10 great films about stunt people

What could go wrong? Ahead of the release of the new Ryan Gosling action comedy The Fall Guy, we look at movies that put stunt people centre stage – from Drive to Once upon a Time in Hollywood.

The Fall Guy (2024)Universal Pictures

The fact that few films have stunt performers as their protagonists might seem an unfair lot for cinema’s unsung heroes – those men and women who put their bodies on the line but whose faces are never seen. Many of the movies that do are often about mistaken or assumed identities, which seems fitting: a lifetime of professional experience playing someone else allows them to seamlessly slip into another pair of shoes offscreen too. 

This recurring theme, however, also points to how interchangeable and disposable these professionals are seen as. While they get the scuffles and scars, the lead actors get the close-ups and cultural cachet. Films about stunt people often double up as films about film – testaments to skilful editing and ‘movie magic’ but also to the pitfalls of a profession in which the director isn’t as concerned with whether a stuntman breaks his neck as he is with whether the camera’s running when it happens.

For some stunt people, the profession offers a path to redemption, the chance to achieve greatness with the next big cinematic set piece. And then there are those for whom it’s all in a day’s work, but find over time that their bodies simply can’t keep up.

Ahead of the release of David Leitch’s action comedy The Fall Guy – starring Ryan Gosling in his third turn as a stunt performer, following Drive (2011) and The Place Beyond the Pines (2012) – we look back at films in which fictional stunt people found themselves stepping into the leading role.

The Fall Guy is in cinemas, including BFI IMAX, from 2 May.

The Lost Squadron (1932)

Director: George Archainbaud

The Lost Squadron (1932)

Former-soldiers-turned-stuntmen are a recurring theme in the movies – men who return from war to find themselves in financial ruin, lacking employment opportunities and immediately attracted to the prospect of big paydays as doubles on film sets. These films highlight the irony of men who are shipped off to make their country safer and yet return to find their worlds completely destabilised. The trio of The Lost Squadron, having fallen on hard times following the First World War, begin working as stunt fliers for a movie.

Their stunts are staged with frightening believability, with planes careening out of control and hurtling towards the ground. The Lost Squadron also skilfully paints a picture of the terror a stuntman must experience each time he straps himself in, depicting all that could cause a stunt to go horribly wrong – a flyer’s impaired judgment, an aircraft’s faulty equipment, and, most terrifying of all, intentional sabotage.

The Last Movie (1971)

Director: Dennis Hopper

The Last Movie (1971)

Dennis Hopper’s second film as director, The Last Movie opens with the setting up of a fake church right next to a real one – a blending of real and fake that become inextricable as the movie progresses. An American crew completes the filming of their western on location in Peru and leaves, but there’s no sense of finality among the locals who become transfixed by the movie’s spell. As the locals attempt to recreate the film, their understanding of filmmaking is warped. While none of their equipment is real, the fights, blood and bruising are. An American stuntman (Dennis Hopper), used to being on the receiving end of violence, finds himself the unlikely source of inspiration for it.

The film crew, and Hopper’s character in particular, become a symbol of colonialism, of Americans who desecrate the local landscape, take advantage of the cheap land, exploit the women, weaponise their financial status against the locals, and leave behind the lingering stench of violence after their departure. Like smallpox or malaria, cinema becomes a disease the colonisers spread among the native population.

The Great Waldo Pepper (1975)

Director: George Roy Hill

The Great Waldo Pepper (1975)

In The Great Waldo Pepper, Robert Redford plays a man who missed his chance at greatness but attempts to chase a legacy that never was. Having lost out on his shot at aerial combat, First World War veteran Waldo (Redford) begins working for a flying circus. Between war and aerial showmanship lies the tacit acknowledgement that death is the only way to live on in the public imagination. The circus is a business that runs on morbid curiosity. The stuntmen’s flying doesn’t sell tickets; their ability to convince the audience they’re moments away from plummeting to the ground does.

The film’s two deaths – one abrupt, one that plays out in horrifying detail – depict the unpredictability and risks of early aviation. Cockpit cameras provide a front-seat view to the dizzying effects of G-force long before the Top Gun films did. Still, the film’s most enduring scene is one of pure serenity. Waldo attempts to walk on the wing of a plane mid-air. When he does get up there alone, there’s no fear or panic, just contentment as the wind whips through his hair.

Stunt Rock (1978) 

Director: Brian Trenchard-Smith

Stunt Rock (1978)

Stuntman Grant Page plays himself in this Australian mockumentary, performing stunts such as ‘the human catapult’ and ‘death slide’, as hair-raising as they sound. He’s perpetually unfazed, which is precisely why studios hire him, squeezing as much mileage as they can from his unwillingness to walk away from the riskier set pieces. Through several drawn-out, stomach-lurching sequences, however, the film undercuts Page’s insouciance by depicting just how dangerous his work is. Scenes of him nonchalantly climbing out his hospital bedroom and down the building after a stunt gone wrong share space with stories of concussions and burns.

Director Brian Trenchard-Smith creates a sense of reverence for the craft of stunt performers. He also amplifies the effect of the stunts through his use of split screen – there’s no corner you can avert your eyes from Page’s fall off a 70-foot-high cliff, backwards and on fire. The film intersperses his stunts with performances from the rock band Sorcery, who set objects alight, levitate and perform hypnosis. Through this parallel, is Trenchard-Smith saying that stunts are their own form of magic? He makes it hard to disagree.

Hooper (1978)

Director: Hal Needham

Hooper (1978)

Hooper’s opening scene wouldn’t seem out of place in a superhero movie – the protagonist suiting up, slipping on his boots, jacket and helmet; only he puts on various layers of padding first. And, at least initially, he is heroic, shot in slow-mo as he slides his motorcycle under a truck. It isn’t long, however, before his aches and pains from years of stunt work reveal him as distinctly human, as does his reliance on pills.

Hooper’s (Burt Reynolds) repeated refusal to see a doctor is a refusal to confront his own mortality. In one wordless scene, clad in only briefs, he walks over to his bedroom window in the middle of the night, careful not to wake his girlfriend. He sucks in his stomach and puffs out his chest, then pulls at the flab around his waist. For all the running, leaping and diving, he still can’t outpace old age. And it creeps up on him when a younger, more talented stuntman shows up. “Movies are pieces of time we capture,” says his director. And the film asks: what happens when that time passes you by?

The Stunt Man (1980)

Director: Richard Rush

The Stunt Man (1980)

Early in The Stunt Man, the camera pans over the set of a war film during a stunt that appears to have gone terribly wrong. The men’s limbs have been blown off, their entrails strewn. Gathering crowds scream in terror. Then, one of the stuntmen begins groping around for his decapitated ‘head’, revealing his real one hidden under the sand. The film, illustrating the magic of the movies in this scene, gradually comes to depict the indignities and pettiness of showbiz.

Cameron (Steve Railsback), a fugitive on the run, stumbles on to the set and finds work as a stuntman, revealing filmmaking as an exploitative industry in which stunt performers are easily replaceable and callous directors will stop at nothing for the perfect shot. By the end, the blinking red eye of the camera feels like a portent of doom. The risks that stunt people take give the movie a chance to reflect on questions of mortality. Some characters argue that for those who court death, chasing the thrill of a well-executed stunt is a worthwhile use of the little time they have. And capturing it on film – well, how better to be immortalised?

The Fall (2006)

Directors: Tarsem Singh

The Fall (2006)

An ode to the power of storytelling and to cinema itself, The Fall follows stuntman Roy Walker (Lee Pace), whose mind conjures up tales of vivid imagination even as his body lays broken in a hospital bed. Even in fantasy, there is no respite. Walker’s yarn is one of defeat, vengeance, violence and loss, even if its eccentric characters enthral his fellow patient, a young girl (Catinca Untaru).

Unable to move and nursing a broken heart, the narrative is the sole thing Walker has control over, and he uses its charms to exert a final burst of willpower, influencing the girl to fetch him a bottle of pills he plans to overdose on. When his attempt fails, the climax of his story becomes a tussle between her childish innocence and his existential despair, each pulling the tale in different directions. In making the protagonist mirror his ugliest flaws, Walker has brought his pain to the story; now, he finds redemption in it. In accepting the girl’s tear-streaked pleas to keep his protagonist alive, he grants himself permission to live.

Death Proof (2007)

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Death Proof (2007)

Quentin Tarantino’s slasher follows a serial-killer stuntman whose propensity for violence bleeds over into his offscreen life. Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) drives a reinforced car he calls ‘death proof’, eventually revealed to be a death trap for any woman trusting enough to get into the passenger side. And why wouldn’t they? Despite his undeniably creepy aura, Mike has a practised way of putting women at ease, knowing exactly how to disarm them and answer their questions plausibly enough. Then, when he’s had enough of assuaging their fears, he switches to sadistically stoking them.

The film’s camera is as predatory as its male characters, lingering on women’s tight clothing and the vast expanse of skin, marking them as vulnerable targets of Mike’s violence. The stuntman is a terrifying presence, his absence only building anxiety about the idea that he might be lurking just out of sight. One of Tarantino’s most satisfying endings, however, also features an ingenious stroke of casting – it’s real-life stuntwoman Zoë Bell who finally beats Mike at his own game.

Drive (2011)

Director: Nicolas Winding Refn

Drive (2011)

The revelation that Drive’s unnamed protagonist (Ryan Gosling) is a stuntman comes as a startling sight, a great visual gag. The film opens with him driving the getaway car for two thieves, deftly snaking his way through streets, evading the police in hot pursuit, flooring it and easing up with impeccable timing before finally losing them. Then, it cuts to a shot of him in a cop uniform.

Doubling for actors is a day job he makes sound routine, despite the impressive car stunts it involves. He’s long schooled his features into an impassive mask, which is what makes his soft-spoken threats of violence so fearsome. It’s also what makes his gradual shy smiles so endearing when he falls in love with his neighbour (Carey Mulligan). Drive is a film about fleeting moments of tenderness in a world consumed by violence. By the end, a getaway driver with a preternatural gift for fleeing sticky situations willingly walks into one. That’s the cost of human connection.

Once upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood (2019)

Tarantino’s ninth feature follows ageing actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), afraid of fading out of the limelight, and his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), used to living in his shadow. Booth doubles up as Dalton’s driver, errand boy and, occasionally, a shoulder to cry on.

When members of the Manson cult break into the actor’s home, it’s Booth who makes quick work of them, displaying the kind of heroism Dalton can only experience vicariously through the characters he plays. By the end, however, it’s the actor who is granted a golden ticket to Roman Polanski’s mansion to the recount the night’s events as an injured Booth is carted off to the hospital, alone. It’s a familiar story for stuntmen – all of the work, and none of the glory.