How GoldenEye Put Pierce Brosnan In The Cockpit Of A Crashing Plane

Martin Campbell's 1995 actioner "GoldenEye" is the best James Bond movie. Pierce Brosnan is the best James Bond. Full stop. 

While that controversial opinion simmers, this could perhaps be added: It could easily have been the last James Bond movie. The character of James Bond was an agent of the Cold War, employed to fight Russians and other "evil" spy organizations when he wasn't having dalliances with crazed billionaires. "GoldenEye" was the first Bond movie made after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the function of the character now had to be brought into question: How useful was international espionage when the Soviets were no longer a worldwide threat? "GoldenEye" was about cleaning up some of the last remnants of the war, facing resentful spies who had been left behind, and proving that Bond is not an infinite being. Had Bond retired at the end of the Cold War, it would have been poetic, fitting, and understandable. 

Given the appetites of modern, franchise-forward filmmaking, however, the above suggestion is anathema to the owners of any and all intellectual property. 

Regardless, "GoldenEye" is a corker of an action picture, featuring some rather spectacular action set pieces, the most impressive of which is probably the opening flashback wherein Bond infiltrates a dam to blow it up, sadly loses agent 006 (Sean Bean), and has to flee in a falling plane. 

The body cast

That opening sequence featured a lightweight prop plane speeding down a runway as James Bond flees a small team of armed Soviet agents to catch up with it. The Soviets are able to slow Bond down just enough that the plane will roll off the edge of a cliff, unmanned. Bond, being resourceful, hops on a motorcycle to catch up with the plane. The plane flies off the cliff and heads for the ground, and Bond rides his motorcycle off the edge right after it. He plummets slightly faster than the plane, catches up with it midair, climbs into the cockpit, and pulls up just in time. Kaboom, the dam blows up. Cue Tina Turner

To achieve such an impressive stunt, the filmmakers had to employ miniatures, stunts, trick photography, a bunch of spare motorcycles, and Pierce Brosnan himself. 

In 2020, Brosnan recorded a watch-along commentary track for "GoldenEye," partly as advice to Daniel Craig — at the time, the current James Bond — and partly to reminisce. In the commentary he explained that some of the shots in the sequence were indeed him: 

"Now that is me, they had to make a body cast. The prop man came into my dressing room one day, George and Frank said, 'Right Pierce, here we go, we're gonna do a body cast. All right, lie like this,' and they had me lie across the sofa and they took a cast of my chest. I didn't quite understand what it was for, they said it was something related to this part of the film. Anyways, many months later on the backlot, they had my body cast on a pole and I lay on the body cast and assume the position, as it were, so I could fly through the air and catch the plane."

Let the motorcycles hit the floor

The trained eye might notice that the falling body cast shots were filmed against a rear-screen projection with Pierce Brosnan and a plane suspended in front of it. The shots are dynamic enough, however, and so briefly cut that they look just real enough. Brosnan did not plummet off a cliff himself.

What did plummet off a cliff for real, though, were several actual motorcycles. In a 2015 oral history printed in Empire, the makers of the sequence talked about how they needed to actually jump a stuntman off a cliff, and just sort of let the motorcycles crash into the ravine hundreds of feet below. Michael G. Wilson, the film's producer, described the details: 

"The motorcycle jump was again done in Switzerland. We built the ramp in the fall, and then we had to wait until it snowed. We had [stuntman] Jacques Malnuit go off on his motorbike and open his parachute. We did that for real. Every time they had just enough petrol in the tank so they'd literally run out of gas when they ran off, for ecological reasons because they didn't want to damage the environment. Then in the spring, when the thaw came, we went down and retrieved all the motorbike parts. That stunt started in the fall with building the ramp and ended in the spring with picking up the pieces."

Doing it for real?

Jacques Malnuit was so capable with his motorcycle jumps — and the falling plane was slowed to just such a speed — that director Martin Campbell briefly toyed with the idea of having Malnuit actually climb into the plane midair. Ultimately, Campbell decided against it, as it was certainly far too dangerous ... but for a moment he almost went for it. Says Campbell:

"I think Jacques went over that 6,000 foot drop or whatever it was about seven times. What a ridiculous job! That whole sequence was about putting Bond in a situation where you wonder how he can possibly escape. There's a bloody cliff at the end of the runway, so what the f*** does he do? That's the thing. Put him in impossible situations all the time. I did have concerns that skydiving into a crashing plane was going too far, to be honest, but we actually considered doing it for real at one point."

The film's special effects supervisor, Chris Corbould agreed, even remembering the kind of plane used, and how it could be slowed to the correct speed: In order to slow down the plane in the wider shots, the effects coordinators simply spun the plane's propeller backwards to slow its descent. Says Corbould: "Everybody thought it was unbelievable, but in actual fact it was possible for that particular type of plane. I remember it was a Pilatus Porter, and they could feather the blades or something, to actually get it down into a really slow speed. So, in theory, he could have got in."

Thunderbirds are go

So while the "falling" shots of Pierce Brosnan were filmed against a projection screen, and the falling motorcycle was achieved with stunt work, the actual shot of the plane flying past the exploding dam was achieved using miniatures. It's a common filming technique to use miniatures for explosions, well remembered by anyone who has seen early "Godzilla" movies or indeed is at all familiar with the old puppet-based TV show "Thunderbirds," as the effects people on "GoldenEye" were. 

It was the slowed plane that tempted Martin Campbell with the idea of doing the stunt for real. He recalled, "We worked out that if you put a reverse prop on that plane, and you had enough drop, you could actually achieve that stunt. But that rapidly went out the window! It is pushing believability to the limit."

As it turns out, there was a "Thunderbirds" fan on set — the film's production designer, Peter Lamont. "The destruction of the facility is a very small miniature," he said, highlighting the importance of scale when working with miniatures. "You have to be careful with the way you shoot miniatures, so that the flames don't look too big. But Derek had worked for a long time on 'Thunderbirds,' blowing stuff up! His best models were dead simple."

"GoldenEye" is available to stream on Prime Video.