The film is Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Indy's dad (Sean Connery) has been taken by the Nazis and is imprisoned in the "belly of the steel beast" (a tank). Luckily, Indy (Harrison Ford) has a horse. Riding through a desert canyon, he chases the tank down, his ancient skills more than a match for the fascist machinery. He draws up alongside the tank, leaps from his horse, executes a perfect landing, beats some Germans up, and saves the day (eventually).
"There's a lot more that goes into stunts than people generally imagine," says Vic Armstrong. "It's not just jumping off a horse."
Armstrong is a stunt co-ordinator, stunt double, and director with five decades of experience in film. He has won a Technical Achievement Academy Award, and according to the Guinness World Records, he is the most prolific stuntman of all time. He's talking me through one of his most famous stunt sequences, which he both performed as Harrison Ford's stunt double and helped conceive as the film's stunt co-ordinator.
A stunt of this complexity begins with the storyboard. In Los Angeles, a month before the shoot, the director Steven Spielberg maps out the chase with his team. Then the task is flipped over to Armstrong and action unit director Micky Moore, who have to make the sketches a reality. They pick the locations. This one is "tricky, in that you had to have the tank going along at a fairly close proximity to a cliff face," says Armstrong. Shooting in Almeria, Spain, in a part of the desert now known as Indiana Jones Canyon, Armstrong knew that the sandy soil was good for the horse, because it wouldn't have been able to gallop on rocks, but that the crumbly soil could easily give way, meaning that Armstrong couldn't ride too close to the edge of the cliff.
They brought a bulldozer in to cut an eight-to-ten-foot vertical cliff face and installed a ramp for the horse to run down, above the tank. Mechanical rigs are buried in the ground, along with pads to land on. Then Armstrong works with the horse, Huracan, who he knows well. Rehearsals take place at Fort Bravo, the local film studio synonymous with the Western. The horse's speed needs to be consistent and matched to the tank so that when Armstrong stands up to make the jump, the horse doesn't duck out sideways or slow down. "In the studios, we have the manure heap, which is the softest place to land and the biggest area to allow for mistakes. So I'd do the jump from the horse onto the manure heap and measure any discrepancies between the rehearsal and the real situation."
Armstrong has to make sure he makes his jump on the horse's up-stride. He has to ride on a rhythm: On two, he's up on the horse with his feet on some concealed pegs that will help him spring off, on three he starts kicking off, and on four, he's in the air. When he does it for the first time on camera he's a split second out, and because all his energy has been absorbed he looks like "Tom and Jerry running through the air." But then he nails it, landing on a "half-inch little pad" on the tank, wearing some padding himself. "I was so fucking pleased to land I didn't care whether it hurt or not."
Born in Buckinghamshire, England, Vic Armstrong grew up riding horses. "My dad was a racehorse trainer, and all I ever wanted to do was race steeplechasers," he tells me. "I rode my first racehorse on the Gallops when I was nine. When I was 14, I started to race, but I was quite big and had to starve myself to get to 11 stone 7 [160 lbs], so I only ever stayed as an amateur jockey."
Richard Todd, a post-war star of stage and screen, owned some horses that Armstrong's father trained. "He used to come and watch his horses gallop on the weekend. I was eight or nine and I'd watch him with his open top Bentley and glamorous women," remembers Armstrong. "He'd tell me about the films he was in and I would watch them, then go home and pretend I was him. I'd be Rob Roy galloping up the glens, throwing myself off my pony—sad life, really, playing on my own! But I loved it."
That fantasy element is key to the stunt business, though. "It's basically playing Cowboys and Indians," Armstrong says of his profession. "You know you can't do something for real, so you do it for the movies."
This play-acting is allied to physical strength and practical ability. "Growing up with horses made me very practical because you have to do the thinking for something," says Armstrong. "And at the same time you have to adapt your thinking for the animal and be totally responsible."
Armstrong's journey into the film business began when he met a guy named Jimmy Lodge, who was one of the top horse stuntmen of the day. Lodge used to ride horses at the racing stables Armstrong's father ran. He was working on a film called Arabesque, with Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren, and he needed a horse from the stables. Then he needed someone to ride that horse. Armstrong stepped up and, for his troubles, was paid "the princely sum of £20 [$36] a day, which was over a week's wages in those days."
Pretty soon, the young would-be jockey realized that rather than simply subsidizing his horse racing, doing stunts could be a business. "There very few stunt people—certainly no young ones in those days, in 1965," he says.
Young, good with horses, and able to learn skills like sword fighting, high work (doing stuff at great heights), and falling ("You're so focused that everything becomes very slow, it seems to take forever to get down… it burns a lot of adrenaline, which is exhausting"), Armstrong worked on a string of big films and doubled for James Bond. On the first Indiana Jones film, Steven Spielberg confused him for Harrison Ford and a career-spanning relationship began, with Armstrong doubling Ford as Indy, Han Solo, and many others.
"I've told Harrison a number of times that if he wasn't such a good actor he'd be a great stuntman," Armstrong says of the man he's so regularly stood in for. "He's a carpenter, he's got a logical brain on him, and he's an absolute perfectionist—his scripts are always covered in notes at the beginning of shooting."
A picture sent from Ford to Armstrong is inscribed with the line: "If you learn to talk, I'm in deep trouble."
Today, the stunt community is much bigger than it was when Armstrong began.
"When I started there were probably 40 people doing it, and now there are 400, I should imagine," he says. It's still a "lovely business," but it's very competitive and you don't know everyone else in the way you used to. "I was very lucky that I met some of the people who formed the business. I came in at the cusp of the new wave, if you like," says Armstrong.
One of those men was George Leech, part of a generation of men who used their military experience in World War II to carve out a career in the film industry, arranging and performing action sequences. Leech's daughter, Wendy, followed him into the business, and on the Superman films starring Christopher Reeve she doubled Margot Kidder, who played Lois Lane. Armstrong was doubling Reeve and so, as Superman and Lois Lane, they met and went on to marry and appear in a series of films side-by-side.
CGI has changed things "incredibly for the better," says Armstrong, adding that he often likens it to morphine, in that it's an incredible drug when used in the right way for the right thing, but if you get hooked, well then it's very damaging. Films can be ruined by CGI, but it means that all sorts of safety mechanisms can be used and then just taken out in the edit. When he was doing Indiana Jones, "everything had to be in the camera frame" and thus had to be concealed, like the pegs he used to jump from the horse to the tank. Now, Armstrong can send Andrew Garfield hurtling across a street in a Spiderman film and the devices he uses to make this possible will never be seen by the audience.
The magic of the screen remains, though, and heading toward his 70th birthday, Vic Armstrong is back in the desert outside of Almeria, filming in Indiana Jones Canyon, still playing Cowboys and Indians.
If you are in the UK, Vic Armstrong will be discussing his career at the Glasgow Film Festival on February 19. Tickets are available here.
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