Story: Vic Armstrong
What They Say
He’s been a stunt double for James Bond, Indiana Jones and Superman, and he’s directed action scenes for three Bond movies, Mission Impossible 3, Thor, and the upcoming The Amazing Spider-Man to name but a few.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers):
When I first got assigned this book, I thought the title was rather pretentious. After all, it’s an autobiography, and the man’s calling himself “the world’s greatest stuntman.” So I messaged my stuntman friend Ian Eyre (yes, he is a stuntman, and yes, he happens to be my friend), and asked if he’d ever heard of Vic Armstrong. As it turns out, they’d both worked on Charlie’s Angels (Armstrong was the second unit director/stunt coordinator, and Ian was on the Effects crew). Ian went on to say that Armstrong really is a big deal, and that I should go to his IMDb.com page to check out his credits.
Suffice to say, they’re quite extensive. They run the gamut of low-budget never-heard-of-them-films to blockbusters such as Superman, Indiana Jones, and The Amazing Spiderman film to be released this summer. He’s also got an Oscar, a BAFTA Award, and a World Stunt Lifetime Achievement Award, all of which lends credence to the “world’s greatest stuntman” title.
In terms of the book itself, it’s rather thick, 55 chapters, plus an introduction by Steven Spielberg, a filmography, and an index. Most chapters, though, are short enough to breeze through in 5 minutes. Also interspersed throughout are remarks from celebrities such as Pierce Brosnan, Harrison Ford, Angelina Jolie, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Martin Scorsese, and various black-and-white photographs. Unfortunately, the pictures are kind of muddy; some shots are of very famous personalities, but you wouldn’t know who they were without the captions. In contrast, there are 15 pages of color photos printed on glossy stock that are much nicer to look at.
The book’s tone throughout is casual, not unlike that of an older man sharing his exploits at the local pub. As such, the text includes quite a bit of cussing (though they’re generally quotes) as well as grammatical errors. You’re also never quite sure when anything takes place because Armstrong doesn’t provide many specific dates. I should mention that Armstrong is British, and the book was printed in the UK, meaning that British slang and terms are used throughout. On top of the British English, Armstrong uses a lot of film jargon, and there’s no glossary. So if you’re not familiar with terms such as dailies, AD, and second unit, you’ll be looking them up.
Like most autobiographies, he begins with his early life, which, though it has more to do with the equestrian world than film, is fairly remarkable in of itself. Son of Robert Armstrong, farrier (blacksmith) to the British Olympic team from 1948 to 1964, Vic Armstrong was born in the British countryside, but his childhood included a brief stint in Kenya at the time of the Mau Mau uprising. Horses feature largely in his upbringing, and Armstrong likely would’ve been a jockey if he’d been shorter. However, his ability to ride was his ticket into film. He mentions that although stuntmen are expected to perform a range of stunts, each usually has some specialty that got him into the business, and for Armstrong, it was horses.
The book then moves on his stunt career, which can be divided into three general parts: his early days struggling to break into film; his prime stuntman roles where he doubled actors such as Harrison Ford and Christopher Reeve; and his second unit director work. Because he’s been around so long, he provides an interesting perspective on the changes in the movie business. When he first started, stuntmen were risking their lives for a pittance, and the bad old days where horses routinely got injured or killed during stunts were still fresh in memory. So part of his narrative includes how he performed a particular stunt way back when and how it would be done now. For instance, he used to do fire jobs (where they set him on fire) with Nomex underwear and asbestos; nowadays they use a nifty fire retardant/coolant called Zel Gel. Some of the most engaging parts of the book describe how they performed stunts, such as the Superman flying scenes, without the benefit of CG. In the later chapters, he writes critically about the overuse of CG. Although he does rely on CG himself, he’s adamant that there are certain stunts that cannot be replicated by computer.
Generally speaking, his descriptions of stunt work are straightforward enough for a layperson to follow, but there were a few setups, like the Piccadilly Circus crash for An American Werewolf in London, that I read several times and still didn’t understand. He also describes the conception and design of the fan descender, the device for which he won his Oscar, in great detail, but for some reason, the book doesn’t include a photo. Despite everything he wrote about the fan descender, I had no idea what the thing looked like (I wound up asking my friend Ian to draw a sketch of it for me).
There’s also quite a bit of name-dropping in the book. Armstrong’s rubbed shoulders with a host of producers, directors, and celebrities, and more pages are devoted to his anecdotes about famous and outrageous personalities than actual stunt work. In fact, there’s one chapter entitled “Mrs. Mick Jagger” solely about his brief stint as Bianca Jagger’s bodyguard and how he hung out with the Jaggers in Europe.
As much as he writes about the rich and famous, Armstrong doesn’t include much about his personal life off the set. Family members get brief mentions and only in the context of film projects. The two exceptions are his father and his sister Diana, who passed away last year. But given the fact that his brother, wife, children, and nephews are all in the film industry (and mostly the stunt business) and keep popping up in the pages shows what a huge influence his career has had on the people closest to him.
“The world’s greatest stuntman” is a big title to lay claim to, but Vic Armstrong is unarguably one of the most successful men in the business. With a career spanning nearly 50 years, he’s got a lot of crazy stories about the things he’s done on and off the set and the famous personalities he’s encountered. Though the technical and partying aspects get jumbled together, his autobiography is an entertaining read, and the nice thing is that Armstrong’s narrative runs up to the present day, including his work on The Amazing Spiderman movie coming out this summer.
Content Grade: A-
Packaging Grade: B-
Released By: Titan Books
Release Date: May 29th, 2012