Ever since the days of silent film, audiences have crowded into theaters to see films that push the envelope of action and suspense. One of the biggest crowd-pleasers are incredible stunts. Professional stuntmen in Hollywood have made careers of risking life and limb on a daily basis all in the name of entertainment. There have been many lists of great stunts…however, this list will focus on those that almost ended in death. Ten of the deadliest stunts of all time are collected here in chronological order:
WARNING: May contain mild spoilers.
10. Harold Lloyd Hangs Out
Safety Last (1923)
Harold Lloyd was one of the all-time greatest silent comedians. Even though he has since been overshadowed in popularity by the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, during his prime his movies were the most financially successful and most widely seen. One of the main reasons was that Lloyd periodically put his life on the line doing incredibly dangerous stunts. One of the most famous of these was in his 1923 masterpiece Safety Last! The film follows Lloyd who, after a series of unfortunate events, has to climb a 12 story building in order to win some desperately needed money and woo his favorite gal. In the film’s most famous scene, Lloyd grabs onto a giant clock which dangles him several hundred feet above the ground. The image of Lloyd hanging from the clock is one of the most enduring images in all of Hollywood history. It was later revealed that Lloyd climbed a fake building facade that was constructed over another building’s rooftop for the shot. This was done so that the camera could adequately capture Lloyd and give a view of the streets below him. However, Lloyd still performed the stunt several hundred feet above the ground with a tiny platform below him that wouldn’t have adequately stopped him if he had fallen. The stunt was still revolutionary for its time and to this day remains one of the most dangerous in film history.
9. Yakima Canutt Rides Rex
The Devil Horse (1926)
For people in the stunt industry, Yakima Canutt isn’t just a hero, he’s a legend. Originally a rodeo star, Canutt began working in the film industry as a stunt double in the 1920s. The man would go on to stage, direct, and perform some of the most famous and death-defying stunts in film history. One of his earliest exploits took place during the filming of the 1926 film Devil Horse. During one important scene, one of the characters had to ride a dangerous black horse. The horse chosen for this scene was a deadly black stallion named Rex who was so wild that he had actually killed a man in a different film. In order to ride Rex, Canutt had his wrists and ankles tied around Rex’s neck and torso. Despite all of these precautions, he still got tossed and almost trampled to death by the furious horse. But they still managed to get the footage that they needed from Canutt and Rex. The footage was so magnificent that it was actually used as stock footage for many other Westerns. A normal man would have called it quits after such a harrowing experience. But not Yakima Canutt. He stayed in the stunt business, even earning two more spots in this list…
8. Dick Grace Crashes Planes
Wings was the very first film in history to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. It was about two World War One fighter pilots who fall in love with the same woman. The film was noted for its incredible production values, including several scenes of aerial combat involving dozens of real planes and pilots. The film used several pilots who had actually fought in World War One. One of these pilots was Dick Grace. His specialty was literally crashing planes into the ground. During scenes where he had to crash, he used planes that had sawed wings and break-away sections so the crash wouldn’t kill him. In addition, he wore a spring-loaded shock absorber belt. His techniques weren’t perfect, however. He did break his neck during the production of the film. But he survived and went on to serve in World War Two and star in several other films.
7. The House Falls Down
Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)
One of the most respected and influential stuntmen who ever lived was the legendary silent comedian Buster Keaton. During the 20s Keaton directed and starred in a series of silent comedies that to this day rank as some of the funniest ever made. He was such a master of physical comedy that he was a chief inspiration for Jackie Chan. His exploits are much too lengthy to mention in their entirety here, so we will have to focus on just one of his all time most famous stunts. In Steamboat Bill, Jr, widely considered to be one of his masterpieces, Keaton would perform one of the most suicidally dangerous stunts in film history. During a sequence when a cyclone hits a small town, Keaton stands in the middle of a street where an entire building facade collapses on top of him. Miraculously, he is saved because of an open attic window that fits around his body. This stunt was not performed with any camera trickery or extra special effects; Keaton had a real building fall on top of him. It has been claimed that if he had stood inches off his mark, he would have been killed. The result scene so famous that even people who have never seen this film or even heard of Buster Keaton can recognize it if shown to them.
6. Stagecoach Shenanigans
Like I said, Yakima Canutt has more than one entry on this list. While he would work on a plethora of films and create many of the most famous stunts ever recorded, his magnum opus was his work on John Ford’s Stagecoach where he doubled for none other than John Wayne. During the film’s climactic scene where a horde of Indians attack a fleeing stagecoach, Canutt leaped from horse to horse in order to re-attach a harness that an Indian disabled. There was no camera trickery there. Canutt literally jumped, unaided, from horseback to horseback while a massive stagecoach rambled on behind him. He could have easily fallen and been crushed by the stagecoach. As if this wasn’t enough, Canutt then pulled off an even more deadly stunt. Doubling for an Indian, he leaped from horseback onto the horses of the stagecoach. Wayne’s character was then scripted to shoot him, whereupon Canutt fell BETWEEN the horses, temporarily grabbed the yoke, and let go, letting himself pass BENEATH the horses and the stagecoach. This stunt was so legendary that even Steven Spielberg paid tribute to it in Raiders of the Lost Arc when Indiana Jones lowered himself under a truck. You would think that between his work on The Devil Horse and Stagecoach that Canutt couldn’t possibly outdo himself. You’d be wrong.
5. The Chariot Race
One of the most famous stunts ever recorded took place during the incredible chariot race scene in Ben-Hur. But the amazing thing is that it occurred completely by accident. Considered to be one of the film’s centerpieces, the chariot race was staged by Yakima Canutt. During the sequence, Yakima’s son, Joe Canutt, was doubling for Charlton Heston during a particularly dangerous scene where Ben-Hur’s chariot bounced over some wreckage on the racetrack. Yakima had told Joe that he should hook himself to the chariot so that he wouldn’t fall out when it bounced. For whatever reason, Joe ignored his father’s advice and did the scene unhooked. As a result, Joe was almost completely thrown out of the chariot when it bounced. The accident was actually kept in the final cut of the film. The scene may not have seemed very dangerous. But keep in mind that Joe was flung in front of the chariot. If he had failed to grab onto the chariot, he would have fallen underneath it and been instantly crushed to death. It just goes to show that insane bravado, and luck, must run in the Canutt family.
4. The Train Dynamite Scene
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
The famous Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid featured a notorious stunt of the two main characters jumping off a cliff into a river far below. That is the stunt that is usually remembered by audiences and film historians. However, I’d like to bring attention to another stunt in the film, the train dynamite scene. In this scene, infamous Old West outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid rob a train and set up some dynamite to blow open a safe. Of course, they use too much dynamite and accidentally blow up the whole train while standing right in front of it. This scene actually had two stuntmen standing in front of an actual explosion. The train for this scene was built out of balsa wood so the stunt men wouldn’t get hurt. But still, the explosion was incredibly dangerous. To put things in perspective, the cameras closest to the explosion were fortified in bunkers so they wouldn’t be damaged. There was no way to perfectly control the explosion. The fireball could have easily shot shrapnel or jagged pieces of much more dangerous.
3. Falling off a Bridge
The Man Who Would Be King (1975)
John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King was an epic adventure that followed two British soldiers (played by Sean Connery and Michael Caine) in India who trick the natives of Kafiristan into worshiping them as gods. However, the two become too arrogant and break one of the society’s greatest taboos, thereby revealing themselves to be mere mortals. As punishment, Sean Connery’s character is executed by being forced to walk to the middle of a rope bridge over a massive gorge. The ropes are then cut, causing Connery to plummet to his death. This was a particularly dangerous stunt due to the fact that it required an 80 foot drop onto a mass of cardboard boxes. Oh, did I mention that the boxes were placed on the edge of a ravine? And that if the stuntman missed the boxes he would fall to his death? Like I said, this particular stunt was incredibly dangerous. It is said that all of the hired stuntmen developed a “mysterious ailment” which prevented them from executing this stunt. All except for stuntman Joe Powell. He stepped up and performed the deadly stunt, pulling it off perfectly. It is said that after completing the stunt, Huston turned to Caine and said, “That was the darnedest stunt I’ve ever seen.'”
2. Free Fall off a Hotel
Sharky’s Machine (1981)
One of the great tragedies in the world of stunt performers was the premature death of Dar Allen Robinson. Robinson was one of the most revered and talented stunt performers in the business, breaking 19 world records and standing in for actors such as Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood. He was killed in an unfortunate motorcycle accident during the filming of Million Dollar Mystery at the age of 39. But thankfully for the rest of the world he had left behind a legacy of some of the most impressive, and dangerous, stunts ever recorded. One of his most famous was done for the production of the Burt Reynolds film Sharky’s Machine. For the film’s climax, Robinson made a 220 foot free-fall from Atlanta’s Westin Peachtree Plaza. To this day, this remains the highest free-fall done with no wires ever recorded for a commercially-released film. Watch at your own risk!
1. Golf Carts
Jackass: The Movie (2002)
The Jackass gang have always been known for their…unorthodox…and dangerous stunts. Their television show was one of MTV’s biggest hits, mostly due to the sheer disregard and contempt the participants had for their own personal safety. For their first movie, they decided to up the ante. However, it turned out that one of the more tame stunts would end up becoming the most dangerous. For one scene, the Jackass boys crammed themselves into tiny golf carts and drove around at full speed on dangerous and uneven ground. Jackass front man Johnny Knoxville and the late Ryan Dunn tried to jump their cart over a plastic pig. Instead, they flipped the cart over. Dunn was thrown clear from the wreckage. Knoxville was a little less lucky. He remained in the cart the whole time, ending up with a concussion. However, Knoxville got off extremely lucky. When the cart flipped, it came inches away from crushing Knoxville’s head into a pile of mush. The stunt was purely an accident, but it was so good that they left it in the final cut of the film.