When it comes to the art of motion picture making, stunt work is one of the industry’s most important yet unsung crafts. Indeed, stunt people have been fighting for their own Oscar category for years. And, seeing how they’ve been putting their lives at great risk for our entertainment pleasure since the dawn of movies, they deserve it. Audiences love to be dazzled and experience something they’ve never seen before. That’s been true since Frank Hanaway fell off a horse in 1903’s The Great Train Robbery and the Keystone Kops pratfell their way to immortality in the 1910’s, forcing viewers to consider what was real and what was a matter of perspective and camera trickery.
We’ve seen shifts over the decades in terms of what audiences respond to, be it genres, actors, or tone. But one thing has remained consistent; viewers have always been wowed by a dangerous-looking car chase, fight scene, free fall, or occasional chariot race, and then wondered, “Was that done for real?” Even in the age of digital effects, audiences have been enamored by the idea of highly trained stunt men and women performing incredible feats of the body and mind to achieve the seemingly impossible, all for the glory of film. With Mission: Impossible—Dead Reckoning Part 1 finally here—and Tom Cruise ready to confirm his status as the most indestructible A-lister in motion picture history—The A.V. Club decided to rank the greatest stunts in motion picture history based on difficulty, “wow” factor, and the impact the stunt had on the audience and the future of filmmaking. So fasten your seat belts, you’re in for a bumpy slideshow.