Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Danger on the Silver Screen: 50 Films Celebrating Cinema’s Greatest Stunts

Danger on the Silver Screen 
50 Films Celebrating Cinema's Greatest Stunts 
by Scott McGee
TCM and Running Press
288 pages
Paperback ISBN:9780762474844
April 2022

“Stunt work taps into our brains, giving us pleasure by simply watching human beings do things we, the audience, cannot. Marvelous acts like jumping out of a window and surviving thrill us and remind us that while we are safe in our seats, others are capable of doing amazing things for the camera.” — Scott McGee

There's nothing quite like the thrill of watching an action movie. Stuntmen and stuntwomen brave great danger—fast speeds, hairpin turns, nerve-wracking heights and literal fire with often a scant margin of error—to give us, the audience, an experience that we can't duplicate in real life. If you've ever watched an action sequence and wondered "how did they do that?" then I have the book for you.

Danger on the Silver Screen: 50 Films Celebrating Cinema's Greatest Stunts by Scott McGee is your definitive guide to action movies and stunt techniques. While the book focuses specifically on a list of 50 action movies, you'll find many more mentioned throughout. The movies presented range from silent era classics to modern action thrillers beginning with Way Down East (1920) and ending with Baby Driver (2017).

This paperback book features French flaps and full color pages. Each chapter focuses on 1 action movie (or a pair of movies). Little time is spent on the plot and the majority of the text breaks down the stunt sequences, how they were executed and the masterminds behind them. The chapter starts with an image (still or poster), a quote from a reviewer or stuntman, a brief cast and crew list as well as a listing of the stunt team members. This last bit is important since stuntmen and stuntwomen often did not get on screen credit for their work. McGee does a fantastic job breaking down the particulars of the stunts, explaining them, giving the reader background on the stunt team as well as providing screenshots to help visualize. I recommend heading to YouTube where you'll find clips of many of the stunt sequences McGree writes about. This helps with really appreciating the work that went into making that stunt look effortless. The chapters also include other images and newspaper-style article about a related stunt from another movie or something relevant to the article. 

For those of you more interested in the older movies, here are some of the early ones that the author writes about at length: Way Down East (1920), Robin Hood (1922), The Black Pirate (1926), Safety Last! (1923), Wings (1927), Hell's Angels (1930), Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928), Stagecoach (1939), Ben-Hur (1925 and 1959), How the West Was Won (1962), The Great Escape (196, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), Bullitt (1965), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and more. James Bond fans will be delighted that many of the films in the series are featured here.

Some notable stuntmen and stuntwomen mentioned include: Richard Talmadge, Yakima Canutt, Bud Ekins, Charles H. Hickman, James W. Gavin, Hal Needham, Dar Robinson, Grant Page, Debbie Evans, etc. There is also much attention put on the actors who did the stunts themselves like Buster Keaton, Douglas Fairbanks and Harold Lloyd.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from the book:

“In epic adventures, fantasies and contemporary action pictures, it was [Douglas] Fairbanks who made the impossible seem easy.”

“The airplane has been a crucial vehicle for movie stunt work, almost since its invention. Things really took off after the end of WWI, when former fighter pilots, looking for paths to apply their skill set and a penchant for taking risks, landed in the movie business.”

On Steamboat Bill Jr. “When the wall started to move, and it landed perfectly with a tremendous thud, Keaton’s bravery and commitment was that much more impressive because he stayed completely in character.”

“In terms of sheer grandiosity and cinematic impact, the chariot race in the 1959 Best Picture winner Ben-Hur is among the greatest action scenes ever.”

“[It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World] was one of the first major Hollywood productions to put stunt work front and center, not just as an element in the filmmaking, but as a selling point to the general audience.” 

“Great stunt scenes throughout history depend on the collaborative nature of filmmaking, drawing upon cinematography, editing, acting, and direction. The Bullitt car chase was a textbook example…”

“The Bond stuntmen, mostly British, were among the best working in the world. They brought ingenuity, execution, and visual appeal to the films’ action, setting the template for what audiences worldwide expected from the rough and physically demanding world of 007... The attention to cinematography in capturing not just the visceral excitement of the stunt work and action but the beauty of the surroundings has remained a mark of the Bond films to this day.”

“The craftsmen and artists of taking the falls, crashing the planes, and enduring the flames suffer the ignominy of going unmentioned or, when they are credited in print, being misspelled.”

“Tom Cruise is a modern-day Hollywood star whose fearlessness makes him seem like a direct descendant from stuntmen-stars of the past. As a Fairbanksian star and producer, Cruise is his own boss when making the calls, whether he’s outside skyscrapers or helicopters or wherever a normal person would not go.”

Danger on the Silver Screen is as fascinating as the stunts described within its beautifully designed pages. McGee does an excellent job giving the reader context and background. Describing stunts is no small feat considering but its done quite well here. You don't have to have seen the movie discussed to appreciate the chapter but watching a trailer or clips online will definitely improve the reading experience. Stunt work has been a male dominated field since the beginning of the film industry. I appreciate that some attention was given to the work of stuntwomen (and actresses too). I wish there had been pictures of the stunt team members because that would have helped to put a face with the name.

I want to hear from you! What's your favorite movie stunt? How about your favorite action movie?

This is my 5th review for the Classic Film Reading Challenge.

Thank you to TCM and Running Press for sending me a copy of Danger on the Silver Screen for review!

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