For decades, movies have made use of stunt work to progress storylines and pull viewers into the drama, danger, or absurdities on display in a given scene. Some early stars, like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd, relished the opportunities to undertake daring stunts that propelled their movies to box-office success. And for those actors who couldn't (or wouldn't) perform such acts themselves, it was easy enough to find a cowboy or gymnast willing to be filmed jumping off a house or scrambling across the top of a moving train.
Trained stuntmen and women were eventually recognized as a vital part of the business, thanks in large part to the guidelines and innovations established by former rodeo champ Yakima Canutt in the 1930s. These skilled performers continued to evolve as technological advances introduced car chases, explosions, and other bigger and bolder images to screens.
Today's stunt workers may find themselves plying their craft in front of a green screen, with more safety measures in place, but they retain that link to their predecessors through the inherent thrills and dangers of their chosen profession. From the silent classics to contemporary, big-budget blockbusters, here are 10 of the most jaw-dropping scenes stunt masters have delivered to audiences over the years.
"Safety Last!" (1923)
The Clock Tower Grab
This quintessential Harold Lloyd film boasts an impressive finale in which he climbs the side of a building and, most famously, dangles from the hands of a clock tower high above the people and cars below. There is a stunt double at work for part of it — that's "human spider" Bill Strother climbing in wider shots — but the movie magic comes from the deceptive camera angle that cuts off the safety platform and mattress directly below the star. In reality, Lloyd was hanging a manageable distance above the platform, though he later noted that a dummy used for test falls had bounced clear off the mattress and several stories down to the street.
"Steamboat Bill, Jr." (1928):
The Falling House
Groomed to showcase his physical abilities since his days as a child performer, Buster Keaton didn't bat an eye when it came to handling his most dangerous stunts. This was especially true for Steamboat Bill, Jr., in which he avoids getting flattened by a falling house facade by fortuitously wandering into the spot of an open window. There was no movie magic here — Keaton simply marked the place he had to stand with a nail and waited as the two-ton structure crashed around him, with inches to spare. It probably helped that he was reeling from business and personal woes at the time, rendering him somewhat reckless in matters of his well-being.
The Apache Attack
Stagecoach made a star of John Wayne, but it was Yakima Canutt who stole the show and raised the bar for big-screen action sequences. In his role as an Apache warrior, Canutt leaps from his pony to a stagecoach team going full-throttle, dangles between the two lead horses, and finally drops to the ground as the hooves and carriage thunder ahead. Canutt had separated the horses with harness bars that gave him a clear path between the racing animals and wheels, though a loss of balance easily could have spelled the end of his career. Steven Spielberg later paid tribute to this scene by staging a similar high-speed thrill ride with star Harrison Ford and multiple stuntmen in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).
The Chariot Race
A stuntman tragically died on the set of the original Ben-Hur (1925), and while producers enlisted Yakima Canutt to ensure safety as stunt coordinator of the lavish remake, they nearly endured another disaster while filming the chariot race. With his son Joe doubling for lead Charleton Heston, Canutt watched in horror as his protégé led a team of horses up and over the wreckage of another chariot, only to get bounced over the front of his ride when it violently hit the ground. Fortunately, the younger Canutt instinctively grabbed the front railing and pulled himself out of harm's way, enabling him to escape with only a chin gash while giving the Oscar-grabbing epic another winning shot.
"The Man With the Golden Gun" (1974)
The "Astro Spiral Jump"
The era of CGI dinosaurs had yet to arrive, but The Man With the Golden Gun gave a taste of the vital role that computers would eventually play in the industry. The film's big stunt, in which Roger Moore's James Bond pulls a full 360-degree roll as his car zooms over a river, was conceived as part of a driver-safety simulation program at the Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory. Put into practice through a series of traveling stunt shows, the "Astro Spiral Jump" was already a well-oiled maneuver by the time it was licensed for a Bond film. When it came time for shooting, stuntman Loren "Bumps" Willert merely had to maintain a steady speed onto the specially designed ramp, producing a visual that remains a cinematic gem despite the goofy slide-whistle that accompanies the jump.
"Sharky's Machine" (1981)
Although Burt Reynolds is better known for his stunt collaborations with Hal Needham — they inspired the Leonardo DiCaprio-Brad Pitt pairing in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) — it was fellow stunt legend Dar Robinson who did the heavy lifting for the Reynolds-directed Sharky's Machine. As the double for Henry Silva's villainous Billy Score, Robinson plunges through a hotel window and plummets 220 feet onto an airbag. The death-defying jump established a record for the highest stunt freefall in a movie, although Robinson's effort was somewhat wasted when a freefalling dummy was inserted into the final cut.
"Police Story" (1985)
The Pole Slide
Picking the top Jackie Chan stunt is akin to selecting the best Beatles song, but with a nod to the Lloyd-inspired clock drop in Project A (1983), we'll go with his pole slide at the close of Police Story. As Sergeant Chan Ka-Kui, Chan leaps from the top floor of a mall, zips down a pole wrapped with electric lights, and crashes through a glass plane into a kiosk. The action star was admittedly terrified, as there were no safety nets or wires to mitigate unforeseen mishaps, but with the production running out of time and finances, he had no choice but to jump and hope for the best. Chan wound up with second-degree burns from the overheated pole and a dislocated pelvis from the fall, but he got his money shot.
The Bungee Jump
Looking to make a splash in Pierce Brosnan's first turn as Bond, director Martin Campbell opened GoldenEye with the super spy's jaw-dropping bungee jump off the Verzasca Dam in Switzerland, from a world-record height of 220 meters. Tapped for the stunt, Wayne Michaels recalled seeing a crane operator make the sign of the cross just before he made the leap of faith. Michaels briefly lost consciousness when the cord yanked him from his free fall, but he was nonetheless able to fire the grappling gun that pulled Bond to safety at the bottom, enabling the team to complete the famous scene in just one take.
"Death Proof" (2007)
The Hood Ride
While not as well regarded as other works in his oeuvre, Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof stands out as an ode to the memorable stunts that spiced up his favorite flicks from childhood. It's especially noteworthy for the starring role given to stuntwoman Zoë Bell — who played herself — enabling the director to take full advantage of long tracking shots that immerse viewers in the action. The result is 10 minutes of one of the craziest high-speed romps captured on film, with Bell initially enjoying the thrill of riding while tethered to a car's hood, before holding on for dear life as Kurt Russell's psychotic Stuntman Mike tries to run her and her friends off the road.
"Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol" (2011)
Scaling the Burj Khalifa
Drawing inspiration from Keaton and Chan, Tom Cruise has proven willing to roll up his sleeves to inject authenticity into his Mission Impossible franchise. This includes clinging to a moving plane in Rogue Nation (2015) and piloting a helicopter in Fallout (2018). But for sheer spectacle, it's tough to beat Cruise's Ethan Hunt scaling Dubai’s 2,722-foot Burj Khalifa in Ghost Protocol. Although director Brad Bird and his team did everything possible in the name of safety — Cruise was dangling 130 stories high — they faced the added pressure of time due to the circulation problems triggered by the star's safety harness, as well as the rapidly depleting IMAX film used for shooting. Somehow it all went off without a hitch, providing audiences with one of the most breathtaking sequences ever captured on film.
Featured image credit: Silver Screen Collection via Getty Images