One of the most spectacular and dangerous movie stunts was performed off-camera.
Stunt drivers literally get shot out of cannons. It is the most spectacular way to flip a car over…and over…and over. It is one of the hairiest stunts and one of the highest paid.
Hal Needham developed the technique for the 1974 John Wayne urban cowboy movie, “McQ.” As Needham tells the story, in his linguistically colorful manner, necessity was the mother (deleted) of invention.
The tale is a penetrating insight into how stuntmen work. And an example of the irony that the greatest movie stunts are often not performed for the camera.
“They wanted to turn a car over on the beach. At that time the only way we had to turn a car over was to drive the wheels up on a ramp and flip it.
“I devised a way. I built a cannon into the back of the car, welded it to the frame, then put a charge of powder and a phone pole up in it. I went out into the desert with my guys and a couple of 8-ounce bombs. Nobody knew how much powder you should put in it. So we put one (8 ounces) in.
“The car was sitting dead still. I set it off, and it went ‘poof’ and jumped about three feet into the air. I said, ‘(deleted), that ain’t nothing.’ There were nine stuntmen out there, and between us we had about six years of education. And I said, ‘what the (deleted) do you thing we ought to do?’
“And they said, ‘(deleted), put them all in.’ And I said, ‘fine.’
“They pushed me, because the car wouldn’t even run–it was an old (deleted) box car. They got up to 55 miles an hour, then blew the horn, and backed off. I threw the son-a-bitch into a slide sideways and hit the button. It went off. I mean it was second only to the A-bomb.
“I knew I was in bad shape. When it landed, it broke my back, broke six ribs, punctured a lung, and knocked out two teeth. That was the worst I was ever hurt.
“They pulled me out and took me to the hospital. I was laying in the bed that night, and I looked up at Gary McLarty, one of the guys who was out there with me.
“I said, ‘McLarty, we know the son-a-bitch will work. The thing is we don’t know how much powder to put in it. You go up and do the gag. But I’d start with very little powder.’ They put 6 ounces in there–and that was nothing.
“In the movie, John Wayne sprays the car on the beach with a little Uzi, the car blows up, and that son-a-bitch turns over seven or eight times, flips, turns and spins, with only 6 ounces in there. You can imagine what it did with 24 ounces.”