Since the early days of cinema, stuntmen have been employed to carry out dangerous tasks that regular actors were not capable of executing. The first instance of this is highly speculated, but the first known paid stunt was in the 1908 project The Count of Monte Cristo, where an acrobat was paid $5 to jump off a cliff upside down and land in the sea.
As the years progressed, iconic silent actors such as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton were seen as stuntmen, as they would base their comedy on circus-clown style slapstick that often put themselves in danger for comedic effect. They were not professionally trained and simply took the risks of performing stunts themselves, learning through trial and error.
One of the most famous images of silent cinema is Harold Lloyd hanging from a clocktower in the 1923 film, Safety Last!. The name of the film is rather ironic because it is considered to be the first film that used pre-planned safety measures to carry out stunts. Shot at the Broadway Hotel in Los Angeles, Lloyd was equipped with a safety harness and a padded corset, whilst mattresses were positioned under hidden platforms.
Since then, many actors have followed suit, with some of the biggest names in Hollywood, such as Tom Cruise, choosing to carry out life-threatening stunts themselves. Despite well-trained professionals and the rise of CGI technology that can emulate dangerous stunts without the potential of injury, this hasn’t stopped certain actors from trying their hands at becoming daredevils. That being said, there are some stunts so daring that they can only be left in the hands of trained stunt performers.
The top 10 most unbelievable cinematic stunts:
10. Baby Driver (Edgar Wright, 2016)
Although Wright’s sixth film Baby Driver lacked the charm of his beloved comedies Shaun of the Dead (2004) or Hot Fuzz (2007), the film was an impressive display of thrilling action, with protagonist Baby (Ansel Elgort) in charge of getaway driving, despite his desire to leave the crime-filled world. In one particularly exciting scene, Baby is seen performing a “180 in, 180 out” stunt. Despite Elgort driving the car for most of the film, this trick was left to professional Jeremy Fry.
The stunt involved driving through a busy street, spinning and darting through trucks and cars, putting the car into a forward 180 before switching to a reverse 180 manoeuvre. Stunt coordinator Darrin Prescott stated that “a different movie would have just done that…on a green screen” yet Fry executed the stunt gloriously, getting to seventy miles per hour after much practising in a car park.
9. Now You See Me (Louis Leterrier, 2013)
Isla Fisher plays escapist and magician Henley Reeves in the 2013 heist thriller Now You See Me, which had much box office success despite mixed critical opinion. However, Fisher can be highly commended for her dedication to her role as Reeves, as she decided to take on the underwater stunt herself, in which she can be seen chained inside a water tank, performing to a cheering audience as piranhas are dropped on her head.
Unfortunately for Fisher, whilst performing the stunt she actually started drowning. She stated that “even though I had a quick-release magnetic thing on my handcuffs, the chain that went between my ankles and my wrists was not able to be broken, and it got stuck underneath the slat and I was trapped.” Despite banging on the glass in cries of panic, trying to shout “Set me free!” the crew just thought she was doing a great job at playing her role. Strangely, they had forgotten to establish a safety signal for the actress.
8. Terminator 2: Judgement Day (James Cameron, 1991)
James Cameron is not a stranger to creating impressive visual effects without the use of CGI. For his 1997 film Titanic, he assembled an 800-foot replica of the ship for his incredible recreation of the night tragedy struck the boat, sinking it in a five million-gallon water tank. It seems like Cameron had been practising this technique for a while, back in 1991 his film Terminator 2: Judgement Day saw the director himself endangering his life for the desired shot.
As the film nears its end, we see the characters trying to escape the T-1000, who takes control of a helicopter, leading to T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) attempting to outrun the T-1000 in a van. At one point, we see the T-1000 fly underneath an overpass, yet this risky scene almost didn’t get shot. The camera crew refused to film the stunt, which involved pilot Chuck Tamburro squeezing the helicopter through with only five feet above and four feet on each side to spare. Instead, Cameron took means into his own hands, filming the sequence himself in a car, only accompanied by a brave driver.
7. Death Proof (Quentin Tarantino, 2007)
Death Proof is one of Tarantino’s less popular films, (he even believes it to be his worst), but one filled with real-life action and trashy exploitation that is a totally thrilling watch. The film features many stunts, all executed on set, with Tarantino summing the film up as “real cars, real shit, at full… speed.” The character of Zoe, played by stuntwoman Zoe Bell, is just a heightened version of the performer herself. She carries out all of her own stunts, despite Tarantino considering otherwise, (probably partly down to the fact that Uma Thurman blames the director for her near-death in Kill Bill Vol. 1 when he insisted she carried out many of her own stunts).
In fact, Bell actually was Thurman’s stunt double for much of Kill Bill, however, her role in Death Proof saw her take on a real acting position, one that she insisted would include her own stunts. In one particularly daring scene, Bell can be seen balancing on a car as it speeds along. She effortlessly moves from the roof to the bonnet as the wind pummels through her hair, seemingly without a worry in the world.
6. Ben Hur (William Wyler, 1959)
Religious epic Ben Hur, directed by William Wyler, had the largest budget of any film at the time, coming in at $15.175 million. $1 million of that budget went on filming the unforgettable chariot scene, which took five weeks and was spread over three months to film. Over ten thousand extras were employed to make the film look as authentic as possible, with many needed for the chariot scene, which saw Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd race around the stadium, accompanied by horses imported from Sicily and Yugoslavia.
Of course, back in 1959, CGI effects were not the go-to option for carrying out difficult action scenes such as this. Most of the chariot driving was done by Heston himself, who played the main character Judah Ben-Hur.
However, at one point, stuntman Joe Canutt stood in for the star. Scarily, Canutt was thrown forward, almost falling at high speed off the chariot, but managed to hold onto the front and clamber back into his seat, only gaining a scrape to the chin. The accident only adds to the intensity of the scene, and remains one of the most impressive stunts of all time, especially for a film made in the 1950s.
5. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015)
Returning to the Mad Max franchise in 2015 with Fury Road, which came thirty years after the previous instalment, Mad Max Beyond the Thunderdome, Miller decided to go large with stunts. Stunt coordinator Guy Norris described shooting saying, “We wanted to make it real: real vehicles, real locations, real movement and real stunts.” There was minimal use of CGI, mainly being used to erase any sign of safety rigs that were visible during filming.
During the Polecats swinging party scene, we see characters balanced daringly on the top of poles, a scene that Miller believed would need CGI. However, Norris insisted that it would be possible to carry it out for real. There was a lot of preparation that went into performing the stunt, with a friend of Norris from Cirque du Soleil assisting the Chinese pole training. You may be surprised to find out that this scene was partly inspired by the family-friend pig movie Babe that Norris also worked on. A scene that didn’t make the final cut saw a street performer up a pole, and this got the stunt coordinator thinking, leading him to carry out extensive research on how to safely translate the use of pole climbing to the desert.
4. Deliverance (John Boorman, 1972)
Survival thriller Deliverance starring Burt Reynolds, Jon Voight and Ned Beatty was released in 1972 to much acclaim, earning three Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. However, the film also gained a reputation for itself because of its infamous method of cutting costs – getting actors to perform their own stunts – as well as not insuring the production. Jon Voight, who plays Ed Gentry climbs a cliff himself, yet it is Reynold’s stunt that stands out as the most unbelievable.
His character Lewis Medlock can be seen tumbling through a waterfall which contains rapid, harsh waves. Hurtling through the dangerous waters was Reynolds himself, who believed that using the safer option of a dummy would look less realistic. The result was an incredible scene, yet Reynolds cracked his tailbone and hit his head and shoulders on the rocks, resulting in a trip to the hospital, where the actor woke up to director John Boorman by his bedside. Reynolds asked, “How’d it look?” to which Boorman replied, “It looked like a dummy falling over a waterfall”.
3. Steamboat Bill, Jr. (Charles Reisner, 1928)
The silent star Buster Keaton performed one of his most famous stunts in the comedy Steamboat Bill, Jr. which he starred in as William Canfield, Jr. alongside Ernest Torrence and even his father Joe Keaton. Despite its box office failure, the film is now regarded as one of the best of the era, even inspiring Disney’s Steamboat Willie (1928), which was the debut of Mickey and Minnie Mouse.
During Steamboat Bill, Jr. a tornado strikes and the front of a house falls on Keaton’s character. Luckily for him, an open window saves him, as he is standing in line with it. However, the stunt was carried out for real, after all, it was only 1928, there was no other way the risky spectacle could have been filmed. But it meant Keaton risked being crushed to death by the falling house; members of the crew were actually spotted praying before the scene was filmed. He described the scene as one of the “greatest thrills,” yet many aspects of his life were crumbling at this time, including his marriage, so it is suspected that he went along with the stunt not caring if he lived or died.
2. Police Story (Jackie Chan, 1985)
What would a list about unbelievable stunts be without the mention of Jackie Chan? Famously known for performing stunts himself, Chan put himself in countless life-threatening situations for his films. In the Police Story action-crime franchise, countless stunts are carried out by Chan and his Jackie Chan Stunt Team, including the daredevil dangling from a double-decker bus as it speeds down the road before he stops it by standing in front of it.
However, one of his insane stunts happens at the end of Police Story, as the film comes to a climax with a chaotic fight scene in the shopping centre. Chan descends from an upper story of the mall on a long pole while smashing countless electric glass lights on the way down. He crashes through more glass in the memorable and electrifying scene, proving himself to be totally fearless.
1. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (Brad Bird, 2011)
Tom Cruise is probably best known for his frequent portrayal of Ethan Hunt in the Mission Impossible series, as well as his penchant for performing terrifyingly dangerous stunts himself. In the fourth instalment of the franchise, Ghost Protocol, Cruise carried out one of the most dangerous stunts to date in his career. Set in Dubai, Ethan Hunt must search for nuclear launch codes and ends up scaling a 2,722-foot skyscraper using suction gloves. He makes a nerve-wracking jump into a window which he almost misses, hanging from just one foot.
In order to carry out the stunt, Cruise wore a harness that was specifically fixed to different parts of the building, which meant that the studio had to gain special permission to break about twenty-six windows and drill into the walls. Despite director Bird contemplating the use of a stuntman, Cruise, of course, insisted on doing that complex stunt himself. Very complicatedly, shooting on IMAX meant that the film used would run out pretty quickly, and the footage couldn’t be approved by Bird until a few days after shooting when it was developed back in Los Angeles. Furthermore, the harness Cruise had to wear would cut off his circulation, which meant that the shoot had to be done as quickly as possible.