding concealed in their body-hugging Lycra. She noted that by dipping these in tea she could disguise them against her skin tone to help soften the inevitable battering stunt performers undergo.
The mid-80s brought a new style of action film from Hong Kong. Producer Tsui Hark and director John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow (1986) combined gunplay with martial arts choreography in the sub-genre ‘heroic bloodshed’ – The Killer (1989) perhaps heroic bloodshed’s purest example.
Woo moved to Hollywood and his delirious actioner Face/Off (1997) felt like the end of the heroic bloodshed era. Soon after, the X-Men (2000) and Spider-Man (2002) films kicked off the comic book movie boom. While these films feature plenty of practical stunts, they also marked CGI being used much more to create entire action sequences featuring characters that only lived in the computer. Christopher Nolan, however, bucked this trend with his Dark Knight trilogy (2005-2012), the grittier, more realistic tone partly expressed through the director’s insistence on using practical stunts where possible.
In 2000, the dormant wuxia film returned with director Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. With fight choreography by Yuen Wo Ping, Lee’s film was a huge international success, creating an ‘art house-action’ hybrid genre. Director Zhang Yimou followed Lee’s success with the equally ambitious and beautiful films Hero (2003) and House of Flying Daggers (2004), both of which featured stunning action choreography. Hero’s ‘chess’ fight in the rain between Donnie Yen and Jet Li is one of the greatest one-on-one fights captured on celluloid.
The popularity of the neo-wuxia was short-lived, however – by the late 2000s, CGI increasingly replaced practical stunts in blockbuster cinema. However, innovation was still rife at lower budgets. Gareth Evans’ Indonesian action diptych The Raid 1 and 2 (2011 and 2014) were hugely influential. Evans and fight choreographers (and stars) Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian made the camera a participant in the action, lunging and dodging blows in The Raid’s widely imitated corridor fight, itself reminiscent of Tony Jaa’s stunning one-take stairwell fight in Tom-Yum-Goong (2005).
The camera became a participant in the action, lunging and dodging blows in The Raid's widely imitated corridor fight.
The Raid 2 took this technique and applied it to more expansive extremes. A standout moment is the fight inside a car during a car chase. One astounding shot was accomplished not with CGI but by passing the camera out of a car window to a cameraman on a motorbike and then back through another car window to a cameraman sewn into a passenger seat. In turn, such techniques would inspire others to push the action boundaries further: South Korea’s The Villainess (2017) includes an outstanding corridor fight to open the film, all shot in first-person. Hardcore Henry (2015), a film packed with incredible stunts, was shot entirely in first-person, made possible by the invention of the GoPro camera.
CGI need not be stunt work’s villain either: Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) found George Miller returning to his action roots. Here, visual effects were not used to cheat the exceptional stunts, but to place them in a visually spectacular post-apocalyptic world. This mix is most apparent in a breathtaking mass desert car chase during a radioactive dust storm.
As evidence that the stunt shows no sign of going anywhere gently, this summer saw a film packed with practical stunts topping the box office. Mission Impossible: Fallout’s (2018) exciting update of the Bond template of foreign locations, MacGuffins and spectacular stunts was a winner with the audience – perhaps an indication that they have had enough of the CG dominated action fests and are eager to be impressed by more practical action sequences, featuring real people performing real, death-defying stunts. But if the stunt does eventually go, you can bet it will be strapped to the hood of a 1970 Dodge Challenger and screaming like the amazing Zoe Bell in Death Proof (2007).