‘The True Adventures of the World’s Greatest Stuntman’ Book Review
Publisher: Titan Books
Many years ago, during the Brosnon era of Bond films, some friends and I were enjoying the latest adventures of the world’s most famous (and by that definition, also the worst at his job) secret agent. When I had commented on a particularly awesome and death defying stunt a friend responded that ‘surely these were all done with computer effects’ these days although I was adamant that it was performed by a stuntman. This little slice of personal history illustrates just how little appreciation stunt performers get. The big studios have something to answer for in this area – they’re keen to emphasis the illusion that the big stars are the real heroes and rarely acknowledge how much a role can be influenced or even acted out by a stunt performer.
After reading the autobiography of Vic Armstrong it only inflames my belief that stunt workers need more credit, even if the titular hero doesn’t hold the same opinion in his delightfully modest manner. Don’t be fooled by the title – Vic Armstrong tells his adventures and life of daring with very little ego and great respect for his peers.
Having been born to a family of horse enthusiasts, Armstrong spend most of his early life in the saddle learning to train and race. When a nearby film crew needed someone to train some horses for a shoot it stepped up, making the transition to doubling the cast when the opportunity arrived. From that point on he took every chance he could to try new stunts, breaking into the big time when he was the first ninja down the ropes during James Bond’s attack of Blofeld’s volcano base in You Only Live Twice.
Throughout the book he recounts, in chronological order, the many, many films in which he has performed stunts, organsised stunts, acted in or directed. The sheer volume of classic cinema moments and B-Grade cult films is mind-boggling and often only a paragraph or two or afforded to each. The stories that stand out are the big roles, such as taking on the part of Superman in the original film and doubling George Lazenbury as Bond. The real peak of his career occurs when none other than Steven Spielberg mistook him for Harrison Ford, landing him the role as his double in Indiana Jones in the original trilogy.
Not that his career is defined only by the well-known films that he performed stunts in. Armstrong has founded his own company that both his sons and daughter became involved in, innovated many new techniques and technologies (most notably the fan descender, which became industry standard and earned him an Academy Award) and garnered the role of the stunt man more respect than it had previous seen. What stands out reading his story is the immense amount of imagination he shows in creating action scenes. While the script may call for something as simple as Bond being chased through a car park the end result is the multi-story car battle from Tomorrow Never Dies.
What makes this autobiography more than a plodding recount of blue-collar movie worker is the simple charm Armstrong carries. He rarely has something bad to say about anyone, seeming to get along with every person he meets and showering each of them with praise. His attitude towards the stunt game is difficult for lemans to comprehend, but he goes to lengths to describe the ego and competitiveness that the business has deeply ingrained in it.
A fun read for movie buffs, as it is a behind the scenes look at the film-making process told from a point of view not often given. Although the way he describes his peers gets repetitive (it seems that everyone is the best stunt man who ever lived) but he’s got such a great outlook on life it’s difficult not to enjoy Armstrong’s yarns.