[Book Review] ‘DANGER ON THE SILVER SCREEN’ celebrates action cinema from the stunt perspective

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Travis Leamons // Film Critic

DANGER ON THE SILVER SCREEN: 50 FILMS CELEBRATING CINEMA’S GREATEST STUNTS

By Scott McGee, with a foreword by Buddy Joe Hooker

“I was nervous until I realized that all that could happen was that I would die.” – Fred Ward describing his experience filming REMO WILLIAMS: THE ADVENTURE BEGINS

Stunt performers are an interesting breed, not unlike screen idols transitioning from performing to vaudeville audiences to just a camera. From cowboys to pilots, circus performers to athletes, and stockcar racers to motorcyclists – these stunt-work daredevils have left many cinephile’s mouth agape making magical moments while putting their bodies on the line.    

You won’t find any Marvel movies or Fast and Furious installments among the fifty films Scott McGee has selected in his exploratory overview of stunt work in action cinema. Nor will you find anything from John Woo, James Cameron, or Christopher Nolan – aside from cursory mentions.

Turner Classic Movies’ latest resource guide examines amazing stunts specific to wide release features in North America. This is why Jackie Chan’s RUMBLE IN THE BRONX (released by New Line Cinema) is covered and POLICE STORY is not. Any judicious cuts or exclusions are done, as McGee writes, “to streamline the scope of this book,” because to expand the selection to movie serials and one- or two-reel shorts, or international films would have oversaturated what is already a detailed chronology of stunts.

I understand narrowing the focus, but if you namedrop John Woo in a chapter about the Wachowskis mélange of science fiction and Hong Kong action cinema (THE MATRIX) and not have a chapter devoted to A BETTER TOMORROW or HARD BOILED – both starring Chow Yun-Fat and which launched the “heroic bloodshed” action subgenre, as it brought attention to stylistic gun fu sequences that Hollywood would emulate – is just wrong.

Credit: Photo by Warner Bros/Kobal/Shutterstock
Steve McQueen in Bullitt - Director: Peter Yates (Warner Bros, USA, 1968)

But I’m reminded that if it weren’t for the risks taken by Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton in SAFETY LAST! and STEAMBOAT BILL, JR., then Jackie Chan may not have been inspired to perform the stunts he did. So, it goes both ways: countries worldwide borrow from American movies and vice versa. 

The two silent stars may be the impetus for the stunt performer on screen, but the one who would define the profession in terms of moving beyond “liquid courage” before a scene to codify the standards and practices on set was former rodeo star Enos Edward Canutt. Mistakenly nicknamed Yakima, due to associating with rodeo riders from Yakima, Washington, Canutt transitioned to Hollywood, where he would both perform stunts and develop riggings and practices in teaching others the craft. McGee spends most of his chapter on John Ford’s STAGECOACH (1939), writing about Yakima and his work. Of particular note is the famous stagecoach chase and how Yakima pulled it off without sustaining injury. 

DANGER ON THE SILVER SCREEN: 50 Films Celebrating Cinema’s Greatest Stunts is a nice compendium overall, minus the nearsightedness in keeping things strictly American. Each chapter is full of production stories and extraneous, did-you-know information. A kind of movie trivia potpourri. If it weren’t for this resource guide, I may have gone my entire life not knowing that Oscar-nominated Richard Farnsworth (THE STRAIGHT STORY) once doubled for the likes of Montgomery Clift, Henry Fonda, and Kirk Douglas. 

Of the fifty films picked, most of them are easy selections. Cinephiles would riot if McGhee omitted BULLITT’s or THE FRENCH CONNECTION’s defining car chases. Where he surprises is with a few inspired choices. He devotes a complete chapter to the forgotten REMO WILLIAMS: THE ADVENTURE BEGINS. What was envisioned to be a blue-collared James Bond action series, the movie was a box office dud turned cult classic. Its stunts would eventually lead to the sports of parkour and free running. The Statue of Liberty set-piece where Williams (played by Fred Ward) maneuvers through scaffolding erected around it is a standout scene. Shot on location and in Mexico City with a life-size replica model of Lady Liberty, the sequence is near flawless in its presentation.      

As someone who belongs to a critics organization that established an award to recognize the cinematic contributions stunt teams and performers have made, DANGER ON THE SILVER SCREEN, at the very least, shows the unknown stuntman is a professional worth knowing.