It’s not every day that one of our phone calls is interrupted by a knight of the realm. But then, it’s not every day we get to chat with someone who was not only Indiana Jones, but James Bond and Superman.
OK, so Vic Armstrong isn’t Harrison Ford, Sean Connery or Christopher Reeve, but as one of Hollywood’s leading stuntmen from the 60s to the 90s, he can tell a few tales about some of the greatest films ever made.
Today, ahead of the imminent Blu-ray release of Indiana Jones: The Complete Adventures he’s on the other line to talk all things Indiana, Harrison Ford and the golden age of Hollywood.
Oh, and the recent recipient of the honours system? One Kenneth Branagh who no doubt wanted Vic’s wise words with regards to co-ordinating some stunt or another. But naturally, Vic wanted to finish talking turkey with us first…
What’s the most dangerous stunt that Harrison Ford wanted to do himself?
Nearly every single one. I had to stop him from doing them – he wanted to do them all. I recall one particular time when we were on the top of a cliff and Indiana was about to jump onto a horse – Harrison was adamant he was going to do it. I had to take him behind a cliff and call his bluff: I told him that he was on good money anyway, and that I was on fairly good money, but that if he kept on doing all the stunts I wouldn’t get paid. That wasn’t the case, but he fell for it. He was so apologetic, he kept saying, ‘I’m such an ass!’
Was Harrison scared of snakes in real life?
No, I don’t think so.
What was the most dangerous stunt from the whole series?
Being dragged under the truck in Raiders of the Lost Ark was a good one. I was one of the Germans clinging onto the back of the truck. But most of the stunts have their moments – there were plenty of knocks and bangs. It was all about breaking them down beforehand, being as prepared as we could be.
Have you ever been involved with any of the abandoned Indy movies?
No, but I was involved in The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. What happened was I was shooting some footage for George as research. After he saw it I got a call from George saying that Steven (Spielberg) was busy and would I like to direct an episode. I took all of two seconds to decide. It was great, we shot it in Prague and I hooked up with some old friends including Joss Ackland and Christopher Lee. In fact, Christopher Lee credits me with giving his career a new lease of life after filming him in this episode (entitled Austria – it was the premiere episode of season two of Young Indiana Jones). From there George cast him in the Star Wars prequels and from there he starred in The Lord of the Rings.
Do you think Harrison would still be in good enough shape for a fifth Indy movie?
Absolutely. I saw him last year when he presented me with an award and he still looks really fit. He seems to defy age. He’s actually older than me, but he’s in such good shape. I don’t how he keeps so slim, because he’s not working out all the time. Having a young child around probably!
Did any of the stunts ever go wrong?
The worst ones went wrong after the filming had finished. There was a particular incident in The Last Crusade. Indiana was fighting on the top of a tank, beating the shit out of a German commander, inside Sean (Connery) fires a cannon. It sets off this big fireball. Everyone managed to keep their head down, but a truck is upside down on fire. I manage to jump off the truck but I got my foot caught underneath the tank. They wanted to send me home for surgery, but I refused. There was only some riding to be filmed after that so I hobbled my way through it. I had to be helped onto the horse though.
Who else have you worked as a double for?
Oh, Sean Connery and Roger Moore on the Bond movies, Gregory Peck, Donald Sutherland, Jon Voight, George C Scott... Christopher Reeve in the first two Superman films.
How did you get into the stuntman business?
My background is as a horseman. I wanted to be a jockey when I was younger, but I was too big. My first job was on the Gregory Peck film Arabesque, they wanted someone who could ride horses, and so I got the call. I was paid £20 a day (1966) and I was seduced. There were only 15 to 20 stuntmen in the UK at the time, so I was soon working regularly.
Did you get pigeonholed as Harrison’s guy? Is it like being typecast?
The Indiana Jones films are definitely the ones I’m known best for, and that’s even after working on Bond films and Superman. It is a small business that I work in and its very incestuous, but I’m more than happy to be known for the Indiana movies – they make me very proud. I think that original trilogy is the best trilogy out there. It was a very special time. Lots of things just came together – Lucas, Spielberg, Ford, obviously. I was at the peak of my physical career. I was still young enough to be really fit, but I was experienced enough to know what worked and what didn’t.
What was the funniest thing that ever happened on the set of an Indy movie?
Most of the funniest things happened after work. There was one incident in The Temple of Doom, when Willie (Kate Capshaw) and Short Round (Jonathan Ke Quan) and I were about to film the mine cart chase scene. It was unbelievably hot in that cave and everyone was sweating their nuts off. Anyway Kate called out for some ice cream. When it came she told us to smear it all over our faces so that when it came to us having our close ups we’d be dripping in it. Everyone was in stitches. Steven obviously saw the funny side as it was Kate’s idea (Spielberg and Capshaw fell in love on set). We had a lot of laughs on those films.
What’s the most memorable stunt from the series?
Jumping from the horse onto the tank – without question. Obviously because of my background with horses, and because of the degree of difficulty involved. That stunt will definitely outlast me; it’s the one people always ask me about.
How much input did you have in the stunts?
Lots. They were a collaborative process. In the beginning the stunts were always storyboarded so I knew what Steven envisaged and what the thread of the stunt was meant to be. But we always talked about it. Harrison was very good at coming up with suggestions, so there was spontaneity involved too. There was freedom to expand upon what was initially written down.
What’s your take on CGI and how has it affected stunts?
Well, when used correctly, and sparingly, it’s a brilliant tool. But it can be overdone, and then you might as well just be watching a cartoon. That’s what was so great about the Indiana movies, it was before the CGI revolution, so no one second-guesses the stunts. These days people presume all stunts have some element of CGI involved. The Indiana films were the real thing. It was just before modern technology came and bulldozed over everything. They were between the ancient and the modern world.
What films should stuntman aficionados watch?
The Bournes are really good. Ong Bak is fantastic – the best ones actually are the more obscure, foreign films because they don’t have the budget or access to as much technology. They’re more creative; they have to rely on talent and ingenuity. Ong Bak is a great example of this.
How has Hollywood changed over the years?
It’s become much more corporate. In the old days, a mogul or producer would give you say $20 million dollars and tell you to make a movie. You’d go to a foreign location or whatever and get on with it. There was little or no communication, so the filmmakers had breathing space. Today because of the advent of mass communication people want instant answers to questions. This leads to knee-jerk reactions, people don’t have time to think about their responses. This is to the detriment of filmmaking. I still think if employ someone or a team to make a film you should trust their vision, their talent. That’s why the 80s, when we made all the Indiana Jones movies were the best time.
What’s the most important bit of advice you can give to aspiring stuntmen?
Hone your skills. Don’t be a Jack-of-all-trades; whatever discipline or talent you excel in be the best you can. It’s a career, so treat it seriously. Oh, and be a team player.
(Images: All Star, Rex Features)
Indiana Jones: The Complete Adventures is out on Blu-ray now