Stunts in Movies

Yikes: notes on some of the stunts in movies.

Doctor Zhivago

Doctor Zhivago (1965)

Towards the end of the first half of David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago, when Zhivago and his family are making their way across Russia by train, there’s a scene in which he helps a woman to board while the train is moving.

There are rumours that the woman fell under the wheels of the train and either died or had her legs cut off. The truth isn’t quite so dramatic, although it must have been a hell of a day for all concerned.

The actress was Hungarian Lili Muráti, and it seems that there was a mix-up over what was supposed to happen: she runs alongside the train, and was meant to grab Omar Sharif’s hand. However, he grabbed hers, meaning that she couldn’t control her pace and fell, rolling under the train. She tucked into a ball and managed to avoid losing any limbs, but did have to go to hospital; however she recovered, and returned to finish filming.

The shot in the finished film is cut is rather abruptly, and could well have been the take in which she fell.


If.... (1968)

In a rare moment of escape from the oppressive boarding school in Lindsay Anderson’s If…., Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell) and Johnny (David Wood) pay a visit to the local town. In the street, they begin a pretend knife fight.

The scene was filmed from across the road, and the reactions of the passers-by are genuine. One reaction, however, was a little on the extreme side. A passing lorry driver saw the boys, and—despite the fact that they were miming, without actual knives in their hands—he thought the fight was real.

Inspired by a rather peculiar sort of civic responsibility, the man stopped his lorry, ran over to Malcolm McDowell (who appeared to be winning), and hit him on the back of the head with a hammer.

History doesn’t recall whether McDowell required medical attention, or what became of Cheltenham’s have-a-go hero, but at least they got the scene done. (Although not before accidentally capturing a reflection of the camera crew in the windows of a passing bus – see below.)

The camera crew visible in If....
The Man in the White Suit

The Man in the White Suit (1951)

When Sidney Stratton (Alec Guinness) invents a seemingly indestructible fibre in Ealing’s satire The Man in the White Suit, he soon finds himself on the run from capitalists and workers alike. Finding himself locked in the attic of one of the factory owner’s houses, he makes his escape by lowering himself to the ground on a single strand of his special fibre.

You might think that this was done by rotating the set 90 degrees, Batman style, but you’d be wrong: this stunt was done for real, with Alec Guinness lowered down the side of the building on a length of piano wire.

He was none to sure about this, pointing out that out that the wire, normally strong, would break easily if it had a kink in it, quoting his naval training, and requesting something a bit tougher for what would be a considerable descent. His protests were ignored, the wire attached to his belt, and they began lowering him down the side of the building…

… the wire did break, although not until almost the end of the shot, and one of Britain’s finest actors plummeted the last four feet to the ground.

“No one apologised,” he remembers in his autobiography, Blessings in Disguise. “They rarely do in films.”

Strangers on a Train

Strangers on a Train (1951)

At the climax of Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, there’s a frenetic fight that takes place on an out-of-control fairground carousel (or merry-go-round, if you’re British like Hitchcock).

Although most of the scene was shot in a studio using rear projection and sometimes miniatures, there was one stunt that was done for real: the old man who crawls under the carousel in order to try to turn it off.

There are a lot of rumours about this scene: that the actor was a randomly selected extra, that Hitchcock had nightmares for the rest of his life, and so on. Here’s what Hitchcock actually said about the scene, taken from an interview with film historian Peter Bogdanovich, which appears as a commentary on some versions of the DVD:

AH: The most dangerous thing I ever did in that picture, when the little man crawled underneath. That was actual.

PB: That was for real? How did you get the shot?

AH: I had a camera shooting underneath the merry-go-round – the real one – and my hands sweat now, when I think of it.

Not quite the life-long trauma for Hitch that it’s sometimes made out to be, but still pretty hairy, a great cinematic moment nonetheless.