“My first film was The Dirty Dozen and I didn’t know sh*t from toothpaste.”
From plucky mod-boys, ex-wrestlers, lucky timings, East-End geezers with West-End ambitions , loyal colleagues, war heroes and local legends, Hollywood Bulldogs – The Rise and Falls of the Great British Stuntmen is a gloriously cut, slickly narrated and choreographed leap through the legitimization, old-school craft and infamous dynasties of Britain’s finest stuntmen. From the directorial command of Jon Spira (Elstree 1976) comes a richly stitched swallow-dive and tumble into the mindsets and working lives of some of the best heroes and professionals of the British film scene.
As the 007 movies and the British TV shows of the 1960s really pushed an action narrative and created a hunger for onscreen physicality, the ‘extras’ who could take a punch began to get more work, more status and more respect. As EON Productions, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and the Salkind’s Superman franchise took a hold of the British studio sector, a great deal of happenstance and luck began to give stunt work to the names rising up the stunt ranks. What began as taking a spin for the likes of The Avengers‘ Diana Rigg and Patrick Macnee soon became regular movie work around the Home Counties studio belt of Britain for the likes of Bob Simmons (Dr. No), Rocky Taylor (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), Greg Powell (Harry Potter) and Vic Armstrong (The World is Not Enough). And for many of the veterans on hand here, they were never the first in their family. The dynastic nature of the stunt industry is caringly evoked and underlines those families, names and lineages who still invest their talents in the British film and television industries today.
“It wasn’t a stunt business like it is now.”
As the older guard of stuntmen would help the youngsters beneath them learn a trade – as much as the many fearful men who did not like the new kids coming in would not be so helpful – Hollywood Bulldogs traces the industry changes from Richard Todd matinees of the 1950s to the rise of Lucas and Spielberg in the 1980s, the wire work, the visual effects, the elaborate production designs, the difficult location work and the new era CGI and green screens. As the seniors and stunt spokesmen finally examined their working conditions, pay and contracts, here Jon Spira delves into the burgeoning politics of those glory stunt days, the necessary ‘cartels’ that lent them all stability and career momentum, some of the jaw-dropping dangers (a particular Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom bridge fight was achieved via some truly white-knuckle drama) and does not pull any of its punches when it comes to the physical and working reality for these guys. Deaths can happen, injuries are commonplace (sometimes) and knowing when to quit is the hardest moment to plan for.
Unlike Spira’s Elstree 1976 (2015) which looks at the histories and personalities of our big movies bit-part players who ride those former coat-tails for – possibly – larger glories and fame than was warranted, Bulldogs is the flip of that. This is about the men, pals and buddies of Cary Grant, Sean Connery, Harrison Ford and Christopher Reeve – the bruisers, horse riders and crash-mat knights who would often proved their mettle accidentally and still find themselves in the same work forty years later. The likes of Alfred Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg, Cary Grant and John Wayne are all merely extras here to the boys who started out as overlooked, underappreciated extras.
“I missed the kids because I was travelling a lot”.
Some big movie names do not make end credits as heroes. And if anyone knows what a Hollywood name is actually like, it is the stuntmen who are always the first to work out the decency of an artist on set. One life-changing incident involving Rocky Taylor is truly foul and predicated on all levels of wrong.
This is a glorious trawl through the likes of Flash Gordon, Licence to Kill, Krull, Octopussy, For Your Eyes Only, Zulu, Never Say Never Again, Superman III, Live and Let Die, Superman II, Batman, First Knight, The Avengers, Hitchcock, North by Northwest, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, The Long Good Friday and much more. With a modish swagger, insightful editing and a cracking sense of visual play, Hollywood Bulldogs brilliantly captures the personalities, histories and of a different time of masculinity, movies and guile. Spira has cleverly captured the reality of making movies, the politics of bad boys, the family sacrifices that cut deeper than a fall, the back-stabbing and those that made all our onscreen heroes better. It celebrates how Bond is “the holy grail” for British stunt-folk, it understands the loyalties of these guys that literally continues to save their lives and it gets how for all involved how making movies is a job, a calling and way of life. With a cracking, bang-on narration from Ray Winstone beautifully matching the souls and working-class swagger of the men onscreen and a brilliantly blokey opening title hurrah, Hollywood Bulldogs needs no crash mat. It totally soars and hits all its marks.
Hollywood Bulldogs – The Rise and Falls of the Great British Stuntmen is now streaming on BritBox for UK viewers and will be released on various platforms and home media.