‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’: 30 years later, a stuntman’s memories

May 23, 2011 | 11:46 a.m.

Next month marks the 30th anniversary of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and we’ll be looking back on that sparkling film with special features. Monday, an exclusive excerpt from “The True Adventures of the World’s Greatest Stuntman,” the just-published memoir by Vic Armstrong, the stunt coordinator and stunt double who Martin Scorsese has called “a legend in the film world.” Armstrong has portrayed  James Bond, Superman and Flash Gordon — at least when the action was underway — but his signature screen success came while wearing a fedora in three Indiana Jones films.  In this excerpt from the new Titan Books hardcover, Armstrong writes about working with Harrison Ford and Steven Spielberg and offers an account of one scene (where Indiana Jones shoots a swordsman) that differs a bit from widely reported versions that credit Ford with a memorable moment of improvisation.   

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The set of "Raiders of the Lost Ark." (Lucasfilm)

Out on location in Tunisia, stunt co-ordinator Peter Diamond was setting up a fight between Indy and this big hulking Nazi brute (played by my old friend Pat Roach) around an aeroplane, and asked me to take over co-ordinating the first unit because he had to run off to do the truck chase. He gave me a storyboard of 30 or 40 pictures. In the meantime they were shooting some other stuff and I hung around watching as Steven Spielberg instructed the second camera operator what angles he wanted to shoot the arrival of a vehicle convoy. This cameraman rehearsed for a while, but didn’t like the set-up Spielberg gave him, so he changed it. That’s interesting, I thought, he didn’t ask or say anything, he just did it. After the shot Spielberg returned to ask how it went and the camera guy said, “I didn’t like your angle so I’ve changed it.” Spielberg went, “Have you?” I said to Dave Tomblin, the film’s 1st A.D., “Who’s that camera operator there telling Steven Spielberg what the angle should be?” Dave said, “Oh, that’s George Lucas.”

vic armstrong Raiders of the Lost Ark: 30 years later, a stuntmans memoriesBy now it was about noon, we hadn’t done the fight yet so I decided to get an early lunch. Walking off I heard someone shout, “Harrison.” I kept walking. “Harrison, Harrison!” The voice repeated. Then somebody grabbed me by the shoulder and spun me round. It was Spielberg. “You’re not Harrison.” I said, “I know I’m not Harrison. I’m Vic Armstrong.” Steven said, “What are you doing here?” I replied, “I’m a stuntman. I just arrived last night.” “But you’re a fantastic double for Harrison,” Spielberg said, then yelled for Tomblin to come over. “Dave, this stuntman looks just like Harrison, I thought he was Harrison.” Dave said, “This is the guy we’d first suggested as stunt double for Harrison, but he’s been in Mexico, we’ve only just been able to get him.” “Fantastic!” roared Steven.

It’s amazing really just how closely I resembled Harrison, the way I looked, walked and acted. Even his clothes fit me, except his boots which were a bit too tight, but everything else fit like a glove. I suppose the time that really sums up how similar we were was when I was walking along and Harrison’s kid came up, took hold of my hand and walked along with me — until I started to speak, which made him look up, scream and run off. In one interview Harrison said, “Yeah, we look alike. He spent several nights with my wife before she realized.” Funny guy.

The next day we shot the fight around the plane. Harrison and Roach squared up to each other and Harrison threw a punch. “That’s great. Moving on,” said Steven. Now as a stunt co-ordinator my job is to make sure that, on film, those punches look like they’ve connected. I was standing looking right over the lens of the camera and in my opinion it was a miss. Now I was stuck between a rock and a hard place because Steven had called it good, but I thought I’d better say something. “Excuse me sir, that was actually a miss.” He went, “Oh, you again.” I said, “Yeah, sorry, it was a miss.” Steven paused briefly. “Well, I thought it was a hit.” I said, “No, I was actually looking over the lens and it was a miss, I think.” Finally Steven said, “OK, we’ll do it again.” After that take was completed Steven, sarcastically almost, turned to me and said, “How was that?” I went, “That was good. That was a hit.” And we carried on and created a great fight routine. Three days later we were all watching dailies when the shot that I’d said was a miss came on screen. Steven had printed it. The old heart started to go, but sure enough it was a miss and Steven, who was right in front of me, turned round and said, “Good call Vic.” I couldn’t do much wrong after that, it was great.

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Harrison Ford and Vic Armstrong (Vic Armstrong)

The fight concludes with a truckload of Germans arriving on the scene and Indy blasting them all to hell. The night before, Steven had talked to Kit West, the special effects chief who ended up getting an Oscar for “Raiders.” “Kit, I don’t like the idea of blood splashing everywhere. I want a sort of mist, a dust feel.” Kit went, “Umm, OK.” Cut to the next day and sure enough, bang, bang, bang, all the squibs went off and this dust flew into the air. “That’s great Kit. Cut,” said Steven. Then all our eyes started burning like mad and we began sneezing, everybody was in real pain and we couldn’t think what the hell was going on until somebody said to Kit, “What did you use in those squibs?” And he went, “I was hoping nobody would find out. Steven didn’t ask me until late last night and there’s nowhere to go shopping in the local town, there’s only like two shops and a camel station, so I used Cayenne pepper. It was the only red dust I could find.” And of course we all got these terrible eyes and noses streaming and coughing and sneezing. It was hysterical.

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Vic Armstrong on the set of "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade." (Vic Armstrong)

“Raiders” was shot at a real breakneck pace. I was sitting with Spielberg one day waiting to do a shot with this car and Les Dilley from the art department was diligently dusting it down, making sure it matched exactly the last scene and Steven yelled, “For God’s sake guys, come on let’s get a move on, this is only a B-movie, let’s go, go, go. Don’t worry about the damn dust.” After the problems on “1941,” Steven wanted to do Raiders purely to prove that he could shoot on schedule, on budget and deliver the goods. When I talked to him about “1941” he said, ‘It was never a failure, it actually made money, it just didn’t make as much money as my other films had done. But I think I made one mistake with it, I should have made it a musical.”

Tunisia was a tough location, everybody was ill. It was just excruciatingly hot and we had to stop shooting at two o’clock when it reached 120 degrees. You didn’t even sweat; all you had was salt on your arms because it evaporated before it hit the air. You’d drive to work in the morning and see Arab people throwing up…and they were the bloody locals! Steven wouldn’t eat or drink anything unless he’d physically broken the seal of the bottle himself or opened the can that he was eating from; just because he daren’t have time off through illness. We also couldn’t understand why the crew was getting so ill, because we all drank bottled Evian water. Until one day somebody followed the guy that collected the empties and saw him filling these Evian bottles straight out of the water truck and putting the lids back on and handing them out. We put a stop to that but people were still ill. And the hotel was bloody awful; you’d have to scrape the meal off the plates.

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Sylvester Stallone and Vic Armstrong (Vic Armstrong)

By now I’d met Harrison and he was great, very down to earth and welcoming, a wonderful guy. We both have the same outlook on life and professionalism. He really is a consummate professional. We worked very closely on all the fights. I’d work them out first before bringing Harrison in, and then choreograph it with him to make sure all the moves and the punches went the way he felt comfortable doing it. Then we’d take it to show Spielberg. And that’s how we worked together on the next two Indy movies as well.

Pretty quickly I became known around the industry as a double for Harrison. In “Return of the Jedi” I was tied to a pole as Han Solo and carried by Ewoks through the treetops, because Harrison had a bad back. And before that I did “Blade Runner.” Harrison was busy on another film and the studio desperately needed some pick up shots of him, so they flew over from L.A., where the movie was made, and rebuilt some of the sets at Pinewood for me to double Harrison on. They built the bathroom where he finds the fish scales and the whole Asian market, which was quite a big set. It was funny because I watched the “Blade Runner” dailies of me running through the market and all of a sudden this white unicorn appeared. “What the heck is that?” I asked the editor. ‘Oh that’s a film Ridley’s thinking of doing.’ He was obviously shooting tests for “Legend,” which I subsequently worked on.

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Vic Armstrong on the set of "War of the Worlds." (Vic Armstrong)

In “Raiders” there’s that famous scene where Indy meets this hulking great Arab swordsman and simply shoots him dead. Originally there was an elaborate fight sequence planned and a stunt team went up to the coast for two weeks working it out. They really drew the easy ticket – we heard all this talk about fabulous beaches and topless tourists, and there we were stuck down in bloody Nefta with the dysentery mob. When the main crew finished with us they flew up to the coast to join Peter Diamond, who showed Steven the fight routine. Big Terry Richards played the Arab and he swished his sword about and then the fight carried on through the whole of the Casbah.

Steven watched and said, “Look, I’m going to shoot whatever I can until three o’clock because then I’m getting out of here.” Peter Diamond was dumbstruck: “You can’t do that, it’s gonna take four days to film this fight. It’s a huge fight and the guys have been rehearsing it for weeks.’ Steven said, ‘I’ve got a plane coming at three, I’m out of here, I’ve got enough, I don’t need any more here.’ Tomblin butted in, ‘For Christ’s sake Steven, you’ve got to do this.’ But Steven was standing firm, “No, I’m out at three.” Tomblin said, “Well, it’s stupid doing this whole routine, you might as well just shoot the guy with a gun.” “Don’t be facetious Dave.” Then Steven paused. “I’ll tell you what, let’s try that. Yes, let’s try just shooting him.” And the rest is history.

— Vic Armstrong


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35 Responses to ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’: 30 years later, a stuntman’s memories

  1. Josh says:

    This is awesome.

  2. Edwin says:

    "In “Raiders” there’s that famous scene where Indy meets this hulking great Arab swordsman and simply shoots him dead. Originally there was an elaborate fight sequence planned and a stunt team went up to the coast for two weeks working it out."

    I love that scene!

  3. Harriet Bee says:

    That scene where Harrison Ford just takes out his pistol and shoots the Arab swordsman (instead of engaging him in a real fight) is such a tired cliche. And from the sound of it, the extended sequence originally planned (and meticulously rehearsed) would have been so much cooler. I am so disappointed that we never got to see that scene. Spielberg really let us down on that one. It makes me sick. Why did Spielberg have to get on that plane at 3:00? Surely he could have caught the next plane. What utter selfishness to deprive us the action sequence that we deserved. We paid the money for our movie ticket and then were cheated. The classic bait and switch. I can't watch 'Raiders' now without getting angry and physically sick to my stomach. Shame on you, Steven!

  4. Dee Bryant says:

    Vic Armstrong, one of my hero's! :-)

  5. Katherine says:

    Vic Armstrong is one of the best, but my vote for the absolute greatest goes to Terry Leonard.

  6. Peter Briggs says:

    There are shots in the "The Making Of Raiders Of The Lost Ark" documentary that show part of the marketplace swordsman fight scene. I've always wondered how, if Ford was as sick as the story went, he was able to do that. And now here's Vic with a plausible, great story. Nice one, Vic!

  7. Randall says:

    The stunt coordinator on Raiders of the Lost Ark was Glen Randal Jr…an American, not a Brit…and Harrison Ford's stunt double was Terry Leonard, also an American, except for one scene when a Brit named Martin Grace doubled him when he rocks the big statue over and crashes it through the wall.

  8. Paul says:

    Great article, keep them coming! Will have to get this book.

  9. Miguel says:

    He can be awesome, but the world’s greatest stuntman is Jackie Chan for sure!

  10. Horace Austin says:

    Enjoyed reading this excerpt from Vic’s book. Thanks!

  11. tim pelan says:

    In your photograph of the Temple scene at the head of the piece, that is not Vic Armstrong in the background doubling for harrison Ford. It is Glenn Randall. Vic Armstrong didn't join the film until they went on location in Tunisia, as is evident from his excerpt. That was the first time Steven Spielberg met him

  12. Pat says:

    The shooting of the Arab was genius, I roared.

  13. music says:

    Great put up, very informative. I wonder why the other specialists of this sector do not notice this. You should proceed your writing. I’m confident, you’ve a huge readers’ base already!|What’s Happening i am new to this, I stumbled upon this I have discovered It positively helpful and it has helped me out loads. I’m hoping to give a contribution & aid other users like its helped me. Great job.

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