The great action movies in the history of cinema would be nothing without excellent stunt work. From the very beginning of film, moviemakers have understood that seeing someone put his or her life on the line in service of a story translates to huge thrills for audience members. While stunts may have originated as simply being the only way to show something happening on screen (if your character climbs up a building, someone has to climb up a building), they quickly evolved into ways to take action to new heights.
While special effects have been able to make stunts safer over the years, the element of having someone actually perform some death-defying spectacle will always provide greater thrills than a piece of computer-generated imagery. From flipping cars to gigantic leaps of faith, the greatest stunts blaze new trails in moviemaking and make the movies they are in better with every twist and turn.
Below are 15 stunts throughout film history that continue to astound audiences. Have your own favorite stunts? Sound off in the comments below!
One of the most well-known stunts in film history is also one of its best. While it’s just one moment within one action scene among many in Steven Spielberg’s classic adventure film, Indiana Jones’ trip underneath a barreling Nazi truck carrying the Ark of the Covenant is not just one of the series’ most iconic images, but is an all-time great in film.
When Indy (played here by stuntman Vic Armstrong) is thrown out through the front windshield as the truck speeds down the road, he’s quickly forced to drag himself under the vehicle’s carriage lowering himself back under by hand, then hooking on with his whip, being dragged for dozens of feet, and pulling himself back up. To accomplish, the crew dug a multi-mile-long trench that the truck drove over with the stuntman being dragged through in order to keep him low enough under the undercarriage, but it can barely be seen in the finished product.
Horse Dragging – Stagecoach
One of film history’s most notable early stunts is also one of its most influential, with the horse sequence influencing the truck drag in Raiders and inspiring generations of stunt people. As the main characters travelling across the wild in a stagecoach are beset by natives, their attackers try to sabotage them, with one jumping on the lead horse. When he’s shot, he falls and hangs onto the horses as he’s dragged along the ground before letting go and being seemingly trampled. Accomplished by legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt, this moment is insanely dangerous, but truly brilliant.
Almost as nuts is the stunt that follows, with John Wayne’s character leaping from horse to horse up the line while the stagecoach gallops at full speed. This is the more visually stunning sequence, although it isn’t as inherently dangerous. Combined, they make the scene into one of stunt work’s all-time best.
Fewer and fewer actors are doing major stunts on their own these days, especially since CGI has made faking stunt work easier than ever. So when Tom Cruise decided to scale the side of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai (the tallest building in the world), everyone took note. Easily the most pulse-pounding moment in the film (and possibly the entire series), Agent Ethan Hunt’s climb up the side of the skyscraper isn’t just a matter of vertigo-inducing heights, it’s also beset by a ticking clock and everything going terribly wrong.
In order to accomplish the stunt, Cruise was dangling from a thin wire that would be removed through CGI. Throughout the scene, Hunt scales the glass-covered walls with malfunctioning experimental gloves, breaks in, and rappels with sheer abandon, all at 123 stories up in the air. While there were safety measures in place, the sheer audacity of the stunt and having Cruise at the center of it all cements it as one of the best in a very long while.
Thanks to an ingenious setup and the creation of a fulling rotating hallway, director Christopher Nolan made something truly special in Inception’s most standout sequence. While the setup may be convoluted (dreams within dreams where a rolling van causes the next dream to start spinning), the result is pure cinema magic. What starts out as tense but straightforward fight in a hotel hallway quickly begins to literally spin out of control as gravity in the hallway begins to turn over and over. The disorienting but visually astounding result is truly awesome.
Most ingeniously, cinematography Wally Pfister chose to keep the camera grounded instead of rotating with the combatants, which makes it all much more understandable and exciting. The scene took two weeks of preparation and three weeks to actually shoot, with actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt performing most of his own stunts. Thanks to the lack of CGI and the dedication to practically pulling off the scene, it’s all the more memorable and viscerally thrilling, as having the brutal fight take place in reality makes it far more kinetic and has the intensity that only reality can bring.
A smaller moment within a truly fantastic action sequence, Indiana Jones’ duel with a Nazi tank sees him play chicken with the war machine while on horseback. But while this scene includes plenty of great fights and stunts, it’s the moment where Indy rides up a hill next to the speeding tank and leaps onboard that is absolutely stunning. Once again portrayed by legendary stuntman Vic Armstrong, this is a moment that’s bound to stick in the minds of anyone with an eye for great stuntwork.
While the moment is brief, it’s an incredible stunt that took extreme precision and skill. All done in one wide shot, the lack of editing or camera tricks shows this relies simply on great stunt work. One minor misstep or the wrong angle, and there would have been serious injuries for Armstrong. Instead, it’s one of the great stunts in a series known for its practical and eye-popping action moments. The ease with which it is done but the sheer determination behind it all shows how great stunts are not only meant to wow the audience, but add layers to a character.
The James Bond franchise is filled with great action moments, fun stunts, and plenty of thrills. Most often, the series best stunts come when Agent 007 is behind the wheel of a car. While the Roger Moore era of Bond is most often remembered for its cheesy storylines and generally campy flavor, there are many fantastic action sequences that were executed during the time. Specifically, the car roll in The Man With the Golden Gun may be the very best of the entire series.
As Bond chases the villainous Scaramanga, he’s met with a river and a very bad bridge. Of course, he goes for it. In order to execute, stunt driver Bumps Willard drove an AMC Hornet through the 360 degree ramp made by Raymond McHenry, completing the aerial twist perfectly on the very first try. Knowing they had an amazing moment on hand, the studio slowed it down so audiences could see how great it really was. The one downside? The filmmakers decided to score the roll with a super cheesy slide whistle sound effect, which really took the focus off the stunt and drew audiences out of the experience. Eliminate that sound and this roll is among the best car stunts ever put on film.
Some of the earliest stunts in film history are also some of the most outright stunning thanks to their innovation and general lack of safety. Actor Harold Lloyd was one of the first real stuntmen in film to take movie stunts to a shocking and death-defying level, all for the sake of capturing the attention of his audience. Here in Safety Last!, Lloyd’s character is forced to scale a building to avoid the police, with numerous complication happening along the way as he makes his way to the very top. While crazier pieces of the setpiece were done safely thanks to helpful editing and camera positioning (including his famous dangling from a broken clock), Lloyd really did scale the side of the building by himself and without any safety measures.
The shots of Lloyd clawing his way up the building and slipping along the way are enough to give anyone a temporary bout of vertigo. While no studio would ever let their star do such a scene without proper safety equipment today, no such regulations were in place when Safety Last! was shot in 1923. Most impressively, Lloyd was missing the thumb and index finger on his right hand due to a bomb explosion, making this stunt even more insane.
If the creators behind Ben Hur were looking to recreate ancient Roman chariot races with authenticity, they certainly succeeded in how they went about creating this pulse-racing scene. While William Wyler was the director of the film, the massive chariot race at the climax was co-directed by Andrew Marton and Yakima Canutt – he of the Stagecoach stunt and a legendary stunt coordinator. While lead actor Charlton Heston was filmed as main character Ben-Hur for many closeups throughout the race, it was stuntman Joe Canutt (Yakima’s son) who performed as the character for much of the race itself, including many of the wild action sequences that occur during the race.
Perhaps the biggest moment of all in the race comes when Ben-Hur is forced over a broken down carriage, which send him flying up and over his own carriage. This was actually an accident, as Canutt was not strapped in and was thrown off by the force of the leap. However, he managed to hang on and pull himself back in, suffering only a minor chin injury. While the footage was originally thought unusable, it was edited into the scene with Heston performing a closeup shot of getting back in the chariot to match the accident and make it part of the bigger story. This is only one of the many amazing pieces of this astounding chariot race. And no one actually died. That’s an urban legend.
As the climax of the film, the truck chase involved so many big stunts that the studio used an entire section of Mexicali highway. In order to pull off the truck tipping, stunt driver Remy Julienne used a tractor trailer super up for better performance. While an additional truck designed with a rig to aid in tilting had been created in case it was needed, Julienne did not need it. Rather, only the initial stunt ramp and some excellent driving skills were all that it took to pull off the eye-popping tilt.
It’s been imitated time and time again over the years, but that’s only because the original is such a classic. During Steamboat Bill, Jr.‘s climax, a cyclone hits town, blowing people around and causing all kinds of general havoc and disaster. Wandering through the deserted town, Buster Keaton’s Bill groggily attempts to understand what is happening around him and is blissfully unaware of the building facade that is collapsing behind him, only for it to crash perfectly around him as his body fits into the building’s window.
Keaton’s stunt took a combination of perfect math and a lot of guts, as even a slight miscalculation could have crushed him under the two-ton facade. Instead, Keaton’s lax attitude and the impending doom of the falling facade make it a winning combination of thrilling stunt and great comedy. The stunt has been repeated time and time again in the decades since its execution, but noting can touch the original.
Jackie Chan is a total madman. Case in point, his 80-foot slide down a metal poll through live electrical wiring and glass in Police Story. Following a police inspector (Chan) on the trail of criminals, the film climaxes in a wild chase through a mall, with Chan’s character taking a shortcut to catch a crook who is about to get away. Of course, that shortcut involved sliding down a pole while being electrocuted and crashing through multiple panes of (sugar) glass. Yes, it’s impractical and insane, but it’s absolutely fantastic.
If the greatest stunts were measured by their safety, this one would never make the list. While the character is unharmed in the film, Chan suffered multiple injuries in the course of the stunt, including second-degree burns (with his hands being especially messed up), a back injury, and a dislocated pelvis from landing. If a good artists suffers for his or her art, then Chan is clearly one of the greats, as he has broken nearly every bone and had multiple near-death experiences during his stunt-filled career.
What’s a good James Bond movie with the trashing of a beautiful and expensive car? In Casino Royale, pure mayhem is brought down upon Bond’s Aston Martin DBS V12 as he swerves to avoid a hogtied Veper Lynd lying in the road. The result is a spectacular rollover car crash that is filmed and shown off in all its glory. Not only does the car flip in an almost majestic manner, but tires and all types of debris fly off, accentuating the violence of the wreck like poetry.
With stunt driver Adam Kirley behind the wheel, the team used a combination of a ramp and an air cannon behind the driver’s seat to get the car to roll just as they wanted. Swerving just right, the ramp causes the car to flip and Kirley’s perfectly timed air cannon usage gives it an extra hard push to overcome the center of gravity and flip side over side again and again. In the end, the Aston Martin rolled a total of seven complete times, which was confirmed as a new world record by the Guinness Book of Records.
The newest entry on the list, Mad Max: Fury Road is filled to the brim with fantastic practical stunts that helped the film stand above the CGI-filled blockbusters that dominate modern movies. While every stunt has something great in it, it’s the attack of the Pole Cats in the film’s finale that blows minds.
Among the many forces chasing the heroes of the film are the aforementioned Pole Cats, who ride high in the sky on swaying pole made with precision moto-controlled counterweights mounted on speeding vehicles. Among the chaos and explosions, they swing down and pick up their targets. Not only is this a feat of ingenious engineering and gutsy stunt work, it also involved star Tom Hardy being strapped to a pole and even having his head come feet from the ground. It’s one of the most effective and thrilling moments of a film that doesn’t let up from start to finish.
Parkour had a brief moment in the sun before it became quite passe, but it did churn out some spectacular scenes. While the opening chase scene in Casino Royale may be the most famous example, the most incredible instances of parkour on the big screen came in the French action film District B13. At the center of it all is David Belle, founder of parkour and extraordinaire in the sport, who both acted as a central character in the movie and performed all of his many insane stunts, which were the true draw for this French action film.
While District B13 is chocked full of crazy stunt moments, its the chase through, down and across multiple apartment buildings that is the real standout. Being chased by several criminals, Belle’s character uses his parkour skills to make insane leaps, flip through tiny openings, and generally put his life at risk looking awesome. One of the chase’s greatest moments occurs when he leaps out a window, grabs a rope, runs across the outside of the apartment, and swings around to another opening.
Another extraordinary practical stunt at the center of a Nolan film, the truck flip at the climax of Joker’s truck chase is one of the most iconic shots in modern film. Serving as the midpoint action piece of the movie, The Joker chases after a police escort containing Harvey Dent, only to be interrupted by Batman. When Batman, riding his newly debuted Batpod, faces off against The Joker in a tractor trailer, the result catches the villain off guard and droves fans nuts across the globe as The Dark Knight’s tow cables causes the massive truck and its trailer to flip vertically end over end.
In order to pull off the flip, stunt supervisor Chris Corbould and his crew designed a giant piston situated under the middle of the trailer. When activated by remote control, the piston slammed into the ground and launched the truck from the back, sending it perfectly head over heels with stunt driver Jim Wilky held tightly in place during the 180 launch. In the end, the only CGI used was to erase the piston. Of course, the stunt was practiced in wide open space beforehand with great results. If it had gone wrong during photography, the giant rig may have gone through one of the nearby banks.