1. C’etait un rendezvous
In 1976, French filmmaker Claude LeLouch decided he wanted to film a car, speeding through the streets of Paris. Rather than setting up road blocks, or letting the authorities know what he was up to, the director simply waited until 5am one morning, fixed a camera on to a Mercedes Benz and allowed its unnamed driver (rumoured at the time to be an incognito Formula One star, but later revealed as LeLouch himself) to … drive.
The result was C’etait un rendezvous, a 8-minute long cinéma vérité piece in which red lights are ignored, and unfortunate pigeons flutter away in terror, as a car hurtles through Parisian streets at speeds of up to 140 miles per hour, before ending up on the steps of the Sacré-Coeur Basilica.
While safety clearly wasn’t top of LeLouch’s concerns, he did employ spotters in a few blind spots along the route, to warn him of any unexpected traffic or pedestrians. But according to one story, the spotters’ walkie talkies didn’t work, rendering the precautions effectively useless.
Legend has it that LeLouch was arrested shortly after the film was screened for the very first time, and (quite fairly) given a formal police warning about all the traffic rules he had broken.
The 10-minute long high-speed car chase from Peter Yates’s 1968 crime drama Bullitt, featuring Steve McQueen at the wheels of a green Ford Mustang GT in hot pursuit of two hitmen in a black Dodge Charger, is now considered one of the most thrilling chases in cinema history. Yates’s decision to mount cameras on the cars themselves, and his use of behind-the dashboard shots, add to the excitement, giving the 110 mile an hour action a video game-like, adrenaline-fuelled intensity.
However, while McQueen was known for performing many of his stunts himself – and features in all the close-up shots used – in this particular case, a large proportion of the dare-devil driving was actually done by stuntmen Bud Ekins and Loren Janes.
“Steve was a hell of a driver, but he was only behind the wheel for about 10% of what you see on screen,” Janes said in a 2011 interview. “He drove in scenes that required close-ups – but not in the ones that could kill him. Steve always asked me first whether a stunt was too dangerous for him to take on. If I said ‘no,’ he listened. He had to. No Steve, no movie, and no studio in its right mind would put its star at that much risk. I always had the final say, for his sake.”
Meanwhile, at the wheel of the Charger, was famous Hollywood stuntman Bill Hickman. (As well as being a stuntman, Hickman was also a former driver for and friend of actor James Dean, and was the first person on the scene after the star’s fatal crash in 1955.)
Unlike McQueen’s doubles, Hickman actually appears in the film itself, playing one of the hitmen: in a tongue-in-cheek nod to his dangerous profession, he carefully buckles his seatbelt before setting off.
“In one scene, the Charger [Hickman] is driving comes down a hill and has to hit a car on the corner,” Janes said of his fellow stuntman. “He had to just kiss it with the front of his car, which added to the realism. You can do that only if you’re very familiar with your car and you’re fully conscious of what part of the vehicle you want touch the other one. He was great. ”
3. The French Connection
A ridiculous number of rules were casually disregarded (or knocked aside by a screeching, high speed Pontiac LeMans) during the filming of the car vs train chase sequence in William Friedkin’s 1971 The French Connection. Unwary pedestrians and motorists were caught up in the action, as the filming spiralled out of its designated closed-off areas. One poor man even had his car (a white Ford) damaged in an unscheduled crash. The filmmakers later paid the cost of the repairs, and opted to keep the collision in the movie: you can catch it in the clip below, at 2:41. (Thankfully, the shot involving a near-miss of a woman with a pram was pre-planned.)
The film’s star, Gene Hackman, performed some of the driving himself, but the majority of the stunts were carried out by Bill Hickman (who also drove the Charger in Bullitt, above).
According to Friedkin’s memoir, the director and the stuntman initially disagreed over Hickman’s plans for stunts. Hickman (after a few drinks) then issued the director a challenge, telling him: “You want me to show you something? Put the car on Stillwell [Avenue] tomorrow morning, then I want you to get in it with me, if you’ve got the balls!”
Friedkin apparently took the stuntman at his word, and did indeed operate the camera from the backseat of the car during the filming of the chase sequence. The director later explained that he felt obliged to take on this dangerous job, due to the fact that all of the camera crew were married with kids.
4. The Man With the Golden Gun
It might not be the most popular of Bond movies, but Roger Moore’s second outing as 007 has a fair few things going for it (including Christopher Lee as titular triple-nippled villain Scaramanga). But, for anyone into their cars, the highpoint of the movie has to be an impressive 360-degree corkscrew roll, performed by an AMC Hornet over a river with a broken bridge. Cheesy whistling sound effect notwithstanding, the stunt is widely regarded as one of the most impressive car feats in cinema history.
The jump, which was actually first achieved a few years prior to the film, during a 1972 show at the Houston Astrodome, enjoys the distinction of being the first-ever movie stunt to be planned by a team of university researchers. In 1971, a racing driver and motor show producer named W Jay Milligan Sr worked with Cornell University researcher Raymond R McHenry to meticulously calculate every detail of the roll. For the stunt to work, the speed and weight of the car in question had to fit an exact set of specifications, as did the length of the car itself, and the position of the driver inside it. After witnessing the stunt, the Golden Gun producers decided to gain copyright of it, to prevent it being used in any other films.
Rather astoundingly, when it came to the day of filming, on Thailand’s Mae Klong River, British stuntman Loren “Bumps” Willard managed to successfully carry out the roll on the very first attempt. He received a bonus for doing so – although, sadly, he wasn’t credited in the film.
5. Casino Royale
2006’s Casino Royale, the 21st Bond movie and the first in the series to star Daniel Craig, set a new world record for the highest-ever number of cannon rolls in a film, thanks to a scene in which 007, driving at breakneck speed down a Montenegro road, has to swerve at the last minute to avoid running over Bond Girl Vesper Lynd (Eva Green). After he pulls away, his Aston Martin flips and rolls over a dizzying seven times.
When the scene in question was filmed (not in Montenegro, but in the rather less glamorous Bedfordshire), the filmmakers used a replica Aston Martin, designed especially for use in stunts. The car in question was fitted with a nitrogen cannon, which used pressurised gas to force a metal ram out of the bottom of the car, causing the vehicle to flip over. Stunt double Adam Kirley had to drive the car at 75 miles per hour, then trigger the mechanism at the exact right moment, in order to get the car to roll.
Funnily enough, no one on set was actually planning to break a world record: stunt co-ordinator Gary Powell later admitted that he was only expecting the car to flip over four or five times at most, and was surprised to achieve seven rolls.
Kirley, who emerged from the stunt uninjured (it’s tempting to say he was “shaken not stirred”), described the experience as: “a fairly violent sort of ride”.
6. The Blues Brothers
John Landis’s The Blues Brothers is notorious for its car stunts, from the bridge jump, to the massive pile-up of police cars, to the Bluesmobile running rampage through a shopping centre. Impressively, all of the stunts in the film were carried out “for real”: more than 40 stunt drivers were hired, and the filmmakers managed to set a new world record by destroying 103 cars when making the film. (The record is now held by Transformers: Dark of The Moon, in which Michael Bay – who else? – smashed up a total of 532 cars.)
To carry out the shopping centre stunt, the filmmakers used a real abandoned mall just south of Chicago: the Dixie Square Shopping Centre. After employing extras to act as shoppers, and sprucing up a few key areas to make it appear as if the centre was still in use, they were then able to completely, absolutely wreck it. According to a local resident, in a post on the website Jalopnik, the abandoned shopping centre remained decrepit for years afterwards, and became “a heavy crime magnet, with gang activity and vandalism taking over”. It was finally destroyed in 2012.
Remarkably no one was seriously injured during any of The Blues Brothers’s stunts. However, things didn’t go quite so well during the making of the film’s 1998 sequel, Blues Brothers 2000. Stuntman Bob Minor sustained serious head injuries while filming a crash scene for the film, and one unfortunate crew member had to undergo a leg amputation, after a car rolled on to him. According to a 1997 report, the accident occurred after the filmmakers called a towing company to remove an old car from a river (one of their stunts involved a car going into the same river). As the old car was being removed it fell, injuring a set co-ordinator (who later underwent the amputation) and a stuntman.
Sadly, last year, two of the stuntmen to work on The Blues Brothers, Bob Orrison, 86, and Gary McLarty, 76, were killed in California in what the press described as an “ordinary” car crash.
7. Fast and Furious 6
Strictly speaking, this last offering isn’t a “car stunt”, and more of a “stunt car” – but it merits inclusion simply for being quite cool. For the sixth instalment in the Fast and Furious franchise, which was set and filmed in London, the filmmakers decided to up the destruction stakes by bringing in one of the series’ most ridiculous/brilliant inventions yet. Dubbed the “Flip Car” (for extremely good reasons), the metal beast in question featured a ramp, capable of “flipping” any vehicle driven into its path. While other films would simply have created the fearsome automobile via CGI, Fast and Furious car coordinator Dennis McCarthy opted to build the Flip Car for real, as demonstrated in the video below.
Despite its streamlined appearance, the car, which had to generate huge amounts of force, weighs in at 3900 lb: the film’s stunt drivers received special training to get them used to the vehicle. But perhaps the most impressive thing of all is that the car’s flipping mechanism actually works, and would, in theory, be fully capable of derailing a truck. Disappointingly, in the actual film, a cable and winch system was used to lift and overturn the trucks and cars in question.