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The Art of the Stunt


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Can you think of anyone else like Buster Keaton? I can't... Douglas Fairbanks did some amazing stunts, too; however, his movies, like most swashbucklers, too often got bogged down in hum-drum romantic plot lines and lost sight of what, IMO, such movies should really be about, (the worst thing that can happen to an action/adventure type movie is it getting boring.) I appreciate a good fight scene, too, and have always intended to get more into martial arts movies because the choreography is frequently so creative and spectacular. I guess that is possible because there are so many real athletes who are cast in them who can handle the craziest stunts you can devise. In order to get really far-out with your stunts you need an actor who is capable of doing it himself. Inserted stunt men take too much preparation and editing to hide them, and the stunts become very presentational and lose spontaneity. Of course no one wanted to accidentally kill their leading man... no wonder I can think of so few great examples!

Ah yes, there's never been anyone like Buster Keaton. Since he had creative control over his own movies (for a while) he was only putting his own neck on the line, and the stunts he devised were some of the craziest! His movies elevated the lowly stunt to such epic, glorious Rube Goldberg-esque levels of conceptual grandeur that no one but he has ever envisioned (or had the cojones to execute) anything like them! Sometimes I can't even laugh because my jaw is sitting there on the floor! Dang! I'm not saying everyone should go get hospitalized trying to rip off Buster... but I am saying there are disappointingly few instances of athletic showmanship being given the devotion and craftsmanship it so often demands. Physical stunts can be so much more than just fight scenes and dance numbers...

Take that as a request! Got any great stunts for me? (Fight scenes and maybe even dance numbers are permitted, if they are great.)

Oh wait, I should add a picture.... uh, this one is cool, (kinda big tho...)



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One of the best possible people, in theory, to ever be a swashbuckler star was Burt Lancaster, and his contributions to the genre should have been great. He only made two: The Crimson Pirate (1952) (which TBH I haven't seen in quite a while) and The Flame and the Arrow (1950), but unfortunately it looked like most of the stunts were recycled from his time in the circus. They were impressive and showed off how incredibly strong he was (like the "human flag" routine) but were not really idiosyncratic to the movies themselves. Instead of working within the film they sorta seemed inserted sideways. They really could have used more inspired choreography... Such as it is, I regard Burt Lancaster as a hugely missed opportunity in this field. What potential!


There is one little isolated instance I have in mind of really creative and entertaining stunt work in a post-Fairbanks swashbuckler, and one too often maligned. The Three Musketeers (1948) was not a perfect movie; it was overlong and rather tedious at times, (and the musketeers themselves looked like Easter eggs) but I found Gene Kelly's enthusiasm for the part quite infectious. Like Burt Lancaster, Gene was physically overqualified for the genre, but his idolatry of Fairbanks and experience with choreography seemed to cause him to aim higher with his stunt work, most of which he did himself, (would studios ever allow their stars to do it all?) And maybe the fight scenes did end up looking a lot like dance numbers, but so what- they were fun to watch, as were all the spontaneous heroic leaps into action. One stunt I loved was when he makes this long jump across a rooftop, elegant as can be, slips on the other side and starts to roll down, then catches himself on the very edge of the roof, pulls himself back up and carries on like it was nothing. I wish I could find it as a GIF! The stunts in this movie are so athletic and flamboyant that for that reason alone it is a stand-out example of the genre for me.


As a matter of fact it was actually this movie that got me into swashbucklers altogether. Before I saw this there wasn't anything about them I found the least bit intriguing. I don't know if they are supposed to be romantic, or fantasy, or what, but normally I find them very bland... unfortunately this more action-y side of the genre I desire seems to be the exception to the rule, and has seldom been very fully "realized." Even the Fairbanks films... The Black Pirate (1926) was the most perfect swashbuckler I ever saw, for the first 15 minutes or so.* It tantalizes me with dazzling action and then it lets me down! (Am I being too picky?)

(*Edit: Okay, watching it on YT it actually is more like 35 minutes- it's one third great.;))

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