Empire is tucked away below ground at the London Film Museum’s Bond In Motion exhibition in Covent Garden. Surrounded by Roger Moore’s Lotus Esprit S1, Pierce Brosnan’s BMW 750L and Daniel Craig’s Aston Martin DBS we’re in the right place to receive one of cinema’s less heralded heroes: professional stuntman and action director Vic Armstrong. Politely refusing the canapés on offer, sipping from a glass of water and clad in a suit his secret agent doppelganger would be proud to wear, the man who’s spent his life cheating death turns his attention on us. Empire lines up the crosshairs, clicks play on its Q-approved Dictaphone and delves into the memory banks of one of cinema’s greatest stunt performers...
“It nearly went wrong the first time,” remembers Vic Armstrong of this daredevil swing over shark-infested water. For Bond’s eighth big-screen outing in Live And Let Die, Armstrong stepped up to the plate (or platform). “I had to do a handstand on the end and then swing and jump down,” he explains of his stunt as Roger Moore’s Bond, “but as I landed [the platform] wasn’t welded very well, so it dropped me further and I smashed my heel straight into the ground.” For all Bond’s smooth moves, getting out of life-threatening situations is anything but easy. “Thankfully they had to take it away and re-weld it, so we did it the next day. I literally couldn’t get upstairs, I had to go up with my hands and knees with my feet off the ground, because I had bruised the heels.”
Damien must have compelled Armstrong to undertake his lunatic feat in The Omen III: The Final Conflict. “It wasn’t the sort of thing you’d want to do everyday,” he understates of the 100ft freefall. “You look down and the airbag looks about as big as your phone,” he explains, pointing to the tiny smartphone on the coffee table. “You’re doing 70 mph then you hit it and stop within three foot.” There’s a special knack to falling 100ft and not dying instantly, as Armstrong points out: “If you’re not in exactly the right position, or if your arm is out, or your back bends the wrong way, you’re dead. You have to keep your knees apart otherwise you take your eyes out and break your cheekbones.” It turns out that even the film crew weren’t convinced it was the best idea as Armstrong discovered when he overheard a private radio message from assistant director Dusty Symonds. “There’s nobody in front of it, you’ve got a clear run, the doors are open and they’ve got the stretcher outside with it. We had a laugh and a joke about it. It’s funny how you get calm about it.”
One of the stuntman’s more daring escapades came at the hands (or paws) of some of George Lucas’s most renowned creations: the Ewoks. Doubling for Harrison Ford on one of many occasions, Armstrong allowed himself to be strung up by the furballs in and unceremoniously carted to a bonfire in Star Wars VI: Return of the Jedi. “Forget all the short jokes, I was terrified they wouldn’t drop me. I was trying to think if I’d said anything the day before that had pissed them off!” Luckily Armstrong made it through the perilous encounter unscathed. “It was lovely because in those days [Lucasfilm] part of the family. We’d all work together so closely and Harrison was a great buddy of mine. It was nice to have an excuse to work on a Star Wars.”
Sometimes playing Bond meant more than leaping into hazardous areas for other people, as Armstrong learned on the set of Never Say Never Again. “It was wonderful living in the south of France - Monte Carlo, casinos, motorbikes. It was fun.” But though Armstrong got a taste for the 007 lifestyle, this unofficial Bond had a very distinctive feel. “It was totally different”, he stresses. “This was a regular movie really whereas Bond has a different atmosphere. We had benchmarks to work to on that one whereas with the other [Eon-produced Bonds] you have a whole legacy behind it so you can’t screw up.” Despite its rogue status Never Say Never Again provided just as many new challenges for the performer as a ‘true’ Bond film. “I was hanging under a helicopter in a skin diving outfit on a very windy day and I nearly came a cropper because the wind blew me close to the stone wall of the well we were diving into.
Some of Armstrong’s fondest memories are from his time impersonating his “good buddy” Harrison Ford. Of all his doppelgangers, Ford was the hardest to mimic accurately - a primary concern for a stunt actor. “When you’re a stunt man you 100 per cent look at the actor,” he relates. “You look at the way they walk, the way they throw their punches, and really mimic their moves and their mannerisms.” Ford was the hardest to copy, he explains, because he’d “had some injuries over the year and he runs strangely.” The second instalment of Spielberg’s Indy franchise saw Armstrong in fisticuffs with fellow stuntman Pat Roach who played the chief guard in the evil Maharajah’s palace. Did he mind hitting his best friend? “Oh no, we punched the lights out of each other! He was more worried about hurting me than I was about hurting him I think.” Armstrong and Roach acted together in the first three Indiana Jones films, but Temple Of Doom’s rock-crushing, conveyor-belt riding extravaganza was a particular highlight. Of smashing rocks over Roach’s head, Armstrong quips: “He’s a tough old bastard. He wouldn’t cry if you chopped his foot off.”
When he wasn’t beating up his friends, jumping off bridges or traversing shark-infested waters, Armstrong was finding other ways to risk his life. In the midst of Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade the stuntman flung himself from a galloping horse on to a tank. “First time I screwed it up completely. I was like Tom and Jerry in the air running,” Armstrong recalls. “I just got there, knew I wasn’t going to make it, and panicked. I scrambled through the air and landed just the other side of the tracks so we had to do it again.” Despite the mishap, Armstrong still felt the thrill of the 18-foot leap: “It was fun. It was nice to plan it and train the horses.”
As far as perfect roles go, Indiana Jones beats Han Solo, Superman and Bond hands down. “I did love Indy,” Armstrong asserts. “I loved the clothes: dirty old trousers, leather jacket and boots. I could fall asleep anywhere and get up and not get told off by wardrobe.”
“We wrote that in 20 minutes,” Armstrong grins as he relates the origins of Pierce Brosnan’s remote-controlled escapade, one of the best car chases in Bond canon. “We were driving up to Stansted trying to work out the sequence. I brainstormed with Roger (Tomorrow Never Dies director Spottiswoode) and we came up with every one of those gags: the ins-and-outs, the seven floors of the car park, getting to the bottom then back to the top and jumping off into the [Avis office] window.” Did Armstrong, directing the stunt sequence, miss the adrenaline rush of the stunt? No, as it turns out. “It was more exciting [than performing stunts],” he stresses, “as it opens up a world of opportunities. The hardest thing is doing a car chase that’s original nowadays.” Being behind the camera allowed for a lot more creative input. “They told me to think up gadgets and I thought ‘Great!’, because Bond had been missing gadgets a bit up until then. I love coming up with the nonsense!”
When you think of Britain’s favourite spy tumbling down the canvas of The O2 Arena (aka The Millennium Dome) Albert Square doesn’t spring to mind. “I had an image of the map at the beginning of Eastenders,” Armstrong explains of the soap’s aerial shot of London’s serpentine river. “I said, ‘I’ve got a vision of cutting off this corner here’ - that’s the excuse for taking a shortcut – and that’s where it all evolved.” It was a particular challenge to keep the action exciting as “it gets boring” on water after a while and Armstrong’s soap opera inspired scenario provided some challenges. “It’s like trying to film on the M1 in the middle of rush hour,” he says of shooting on London’s biggest waterway. “It was a nightmare. The traffic is phenomenal: barges coming past that you have to give half an hour’s notice, then it’s open and you gotta shoot, then get out of the way and let them through again.” Equipped with an armada of boats, it took Armstrong nearly three weeks to put together the iconic eight minute sequence.
If filming on water was difficult, filming on frozen water was even more so. For 007’s car-skating face-off with terrorist Zao in Die Another Day, Armstrong directed a complex sequence in the shadow of Europe’s largest ice glacier. “I wanted everybody to see it - that great glacier - that was the back drop” he explains, “I wanted to get that scale and make a ballet out of it.” Beauty comes at a price however and the logistics of the scene needed to be detailed in the extreme. “You couldn’t have more than 20 people in one place at one time because of the weight. We only had ten inches of ice there. If anything happened, you spread out.” Ice safety officers were on hand to ensure that the crew, and all seven Aston Martin Vanquishes and nine Jaguar XKRs, took no short cuts to the bottom of the sea. “I’d decide what the shots were going to be for the whole day” Armstrong remembers, “and they would leapfrog ahead of us and drill the ice 30 minutes beforehand to see if it was actually stable.”
“How much more dangerous can you get?” It seems icebergs didn’t quite cut it for Armstrong so he upped the danger levels with an aerial extravaganza in Mission: Impossible 3. “You’ve got 200 windmills - 200ft tall – and three helicopters all flying in different directions”, he outlines. “You have to see them at night so you’ve got bright lights and every time you look down, you’re blinded. And you’re tired. And doing it at night. That’s the most dangerous scenario you could ever be in.” With more than 600 propeller blades in the air, Armstrong took a militant attitude to the anti-gravity warzone. “I always look at everything as an accident report: ‘Yes [the stunt pilots] were tired, they carried on, they were getting sleepy and concentration was gone,” he explains, imagining his worst-case scenario before leaving Empire with some wise words: “the ‘one last go’ is the one where you hurt yourself.”