The Stunt Man (1980/2001)

by David Sanjek


Riding on Eli Cross's Killer Crane


ow tall was King Kong?” When the flamboyant film director Eli Cross (Peter O’Toole) poses this question to the wary Cameron (Steve Railsback), the two of them are perched high above the ground on the director’s hydraulic camera crane. The literal answer to Cross’s query is simple: three feet six inches. His reasons for posing the question, however, are less straightforward.

cover art

The Stunt Man

Director: Richard Rush
Cast: Peter O'Toole, Steve Railsback, Barbara Hershey

(Mel Simon Productions)

Richard Rush’s edgy, adventurous, and frequently hilarious 1980 feature, The Stunt Man, is, on its surface, about the making of a motion picture. It therefore concerns itself with the creation of illusions. By reminding Cameron, a novice in the trade, that special effects can convince an audience that King Kong is colossal, Cross draws the young man’s attention to the malleability of perception and how filmmakers can make viewers believe the impossible. “If God could do the tricks that we can do, he’d be a happy man,” Cross tells his wide-eyed colleague. Before The Stunt Man is over, both Cross and Cameron will pull any number of rabbits out of their respective hats. Likewise, Rush will dazzle us time and again with his ability to manipulate the cinematic apparatus.

As the picture begins, Cameron is on the run for reasons at first unknown to us, but eventually revealed in all their paradoxical glory. While on the road, he chances upon the director’s rag-tag ensemble of talent and technicians at work on an anti-war epic set during WWI. Even before he meets the charismatic moviemaker face to face, Cameron experiences how the lines between fantasy and reality can be blurred. In the middle of nowhere, his attempt to thumb a ride from a passing Dusenberg results in the agitated driver attempting to run him down. When Cameron tosses an object at the fleeing car in self-defense, the vintage vehicle plunges off the side of a bridge, drowning the driver, who turns out to be Lucky, a stunt man connected to Cross’s picture. After this startling sequence of events, Cameron assumes that he is the cause of the crash. But what really happened soon becomes as unclear as the motives for Lucky’s attempt to run over Cameron.

Suddenly without a stunt man, Cross hires Cameron, and in the bargain offers him a convenient hiding place from the seemingly omnipresent police. All Cameron must do is abandon his identity. Cross tells him, “You shall be a stuntman who is an actor who is a character in a movie who is an enemy soldier. Who’ll look for you amongst all those roles?” The director goes on to compare the milieu of a movie set to Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland, advising Cameron to have faith, to relax, and to immerse himself in the illusions that filmmaking requires. But Cameron is rarely able to relax once he joins the crew, as one after another catastrophe occurs: planes crash, safety devices malfunction, and well-planned stunts led to unexpected snafus.

Though Cross initially wishes only to replace his dead stuntman, something about the wild-eyed fugitive captivates the filmmaker, who hopes that his presence on the set will enhance his WWI epic. Cameron’s status as a Vietnam war veteran persuades Cross that he not only knows something about the “authentic stench” of warfare, but also that he understands why a soldier will do anything to make his way home. Cross turns Cameron over to the film’s stunt coordinator, Chuck (Chuck Bail), and soon thereafter, Cameron finds himself racing across the roof of a hotel as biplanes zoom overhead, bombs drop, machine guns fire, and soldiers chase him.

With all this going on, While Cameron also finds himself attracted to the film’s female lead, Nina Franklin (Barbara Hershey). But he is equally if not more demonstrably beguiled by Cross. Unable to decide if the manipulative director wishes to record his demise while performing some dangerous stunt, Cameron oscillates between regarding Cross as either homicidal or simply enigmatic. This holds true up until the climax when the car crash off the bridge must be re-shot.

Although words can readily convey the plot and themes of The Stunt Man, they cannot easily translate its unrelenting kinetic energy. As an action flick, The Stunt Man stands in a class of its own, for Rush shoots physical behavior with a panache and vigor that few directors can match. No matter how many times one watches the picture, a number of the sequences maintain a kind of kamikaze bravado, for example, Cameron’s tap dance on the wings of a bi-plane. Every frame is replete with verbal, physical or visual stimuli. In this regard, one might be inclined to dismiss The Stunt Man as merely a crowd-pleasing popcorn movie, but Rush also has a unique ability to visualize his story’s underlying metaphors.

Much of The Stunt Man is a calculated rumination on point of view, the fluidity of human identity, and the indistinct boundaries between reality and illusion, of which Cameron’s mutability provides but one illustration. Cross’s staging of the horrors of war provides another. Take, for example, the scene when Cameron dashes frenetically across a roof. At one point, we see a gash on his face from after being hit with a rifle butt. At the end of the nerve-wracking melee, the prosthesis is removed from his face, showing how the wound was false, planned all along. Whether subjectively, in terms of Cameron’s multiple identities, or more objectively, in terms of physical “reality,” it’s hard to be sure where fantasy ends and real life begins.

As engaging as The Stunt Man is, the story of how it was made turns out to be a sequence of dilemmas nearly as insurmountable as those encountered by Cross and Cameron. Rush found the material in the early 1970s, but was unable to convince a major studio to back it, despite having directed several commercially successful pictures, including Hell’s Angels On Wheels, Getting Straight, and Freebie and the Bean. Eventually, he secured independent financing, only to have those individuals stymie his efforts to market the film through festivals and advance screenings for critics. The Stunt Man was shelved until industry word of mouth helped liberate it. When finally released, it went on to win numerous film festival awards and multiple Academy Award nominations.

Anchor Bay’s packaging of the film comes with two options. One can either purchase the film alone or in tandem with a 110-minute, new documentary by Rush entitled The Sinister Saga of the Making of ‘The Stunt Man’. For some people, the stories told on the commentary track (on the first option) will suffice, while devotees will also covet the ancillary material. One must add, however, that a little bit of Rush commenting on his own work goes a long way. His enthusiasm can grow wearisome, even though the hurdles he had to face are both comic and catastrophic in the telling.

Unlike many “classic” films, time has not diminished the festive quality of The Stunt Man. Hearing the actors and technicians in the documentary talk about their camaraderie throughout the production comes as little surprise; to a one, they all express real pleasure in the making of movies, even movies as problem-plagued as this one. In the end, both the Cross and Rush seem to understand that, however transitory and traumatic life might be, it is possible to coexist with the chaos and, as Cross advises Cameron in the final scene, to “be lucky.”

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