Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
The backstory: A significant portion of the classic truck-chase scene, which climaxes with Indiana Jones being dragged along a rocky road using his whip as a lifeline, wasn’t actually directed by Steven Spielberg, but by second-unit director Mickey Moore, with stuntman Terry Leonard taking Harrison Ford’s place.
The result: It’s one of the most beloved chase sequences in movie history, as gritty, grimy and believable as blockbuster action gets. Fans of the movie should also check out the amazing Raiders: The Adaptation, in which the film—truck chase and all—was re-created, shot-for-shot, by a band of teenage boys.
The Dark Knight (2008)
The backstory: To flip a 16-wheel semitruck 180 degrees isn’t as easy as it sounds—the filmmakers employed a remote-controlled piston sunk into the street to tip the truck over, shooting the stunt on location in Chicago’s Financial District. Amazingly, there was a driver behind the wheel the whole time, stuntman Jim Wilkey, who was well protected behind sheets of reinforced glass.
The result: A grandstanding example of modern in-camera stunt work, as the entire bulk of this vast machine smacks into Batman’s cunningly placed wire and comes slamming down in a heap of steaming, sparking rubble. Sadly, as the old song uncannily predicted, the Joker gets away.
The backstory: We’re not even sure this short film qualifies as a stunt: At 5am on a bright morning in August 1976, filmmaker and racing enthusiast Claude Lelouch drove his Mercedes-Benz 450SEL from one side of Paris to the other, reaching speeds of up to 140 mph, with a wide-angle Éclair camera mounted on the hood.
The result: Nine minutes of absolutely gobsmacking real-world stunt driving, as Lelouch clips corners, thunders through lights, and endangers pedestrians left and right. Rumors that he was arrested following this film’s first screening remain unsubstantiated, but we wouldn’t be remotely surprised.
Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol (2011)
The backstory: The most recent inclusion on this list is something of an anomaly: a big-budget blockbuster that favors practical effects over CGI trickery. And it’s particularly special when a stunt is not only real, but performed by the lead actor. Tom Cruise may have been tightly harnessed as he scaled the side of Dubai’s monumental Burj Khalifa building, but that’s really him up there.
The result: A sweaty-palm situation if ever there was one, as Tom swings and scrambles spiderlike up the glass sides of the tower. Watching the behind-the-scenes clip above, it’s extraordinary how calm he looks. The actor even reached the very top, though it was never used in the final film.
The backstory: The most innovative stuntman of his time, Yakima Canutt, was called upon to perform perhaps his most dangerous trick in this John Ford Western. Playing a marauding Native American, Canutt leaps from his horse onto the team of stallions pulling the titular wagon, is shot in the back (twice), clings on for a moment and is finally trampled beneath the horses’ hooves, not to mention the wheels of the coach.
The result: A truly impressive routine paving the way for so much modern stunt work, not least Indiana Jones’s antics in Raiders of the Lost Ark. In a lovely touch, Ford’s camera lingers on the seemingly flattened Canutt long enough to see him get up and dust himself off.
The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)
The backstory: This ludicrous but entirely real car jump in Roger Moore’s third Bond movie was conceived years before filming began. Developed by the brainiacs at Cornell University (really!) and debuted by ace stunt driver Jay Milligan in 1972, the stunt was patented by the 007 producers to ensure that Bond would be the first to perform it onscreen.
The result: The resulting trick is simply incredible, as Bond’s red AMC Hornet hits a curved ramp and spirals through 360 degrees from one side of a muddy river to the other. What a shame it was ruined by the addition of a comic slide whistle by the time the film hit theaters.
Safety Last! (1923)
The backstory: Proving that silent movies could turn out stunts as dangerous as any performed today, Safety Last! centers on a department-store worker who decides to attract business by climbing the side of the building. The wide shots were performed by stunt artist Bill Strother (who inspired the film with his real-life building climbs), with the close-ups featuring director-star Harold Lloyd, who had only a mattress to break his fall.
The result: The most famous moment comes when Lloyd, in a desperate lunge, grabs the minute hand of a clock, terrifying the onlookers below. One of the truly iconic images in silent cinema, the stunt has echoed down the ages, most notably in Back to the Future.
Police Story (1985)
The backstory: Jackie Chan executes a daring 100-foot-plus slide down a pole in the center of a shopping mall, smashing through electric lights and finally a pane of glass. What makes it so visceral is seeing Chan do this entirely without safety precautions, and visibly shuddering with pain on his way down.
The result: The stunt is repeated three times for the fullest possible effect—and possibly to compensate for the fact that Chan was left with second-degree burns and a dislocated pelvis. The actor reasons that he does all his own stunts so he can tell his grandkids, “That’s me.” Let’s hope it’s worth it, Jackie.
The backstory: The iconic chariot-race sequence in William Wyler’s swords-and-sandals epic, choreographed by legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt (see No. 6) and partly directed by the great Sergio Leone, employed 82 horses and over 1,500 extras, destroyed two cameras and took over five weeks to shoot. In the most infamous stunt, a filming car had to stay just a few feet ahead of a team of rampaging stallions, barely avoiding a deadly pileup.
The result: More than five decades on, the sequence remains one of the most fiendishly complex and impressive ever shot. The rest of the movie may not hit the same standard—how many times do we need to see Charlton Heston looking grumpy in a toga?—but this scene ensures its place in history.
Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928)
The backstory: In short, these are Buster Keaton’s most daring, dazzling few seconds onscreen. During a hurricane, the side of a house topples back on hapless Buster, the window frame missing him literally by inches. There’s no camera trickery, foreshortening or magic with mirrors here: What you see is what happened.
The result: However many times you watch it, this astonishing sight gag never gets old. What’s perhaps most shocking is that the house itself clearly has a lot of weight—this isn’t some flimsy facade, but a real, hardwood wall. The tiniest miscalculation and cinema would’ve been robbed of one of its great geniuses.
Stunts have been part of the moviegoing experience since the very beginning, and they’re one of the few aspects of motion pictures that can never get old: An amazing leap, fall or car crash is a joy forever. With barely a digitally generated special effect in sight, we take a look behind the scenes of 10 of the most eye-popping, heart-stopping practical stunts ever seen onscreen.
We polled over 50 experts in the field, from essential directors like Die Hard’s John McTiernan to the actual folks in the line of fire, such as Tarantino favorite Zoë Bell (the fearless stuntwoman behind Uma Thurman in the Kill Bill movies). The result: The 100 best action movies, a definitive look at the genre from the earliest silent classic short film of 1896's “Arrival of Train at La Ciotat” to Marvel's big-screen fighting force of 2012's The Avengers.