What are the best movie stunts of all time? The question itself could ignite a real, bruising barroom brawl among stuntmen.
What makes a great stunt?
Is it a breathtaking visual gag that audiences remember years later, like James Bond skiing over a high cliff into a horrendous free fall?
Is it an Olympian feat that pushes the envelop of skill, daring and technology and sets a record of being higher, faster, farther — the record-setting free falls of Dar Robinson, the car jump of Alan Gibbs in “Smokey and the Bandit?”
Not pulling our punches, we offer these totally subjective nominations for five of the best movie stunts of all time for all of the above reasons.
STAGE COACH, 1939 — Yakima Canutt won the only Honorary Oscar awarded a stunt player in 1966, but the man who doubled Clark Gable, Errol Flynn and John Wayne hadn’t developed many of those safety devices when he jumped onto the team of six horses hauling the “Stage Coach” at breakneck speed. He was shot, fell in front and was dragged underneath all the horses, the coach and out the back.
FRONTIER GIRL, 1945 — “The pioneers took the most chances and did the most spectacular things, but they wouldn’t do them twice,” says veteran and second-generation stuntman Tony Epper, prez of the National League of SAG Stunt Performers. “They figured, if I survive this, I’m not going to put my neck in there again.”
A case in point was when his father, John Epper, jumped his horse Honest John over a running team of horses and a buckboard on location in Bishop, Calif.
THE SPY WHO LOVED ME, 1976. In United Artist’s “The Spy Who Loved Me,” James Bond escapes Russian agents in a high-speed ski chase by jumping off a 5,500 -foot cliff, free-falling for long, tantalizing seconds, then releasing a parachute that blossoms into the British flag.
John Glen was the second-unit director who shot the sequence. “We saw an advertisement for Canada Dry in which this chap Rick Sylvester was skiing off a mountain top. And we asked him to come over to London and discuss it with us. When Rick arrived, he told us that, in fact. he didn’t do it; the photograph had been faked. But he said, ‘I can do it. I can definitely do it.’
“He said there were two mountains in the world — one in Peru and one on the Arctic Circle in Canada where this stunt could be done. We actually went to this Eskimo Village called Pang Nitang. We hired a helicopter and we saw this finger of rock which stood up in the air like a huge pencil. It was a 5,500-foot vertical face.
“It took us two hours to get everything in position. The amazing thing was when Rick skied down that slope, the last bit of light was just illuminating him. Which was absolutely wonderful. That last moment he was kind of spotlighted by the sun. The rest of the face was virtually in shadow. It worked very well.
“It cost $ 250,000 — and I’m talking about 1976 now — just to shoot the one jump.”
SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT, 1977. Alan Gibbs flew a Pontiac Firebird across a broken bridge from one side of a river to the other in this Universal road show.Why this gag and not thestupendous rocket-powered car blast in Warner Bros.’ 1978 “Hooper” that flew six, seven times as far?
Stunt meister Hal Needham directed both films. “The big one (jump) that I did in ‘Hooper’ flew about 430 feet… We put that car across there with a 25,000 -horsepower rocket engine. But we didn’t have anybody in the car. It was empty.
“The one in ‘Smokey’ — the one Alan Gibbs did — he jumped about 60, 70 feet. But that was done with a souped-up engine, just with the power and speed of the car.”
STICK, 1985 In Universal’s “Stick” Dar Robinson doubled the Albino, a cold-blooded killer whose final death throes the audience couldn’t wait to cheer. And when he finally dropped, it was Robinson tumbling backwards off a high-rise in Coconut Grove, Fla.
The camera pointed straight down at him, and, gun in hand and nasty to the end, he fired off all six shots on the way down, while people on the sidewalk directly below him scattered in panic … but there was no air bag. It was the debut of the decelerator.
Robinson’s assistant and protege, who helped rig the stunt, was Ken Bates.