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This weekend we’re watching: ‘Hollywood Bulldogs’, The Rise and Falls of the Great British Stuntman

This weekend we’re watching: ‘Hollywood Bulldogs’, The Rise and Falls of the Great British Stuntman
Hollywood Bulldogs. Image: Supplied

We spoke to Rocky Taylor, Britain’s oldest stuntman, and director Jon Spira about ‘Hollywood Bulldogs’, a new documentary about the gritty, surprising origins of the stunt industry which explains why stunt performers are still not fully recognised for their craft.

In so many ways, cinema is an art of illusion. In the most literal sense, the rapid flashing of images creates the illusion of motion. The story conveyed by each short sequence is carefully spliced and ordered so as to portray fictions as if they actually occurred, or even present real events highly subjectively. Acting is emotional illusion, film sets are environmental illusion, and today we even have CGI to conjure apparitions from nothing but pixels. 

Hollywood Bulldogs is interested in another integral part of this cinematic mirage – stunts, which allow filmmakers to safely simulate fist fights, car chases, impressive acrobatics or fatal tragedy. 

Director Jon Spira interviews the British stunt doubles behind the triumphant action heroes and doomed villains of the Seventies and Eighties, who punched, jumped, shot, fell and crashed through Hollywood. Even more fascinating than the behind-the-scenes practical logistics of these deceptive feats is the little-known history of stunt people, and how it has shaped the landscape of modern film. 

The first documented film stunt was in the 1908 silent film The Count of Monte Cristo – an acrobat was paid to jump off a cliff. In America, the role of the stunt performer was already well established scarcely a decade later, “grounded in safety and professionalism”. In Britain, however, the industry still had not developed to that extent even in the Sixties, and the surprising consequence of this is that during some of the most iconic years of film history, the British stunt industry was dominated by the middle class – doormen, bouncers, taxi drivers, bar brawlers and ex-servicemen. 

British stuntman Greg Powell describes the stuntmen of his father’s generation as “either doormen or part-time villains”. “They didn’t mind getting bashed up and running around coz that’s what they was doin’ anyway.”  

The film is narrated by the gravelly voice of “hard-man” actor Ray Winstone, a fitting choice that Spira told us was linked to the cheeky, macho, working-class culture of the early British stunt industry. “There was no one else. Ray was just the obvious choice. We knew that he’d been friends with all these guys, he’d grown up with these guys, he’d been under the wing. And also, [his] voice, like a lot of their voices, has that gruff kind of London thing.”

Ray Winstone, narrator in Hollywood Bulldogs. Image: courtesy of Britbox.

It’s especially surreal hearing the wild and dangerous stories of all these boisterous ruffian blokes now that they’re feisty old codgers, and it’s only halfway through the film, during a montage of their craziest scenes (many of which you’ll probably recognise), that it starts to sink in just how prolific they were and how seldom they were noticed. They were the doubles for Sylvester Stalone and Harrison Ford, they were Superman, Batman and James Bond. 

Vic Armstrong. Image: Supplied

Vic Armstrong present day. Image: Supplied

The basis of most successful historical documentaries is interviews with unusual or important subjects, but audiences often need more than interviews alone to stay engaged, and archive footage is the ideal supplement. 

With such accomplished, reckless, charismatic characters behind his camera, Spira was practically drowning in filmworthy footage, each aged legend packing enough accolades, anecdotes and soundbites for their own episode in a hypothetical Hollywood Bulldogs series. But, with the film industry having not yet grasped the significance of stunt people at that time, there is very little behind-the-scenes archive footage of them, so Spira sought to add colour to the documentary using comic-like illustrations. 

“I was very aware from my previous film that I favour talking heads because that’s the kind of documentary I make. There are audiences who have a certain amount of ADHD and can’t follow just interviews, which is fine, and I wanted to be able to break it up for them and keep things interesting. So, the way that I really wanted to do that was with some really great montages and with great action clips, but what was going on behind the scenes wasn’t well documented, you know. It’s hard to find behind-the-scenes photos of stunt performers rehearsing or meeting or spending time together.

“Everyone opened their archives to us and we got some great photos from that, but there was stuff that we didn’t have and we wanted to keep lively and interesting. There’s a huge comic called 2000 AD, which is where Judge Dread and Rogue Trooper came from, and it’s still going. It’s a very specific comic style, and I wanted that. We found one of the actual 2000 AD artists – Simon Colby – and he was amazing. He had such fun with it, he got really into it.” 

Richard Hammatt. Image: Supplied

Richard Hammatt in 2018. Image: Supplied

Some of the footage that Spira did manage to get his hands on was that of the often-terrifying outtakes of stunts gone wrong. One of the most exciting stories is how a brush with actual disaster shaped the iconic collapsed bridge scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. To put it simply, this fall was not planned. 

The fire stunts are even more hair-raising, chief among them the incident where notorious director Michael Winner bullied stuntman Rocky Taylor into jumping off of a burning building and then secretly cranked up the flames – the stunt that almost ended his career and his life. 

Today, Taylor is one of the oldest and longest-working stuntmen in Britain, and he proudly asserts that the days when directors like Winner could get away with treating stunt people as expendable are long gone.

“When I first started, I didn’t even know the word stuntman. We were treated with “you go sit over there! You do that over there!” Now, we get treated with respect – I get my own caravan now, I get my own dressing room, it’s all great. I mean, what progress that is!”

Stunt Guys. Image: Supplied

Richard Hammatt. Image: Supplied

It is intriguing that stunt people have become more recognised despite their craft being progressively replaced by CGI. This ties in to the pun of the film’s subtitle: The Rise and Falls of the Great British Stuntman. Spira spoke to us about this implication that the golden age of stunts has passed. “It wasn’t meant to cast aspersion, it wasn’t meant to say that there aren’t great stunt performers now – there are! But even when you talk to stunt performers who are in their twenties now, they’ll tell you the Rocky’s generation was the best, because now, stunt performers tend to specialise in certain fields. You hire them to do certain things. Rocky’s generation did everything, and they also invented it, you know! It wasn’t just that they did it, they innovated the stuff, and there’ll never be an age like that again.” 

Taylor’s disdain for modern CGI techniques and specialised stunt performers was more pronounced. “Go and see the latest Bond film – I think you’ll be a bit disappointed. He went around and shot 44 hundred people in the first 20 minutes… There was a lot of CGI. I’ve got to appreciate the stunts; the car stuff was great but it was a bit far-fetched for me.” 

We asked Spira about the absence of modern, specialised stunt people in the film, as well as stuntwomen and performers from other, more diverse regions.

“I think I’ve said everything I want to say. I will say that the fact that there were no women in there was a huge problem for me as well, and we tried. We just couldn’t get them on camera and that was a huge shame. Once I’m done with the documentary, I would love for someone else to take up the baton, and if someone wanted to come to me for help for a sequel, to get them started or something like that, I would love it. There are definitely more stories to be told of the other generations.” 

Spira speaks of Taylor’s generation with great reverence, and although it wasn’t mentioned in the film, as a closing thought, Spira expressed that he hopes viewers will leave his film with an understanding of how the relics of the golden age of stunts still hold stunt people back from the recognition they deserve. 

“Stunt performers have never been properly recognised by the Oscars or by the Baftas, and that for me was part of the reason for making the film. It’s scandalous. They do awards for best song, they do it for hair and makeup, there’s no reason not to. There used to be a reason, which is that people didn’t realise that stunt performers existed. And that age is over now… Let’s see what happens.”

Taylor chimes in, pointing out that it was to the benefit of the production companies to sweep stunt people under the carpet. “What I think it was, personally – when we became stuntmen, doubling for big stars, they didn’t want [viewers] to know that they had a double. So stunt performers got pushed to the side a bit. And that’s why the Oscars got pushed aside, because they thought they can’t give us one because we’d be recognised.”

He leans back in his armchair with a contemplative grin. “I’ll never get an Oscar now, but a lifetime achievement might help.” DM/ML

Hollywood Bulldogs: The Rise and Falls of the Great British Stuntman is available in South Africa onBritbox from 25 February.
You can contact This Weekend We’re Watching via [email protected] 

 

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