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The True Adventures of the World’s Greatest Stuntman

Review by Iain
Titan Books RRP £18.99 available now

Reviewing an autobiography is quite tricky. There’s no plot to talk about, no imagination of characters, no cliff hangers or ‘what next’ moments, just an account of someone’s life. How that life is portrayed is of course the hardest part of writing such a book, something that several ‘authors’ have done a particularly bad job of in recent years. The biggest worry I had before reading Vic Armstrong’s effort was the amount of name dropping that could have crowded everything, and how it could quite easily take the route that Simon Pegg’s autobiography did and end up sounding a bit smug in places. Armstrong, one of the most successful and well known stuntmen in the business, has worked on films with the likes of Sean Connery, Harrison Ford and George Lucas and was probably at the centre of any cool film stunt you’ve seen in the past 40 years.

And yet, despite the huge numbers of insanely famous people that Armstrong has worked with since his time as a stuntman and stunt co-ordinator, he never – not even once – makes out that he deserved his success and everything happened because of how great he was. Instead, we get an account of a huge career that grew through a series of hugely lucky coincidences and happy accidents which just so happened to compliment massive amounts of skill on his part. It’s very clear that the skill he had with horses contributed substantially to his success, but so much of his early work came as a result of being in the right place at the right time, or another stuntman injuring himself and needing a quick replacement. It also quickly became clear that a good looking CV was every bit as important, probably more so, than the stunts themselves and getting the good films was (and still is) the key to opening up more decent work.

Evidence of this comes in an early recount of his work on a little known film called Figures where he had to fall out of a helicopter onto the side of a mountain with no padding, safety equipment or padding. It went as well as could be expected but was insanely dangerous, yet as the film flopped at the box office nobody really cared about the stunt itself. The fact he’d done such a mental piece of work and did something nobody else at the time would’ve done counted for nothing as the film wasn’t much of a success.

Each of the stories Armstrong tells – and there are plenty of them over the course of the 300-odd pages – are peppered with colourful characters, painful injuries and eye-widening accounts of the stunts that either he himself or someone on his team had to perform. Reading about how he virtually saved the filming of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and made Return of the Jedi far easier to film by easing the burden of Harrison Ford’s wonky back (and carrying out some of the more awkward moments that Ford was unable to complete) is undeniably fascinating and contributes to a series of almost unbelievable events which make you realise just how vital the role of a stuntman really is.

There’s also a series of rare and interesting photos through the book (the photo that accompanies the previously mentioned helicopter stunt emphasises perfectly just how mental it was) which are well selected and used at suitable points. They’re not space fillers, nor are they over-used and intrusive, just in the right places at the right times. Just like Vic’s early career in fact.

Naming the book “The True Adventures of the World’s Greatest Stuntman” sounds like Vic Armstrong is a bit up himself, a bit self-loving and keen to big himself up a bit. But reading through it makes you realise that’s as far from the truth as you could be. Armstrong is humble and grateful for his career, and the titles is clearly what others have said about him as opposed to his own words. His accounts of what he’s been through, the careful and respectful memories of those who have died on the job, the focus on friendship and family all combine to one of the most surprising and well written autobiographies I’ve had the pleasure to read.

You needn’t fall off a horse at top speed, break your ribs or leap down a deep ravine to recognise the impact Vic Armstrong has had on the film industry, you just need to get a copy of this book and enjoy it as much as I did. You’ll be missing out if you don’t.

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