Summer of the 80’s: The Stunt Man

Summer of the 80′s is a weekly column that will run until the end of August in which I watch a movie released during the summer movie season of the 1980′s that I’ve never seen before.  Every Friday, I’ll write about an 80′s movie that came out on the same day, or near the same day, that correlates with the post here on the site.  So follow me as I travel back in time to discover my lost summer at the movies.

About the movie

The Stunt Man was released on June 27, 1980 by Twentieth Century Fox.  It was directed by Richard Rush, who directed Jack Nicholson in Hells Angels on Wheels and Bruce Willis in Color of Night.  The screenplay was written by Richard Rush and Lawrence B. Marcus.  The film stars Peter O’Toole, Steve Railsback and Barbara Hershey.  The film received three Academy Award nominations for Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Actor (Peter O’Toole).  The R-rated film’s budget is unknown but it grossed a total of $7 million domestically.  It is currently available on Blu-ray and DVD.


“If God could do the tricks that we can do, he’d be a happy man . . .”

My thoughts

There doesn’t seem to be a lot of people out there who have heard about The Stunt Man as it seems to have existed more as a cult film.  I had never heard of it until I read one of the DVD/Blu-ray release columns from Harry Knowles over at Ain’t It Cool News.  He seemed to be enthused about the film and seeing that it was an option for my Summer of the 80s column, it didn’t take long for me to decide to give The Stunt Man a shot.  After watching it, I see its appeal to some but for me it comes off as mostly a mess with a few interesting ideas.

The movie starts off with a dog licking his balls.  I’m not joking.  It’s almost as if the director is using that to say “look, this is a movie with some balls, I mean that both literally in this shot and metaphorically overall.”  Okay, I’m just being silly, I don’t think that was the actual purpose but I did find it weird to start of a movie with some prominent dog ball-licking action.  The story follows a Vietnam veteran Cameron, played by Steve Railsback (who just so happens to have been in the last Summer of the 80s movie Lifeforce), who is on the run from the police.  He finds himself on a bridge where he tries to hitch a ride from someone in a passing car.  The driver refuses and nearly runs him over with the car and, in doing so, crashes through the side of the bridge and into the water below, trapping the driver in the car (and he dies).  Then out of nowhere a helicopter appears with a cameraman hanging out the side.  Cameron, confused as to what was happening, runs off and then finds himself stumbling upon a crowd of people watching a movie being filmed.  The director of the film, Eli Cross (Peter O’Toole), a tyrant on the set, is willing to do anything to get the shots he needs.  When he recognizes Cameron from the bridge (Eli was in the helicopter), Eli offers Cameron the job of the stunt man who died on the bridge to help Cameron evade the police, as well as to avoid trouble with the police himself and having his movie shut down.  Eli convinces the police that the dead stunt man (Burt) escaped with his life, stating that Cameron is in fact Burt and that no one actually died.  The police seem satisfied and leave to go search for the man that escaped the police (aka Cameron, who is now “Burt”).  Cameron works three days as a stunt man on the film and falls in love with the lead actress (Barbara Hershey) and becomes paranoid that Eli is making him do elaborate and dangerous stunts in order to kill him.

One of the fun and more interesting things about the movie is the fact that the lines often blur between the actual movie and the movie-within-the-movie being filmed.  It creates a sense of disorientation and you start to lose track of what is real and what isn’t.  In a lot of ways, the film feels like a dream.  Things blend together and you don’t always know what is going on and sometimes things feel kind of random.  However, while it does have a dream like quality, it mostly feels like an, at times, incoherent mess.  I often would hear the words the characters’ were speaking but felt like I didn’t understand what the hell they were talking about or why they would randomly erupt in anger or whatever emotion they were conveying.  Cameron develops a relationship with the lead actress in the film and it feels like they go from zero to sixty in a very short timeframe.  They have complications and troubles that don’t feel earned and instead feel like a relationship seen in fast forward.  As a stunt man, Cameron, feels way too integral to the director Eli, and other members of the crew.  I don’t doubt that a stunt man would have many conversations with people on set but I felt that his performance as a stunt man outweighed every other actor’s on the set.  Conflicts arise on and off the set that seem to be created out of thin air and without much provocation.  The Stunt Man just comes off as sloppy madness, with some decent thought behind it all.  I know there seems to be some people who view the film as a bit of genius, but for me, it failed to engage me.

I knew going into my Summer of the 80s adventure that, much like any summer movie season, I wasn’t going to be head over heels for every film I watch.  The Stunt Man is the first one that I’ve come across so far in my quest for lost summer movies that did not capture my interest.  I’m sure if I watched it again, I might be able to pick up on some things that might help it make a little more sense to me but it just isn’t a film that I feel I need to take the time to revisit myself.  I am, however, incredibly excited by the fact that a fairly unknown film like The Stunt Man is available (on Blu-ray no less) for people to discover and make their own judgements about the film.  I like watching the films for this column because it makes me seek out movies I may not have otherwise seen and I encourage others to do the same.  I may not be that enthusiastic in regards to The Stunt Man after having now seen it but I am glad I watched it.  I’d have a hard time recommending it to others as far as it being a movie I enjoyed, but like I said before, The Stunt Man has its cult following and, perhaps, if you give it a shot, you’ll see some of the genius that I wasn’t picking up on.


The “movie within a movie” being filmed in The Stunt Man is titled “Devil’s Squadron.”  The title can be seen on the production t-shirts worn by the crew.

Peter O’Toole based his portrayal of a film director on the legendary filmmaker, David Lean.

The original stuntman, Burt, who is the one who crashed and disappeared in the story was played by Steve Railsback’s real life brother, Michael.

Richard Rush chose Steve Railsback over actors like Martin Sheen and Jeff Bridges after seeing his performance as Charles Manson in Helter Skelter.  Rush also chose Peter O’Toole over other actors like Sean Connery and George C. Scott.

by Ben McBride


One thought on “Summer of the 80’s: The Stunt Man

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