Opinion: The magic of motorcycles in the movies

I went to the James Bond film No Time To Die this weekend – of course I did – and like everyone else, I was totally wowed at the beginning of the movie when Bond makes his escape from the bad guys on a Triumph Tiger.

It’s in the ancient Italian town of Matera. After riding at speed, helmet-free, through the narrow cobblestone roads and up and down stone stairways, Bond comes up against a group of parishioners leaving church and has to swerve left to avoid them. That sends him up some more stairs and then he makes the vertical leap up and over a stone wall into the town square. If you’ve seen the film, you know exactly what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, or you just want to watch it again, you can see it in this trailer at the 2’10” mark.

That’s quite the jump, up a 25-foot ramp at 100 km/h and over the wall. It was performed by Paul “Fast Eddy” Edmondson, a five-time World Enduro champion, riding a modified Triumph Tiger 900 Rally Pro. You can see the raw footage here, which shows that Fast Eddy was wearing a helmet at the time, with a Mohawk fringe to boot.

The movie’s action vehicle supervisor said later that Fast Eddy did the scene on his 50th birthday, and he made it look easy. “In the run-up and the rehearsals, because he was timing it to perfection, a couple of times he would just lay the back wheel on the top of the wall, and just set the bike there and then hop it off the wall onto the ground and then go,” action vehicle supervisor Neil Layton told Autoweek. “So it wasn’t a case that he was just launching the bike up and over the wall. It was done down to precision.”

The town square itself is worn smooth from hundreds of years of use, so the crew had to spray it down with 32,000 litres of Coca-Cola to make the cobblestones sticky enough to give the tires some grip for the landing.

All of this got me thinking about some of the other great motorcycle chases and stunts over the years. James Bond is no stranger to them, with bike chase scenes in more than half of the 25 movies in the series, and the best of all is still in Istanbul at the start of Skyfall. “They appear to be on the rooftops of the Grand Bazaar,” says MI5’s Tanner, and yes, they really were, hurtling through the air on a pair of Honda CRF250Rs. If you want to know more about how they rehearsed and filmed the scene, watch this video from Honda.

Of course, Daniel Craig doesn’t do much of the riding, not like Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible. Cruise loves motorcycles and he loves doing his own helmetless stunts; watch this video of the incredibly high-speed chase scene in MI5: Rogue Nation and at exactly the one minute mark, you can see him put his knee down a little too far and tap the road, without any sliders apparent under his jeans.

Ethan Hunt isn’t chasing a bad guy in that sequence – she’s a bad woman who gets the better of him on his BMW S1000RR. It shows that women don’t need to be the passengers, as with James Bond here in Bangkok, or Jason Bourne here in Athens, but can teach the men a thing or two when needed.

It was stuntwoman Debbie Evans who wrote the book on motorcycle chase scenes when she rode a Ducati 996 against the traffic as Trinity in The Matrix Reloaded. That’s a real highway, albeit a very closed set, with real cars and not as much CGI as you’d think in this stunning sequence.

Of course, there are any number of terrific motorcycle stunts in the movies, but they all trace their roots to Steve McQueen’s iconic jump in 1963’s The Great Escape. Watch the clip and you’ll remember that Virgil Hilts, the Cooler King, didn’t crash in the jump but completed it only to be shot soon afterwards.

McQueen could have made the jump himself because he was an accomplished motorcycle racer who did all his own riding in the movie. On the day though, it came down to his friend and stunt double, Bud Etkins, to actually perform the stunt, with the help of Australian moto-cross champion Tim Gibbes.

“Tim and I went out early one Sunday with the 650 Triumph we were using that was supposed to be a side-valve Wehrmacht BMW,” Etkins explained later. “We laid out the fence a couple of feet high. Then we dug a ramp out with shovels, about nine or ten feet long, and I hit the ramp in third gear at about 50 mph and cleared the fence. We dug it out a little more and raised the fence to eight feet and I cleared that too. Then I hit the ramp at 60 mph in fourth and jumped 12 feet high and 65 feet down. Then I said to (John) Sturges (the director): ‘Okay, let’s do it!’”

“When I took off, I throttled right back and it was silent,” he continued. “You know, everything was just silent – the whole crew and everything was just silent. And then when I landed they cheered like crazy. They did just one take and afterwards the assistant director came to me and said, ‘Well, that’s a $1,000 jump if I ever saw one.’ I knew nothing about negotiating fees so I said ‘okay’ and that was that. Two days’ work, one jump, and we were finished.”

They might have been finished, but it was the start of something wonderful in the movies.

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