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World's Greatest Stuntman

The True Adventures of the World's Greatest Stuntman

Author: Vic Armstrong, Robert Sellers

Published by: Titan Books, London. (First Edition, May 2011)

Reviewed by: John G. Pierce

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This book is the autobiography of Vic Armstrong, a British stuntman who has doubled for, among others, James Bond, Indiana Jones, and Superman. It is the fascinating account of an English boy who grew up around horses, and branched out from there to become a movie stuntman, stunt coordinator, second-unit director, and even director.

Along the way, he meets a lot of interesting individuals, some of whom have contributed tributes to him, which are interspersed at logical spots (mostly, anyway) throughout the book. Names such as Lord Attenborough, Kenneth Branagh, Pierce Brosnan, Harrison Ford (to whom the author bears an uncanny resemblance), Angelina Jolie, Sir Christopher Lee, George Lucas, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Martin Scorsese, and, among others, Steven Spielberg (who wrote the introduction), not only appear in the narrative but offer their personal reflections on Armstrong and his work.

In this book, we learn how numerous stunts (many of which will be familiar to devotees of action films) were performed, the great risks which were taken, injuries incurred, even, alas, on rare occasion deaths which occurred. Since much of Vic's work was done in the days before CGI (which he is not a great fan of) came to predominate, readers should come away with a tremendous appreciation of the extremely hard and dangerous work which has gone into the making of those thrills we see (and possibly have come to take for granted) up on the screen.

It's not a glamorous life, by any means, as we read about location shooting in primitive locations, political hotspots, difficult terrain, and often with uncooperative weather to deal with.

But since our interest here is primarily in Superman, let's focus on that. Vic devotes an entire chapter to the Man of Steel, recounting his adventures in doubling for Chris Reeve and others in many parts of the first two movies. His anecdotes are fascinating and at times humorous. Such as when he was one of the Kryptonians falling to his death in the destruction of Krypton scene, only to be asked by a cameraman if he could "fall slower" on the next take! Or of how Christopher Reeve (whom Armstrong describes as somewhat of a method actor) wanted to do his own stunt work in the scene in Superman II in which Superman is hurled into a car's window. After seeing Vic do it, Reeve changed his mind!

Vic's then-future wife Wendy also doubled Margot Kidder in some scenes, including the helicopter rescue sequence. Incidentally, the first time Superman flew in the movie (out of the Fortress), it was really Armstrong, obviously wearing a very convincing Reeve mask!

My own two favorite anecdotes come from the first film. In one, NYC streets were supposed to be cleared for a chase scene, but somehow one night watchman didn't get the word. He stepped out to read a newspaper, when "Suddenly screaming past him came all these cars, all machine guns blazing, with baddies in the front car firing back. They nearly knocked him over and he was last seen running for his life in the opposite direction."

And in the ending, Armstrong doubled Reeve in the scene in which Superman flies into the prison yard to deposit Lex Luthor. This was done on the backlot of Pinewood Studios, at 2 a.m., with a "monster crane" hired to lift Vic up into the air, as he was framed in a spotlight. "Suddenly I was aware of a car driving along the road at the back of the studio and then the squealing of tyres as it careered into a ditch. This guy had been minding his own business driving back home, seen me spot-lit floating in the sky, cape fluttering in the breeze and {yelled}, 'Bloody hell, it's Superman!' and crashed!"

Since the book was released just this year, it is quite up-to-date, mentioning his coordination work on The Green Hornet and Thor, and there are even references to the upcoming Spider-Man reboot.

My only real criticism of the book concerns Vic's writing style, such as it is. His sentence structure is often weak, with numerous run-ons and often strange punctuation. Also, he wrote in a sort of stream of consciousness technique. Every profanity, four-letter word, or "Jesus!" which passed through his mind, not to mention his own speech and that of others, seems to find its way into his narrative. Although a "with Robert Sellers" credit is present, it does seem as if the book could have used either a strong editor or a ghost-writer.

The text is augmented by sections of both color and black-white photographs. The volume is published by Titan Books, London. First Edition, May 2011. ISBN: 9781848568747.

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