Tomorrow we’ll run our interview with the legendary stunt performer and action director Vic Armstrong, in which wel talk about his career and the updated edition of The True Adventures of the World’s Greatest Stuntman (Titan Books), the memoir he wrote with Robert Sellers. It’s a great read, and really feels like his voice comes through the page. It’s as if you’re listening to him tell stories over a couple pints at the pub.
We’ve already run a few bits from the interview this week, including a discussion of the action he shot for The Amazing Spider-Man and a tease of a movie Vic is interested in directing. Today seems like a good chance to look at some of highlights from Vic’s career as a stuntman, action director, and unit director. I couldn’t possibly include everything from his 40+ years in the business, but after the cut, there’s a lot of Bond, Indiana Jones, and Superman to be appreciated.
Vic doubled Christopher Reeve on Superman and Superman II, doing a lot of the incredible flying work in the film, including the iconic helicopter rescue above. Superman and Superman II are also notable since the production marked Vic’s first work with fellow stunt performer Wendy Leech. Vic and Wendy would work on other films together, and eventually wed and have three children.
My future second wife Wendy doubled for Margot Kidder, and it was a really tricky stunt because we were still using boxes to break falls… so Wendy did an 80-foot fall into boxes. To get into position was as scary as hell. The helicopter was a full scale replica and with Wendy perched inside it was lifted by crane up to 80 feet and then hung onto the side of the building, which was a set built on the cement area in front of the 007 stage. Next Wendy clambered into the position Lois Lane was in the film, hanging on for dear life by the seat belt straps. There were no cables: Wendy was holding on purely with her hands and her own strength.
Never Say Never Again
Vic has had a long association with James Bond, first working on You Only Live Twice as one of the infiltrating ninjas. He would also do stunts in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Live and Let Die, and later direct the action in three of Pierce Brosnan’s Bond outings. He also worked on the non-Broccoli Bond film Never Say Never Again, including this harrowing jump on horseback into the water. That’s Vic doubling Sean Connery and Wendy doubling Kim Bassinger. (The horse’s name was Toupee.)
Leading up to this jump was a sequence in which Vic sustained a horrible injury. He writes:
At one point I gallop towards a group of horsemen and burst between two riders, one falling to his right, the other to his left. I burst through, bang, horses flew through the air, but my stirrup caught one of them on the shoulder and it turned my foot completely around, dislocating my ankle. The pain was atrocious… my foot had come out of its socket…
Vic went back to work the next day.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
Vic has long been the stunt double for Harrison Ford, starting way back with Raiders of the Lost Ark. He also doubled Harrison on Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Blade Runner, Frantic, and Return of the Jedi. Vic actually came out of retirement as a stuntman in order to double Harrison on Last Crusade. The above jump from horseback to tank is how The True Adventures of the World’s Greatest Stuntman begins.
Just check out this photo of Vic and Harrison side by side.
Copyright © 2012 Vic Armstrong and Robert Sellers
It’s a little bit uncanny, and Vic mentions some humorous cases of mistaken identity while shooting Raiders. After Harrison sustained an unfortunate back injury on Temple of Doom, Vic’s resemblance allowed the production to continue shooting action sequences rather than halting for a few weeks.
Reading the book, you get the sense that a stunt performer’s gigs can be unpredictable. And so Vic went from working on Rambo III, at the time one of the most expensive movies ever made, to working on Kenneth Branagh’s directorial debut, the very low-budget Shakespearean history Henry V. His job was to train all of the primary actors to ride horses, run the second unit, and stage the Battle of Agincourt. Branagh would call on Vic 20 years later to handle action duties on Thor.
Unfortunately I couldn’t find an isolated clip of the battle itself, but if you click on the above image, you can go to a clip of Branagh delivering the famous St. Crispin’s Day speech.
Terminator 2: Judgement Day
Vic was originally going to shoot second unit for Terminator 2: Judgement Day, but he was busy prepping for Universal Soldier. However, James Cameron asked him to shoot the opening future war sequence of the film. The catch: there were just four nights to shoot the whole thing.
“Bloody typical,” Vic writes, but he does acknowledge that Cameron would have shot the sequence himself if he wasn’t busy editing the rest of the movie.
The clip of the opening sequence can’t be embedded, so click on the Terminator to check it out.
The World is Not Enough
Vic returned to the Bond franchise with Tomorrow Never Dies, and continued to work with the series for the rest of Pierce Brosnan’s run with the character. One of the best action sequences that Vic directed for the Bond films was the above pre-credits boat chase from The World is Not Enough. (It begins at 3:30.) According to Vic, “All the script said was that Bond’s boat leaves the MI6 building chasing a female assassin in her boat, that they had to finish at the Millennium Dome, plus a hot air balloon had to be involved.”
It took three weeks to shoot the chase along the Thames, and the only CG used was for the torpedoes. Vic also writes about the shoot causing a stir with the government:
We got a lot of complaints from the politicians in the Houses of Parliament that we were making too much noise, what with boats racing up and down and gunfire, until the then-Home Secretary Jack Straw told them, ‘Come on, guys, there’s an awful lot of money being generated by all this, the film, and the publicity London will get from it.’ After that they were dine.
Gangs of New York
Vic was brought onto Gangs of New York to help Martin Scorsese not go too far over schedule. Scorsese gave Vic copies of Eisenstein, Dovzhenko, and Pudovkin movies to watch, a little visual homework before he stepped on to the production. Scorsese revealed himself a knowledgeable fan of Vic’s, and even spoke to him about a shot from the Battle of Agincourt in Henry V.
Vic notes that the Battle of the Points was the biggest set piece he’d worked on, and he auditioned 300 English stuntmen, fighters, and wrestlers to be in it. He writes:
I planned the whole battle sequence and worked with Marty shooting it. Then he left to carry on with studio interiors while I mopped up all the assorted bits of carnage, like ripping people’s faces open and breaking kneecaps.
Scorsese would sometimes step away from boring set-ups to observe the bloody brutality.