Book Review: The True Adventures of the World’s Greatest Stuntman, by Vic Armstrong
If adventure has a name, it’s Vic Armstrong.
I can already hear most of you thinking, “who is Vic Armstrong?” In truth, you know Vic. You’ve seen him probably a couple times in your life, but never realized it. That’s because Vic is a stuntman, and probably one of the most famous in the world. He’s doubled the likes of Christopher Reeve, Sean Connery, and Harrison Ford. He’s also helped shape and plan some of the action-set pieces in films such as Die Another Day, War of the Worlds, and this summer’s The Amazing Spider-Man.
It seems that adventure was set in Vic from the time he was a lad, as his family went from place-to-place before settling down. His father Bob Armstrong also honed in him a love and interest in horses, as the family would often train, race, buy, and sell them (his father also worked with the British Olympics horse-racing team). These skills and the discipline he learned would definitely help shape Vic’s life, as his dream of being a steeplechase jockey ended up being re-directed to the world of stunts.
Vic’s autobiography mainly chronicles his own life and thoughts, as well as the adventures he has been on for well over half a century. He truly has lived an amazing life, reading how his work has taken him all over the world…even if he has come out of it with some broken bones, a bruised lung, and more. It’s also noteworthy that he takes time in his chapters to tell about other stunt persons he has worked with, mentioning many of them by name.
While the cover of the book shows Vic doubling Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (a film Vic ended up saving when Harrison had to have back surgery), he does not shy away from also talking about some of the smaller films he did, or even those that he did and were never finished. To him, some of those hold fond memories, or experiences that would help him down the line when a solution was needed.
Even though stuntmen are known for doing grueling and sometimes dangerous things, there’s something admirable about Vic, in that while some of the stuntwork is dangerous, he knows when limits must be set. An interesting story comes when a director wants to a have a character do a 350 foot fall from a railway trestle into a river, without the camera cutting away. Vic keeps telling the director that everything from added padding to putting a helmet on the stuntperson (the director’s idea) will not escape the fact that the stunt will end up taking the person’s life.
The book shows a subtle evolution as Vic matures, soon getting into the stunt co-ordinating business, and then moving into the director’s chair on a few occasions (mainly second-unit footage). Much like some filmmakers have a select few crew members that are close to them because of their skills and reliability, Vic had much of the same, including a couple technical whizzes that could help him churn out needed hardware or apparatuses to get plenty of the jobs done.
While the book is filled with little blurbs from some directors and stars whom Vic assisted/helped (like Lord Richard Attenborough, Kenneth Branagh, and Arnold Schwarzenegger to name a few), it really is Vic’s story, and it almost sounds at times like he’s doing his own rendition of Big Fish. In one instance, when a film titled The Message (about the prophet Mohammad, though he is never shown in the film) was shut down by several countries due feelings about the film’s content, the film crew ended up being allowed by Moammar Gadaffi to complete the film in Libya! That’s just one of the instances where it seems so unbelievable what Vic has done, where he went, or who else he has met. Even in reading his writing, you can’t help but feel that he would be a really nice guy if you met him in person. He can be rough around the edges in some instances, but that’s mainly him trying to make something good, but also thinking of the risks involved.
Like some celebrities, Vic chooses to keep discussion of his family out of the picture, except in small doses, and later on in life when several of his own children end up joining him on his adventures. You almost wish to know a little more from them how they feel being part of the newer generation of stunt-people, in a world where many dangerous stunts are handled nowadays by computer-generated doubles.
Due to all that he has done, the chapters in the book can vary: sometimes only a few pages long, with the longest stretching out almost 10 pages. It can get a bit disorienting with the number of people that Vic names. Luckily for me, I was reading my copy on my Kindle app, and was able to search through previous pages regarding various people or scenarios that Vic would reference. This might not be so cumbersome for those with steel-plated memory banks in their noggins.
I remember on Die Another Day when I took Pierce Brosnan down to my trailer during the hovercraft chase shoot to show how I was going to integrate him into the action, talking him through it, and he said, “Vic, you’re always so excited and enthusiastic.” I said, “When I believe in something, I do get enthusiastic, that’s part of me.” – Vic Armstrong