It Was Do-Or-Die For The Ski Jump In The Spy Who Loved Me's Opening Stunt

Here are a few things guaranteed to get a patriotic Brit brimming over with bulldog spirit: The "Great Escape" theme tune, long since adopted by England fans at international soccer matches; the throb of Spitfire engines in any movie, especially if involved in a dogfight; and James Bond in general, in particular the opening sequence of "The Spy Who Loved Me."

The film was Roger Moore's third outing as the intrepid spy, a tenure marked by a reliance on goofy gadgets, groan-inducing double entendres, and flippant set pieces, all overseen by the suave actor who only needed a saucy raised eyebrow to make a situation seem more Austin Powers than Daniel Craig. Nevertheless, "The Spy Who Loved Me" opened with one of the greatest stunts in the entire franchise.

It goes like this: James Bond (Moore) is canoodling with his latest conquest in a mountain cabin before receiving the order to "pull out, immediately." 007 makes a parting bon mot and casually slips into a banana yellow ski suit. Off down the mountain he goes, pursued by no-name goons, looking completely unruffled as Moore is framed against obvious rear projection.

Then he runs out of mountain as a cliff face opens up ahead of him. For a few breathless seconds, Moore's stunt double free falls into the abyss ... before he releases a Union Jack parachute to a jubilant burst of the James Bond theme. It's silly, it's wonderful, it's thrilling, and easily Roger Moore's best moment in his lengthy stint on Her Majesty's secret service. For the people who actually pulled off this show-stopping scene, it was a very dangerous proposition indeed.

The set up

Filming the stunning opening scene of "The Spy Who Loved Me" was an adventure just as death-defying as anything Jame Bond pulled off in his epic career. Second unit cinematographer Alan Hume had scouted a perfect location (via "A Life Through the Lens") for the stunt on Baffin Island, a remote peninsula in the north of Canada. Having chosen a daunting cliff with a 3000 foot drop, the small team of cameramen, helicopter pilots, doctors, and stuntmen waited weeks for suitable conditions to get the shot they needed. Conditions were harsh, and the team huddled together in one tent against the bitter temperatures. The weather worsened and, after a fortnight passed without capturing a single shot, they took a helicopter back to base camp in Pangnirtung at night rather than risk freezing to death.

The obvious danger of the chosen precipice was exacerbated by the snow. As Hume noted:

"When you're standing on white snow, surrounded by white snow and look down on white snow, it's actually very difficult to focus and get any sense of perspective. It was quite hairy."

Then there was the wind to take into consideration, which was gauged by stuntman Rick Sylvester (who would stand in for Roger Moore for the jump) throwing toilet rolls off the cliff while Hume filmed from a helicopter.

It was make-or-break time. Sylvester prepared for the stunt by building a plywood ramp on the cliff's edge to give himself enough lift on the jump and sufficient clearance from the rocky wall below. With light fading, it was time to go. Cameras were placed and Hume took to the air once again to capture the action. Sylvester was given a parting pep talk: "Remember you are James Bond."

No time to die...

The amazing stunt at the beginning of "The Spy Who Loved Me" unfolded pretty much as you see it in the film, although another peril was presented by the snow on Sylvester's approach. It went from fluffy whiteness to hard ice as he approached the cliff edge, and a fall would have resulted in him skidding off into the precipice rather than soaring into the air. Yet it went perfectly. Almost. 

In the course of the stunt, Sylvester hurtles off the cliff, ditches his skis, and free falls for a few seconds before pulling the chute. Even in this moment, there was an unforeseen danger: his own skis. As Sylvester spirals away, one ski catches up with him as he releases the parachute (once again, via A Life Through the Lens):

"As it opened, the skis, which were falling slower, hit the top of the parachute. Our hearts were in our mouths, but the skis tumbled off and Rick disappeared down towards the glacier 3000 feet below, and our second chopper went down to collect him."

I must have watched this scene two dozen times, but I never noticed it until now: one ski clearly makes contact with the parachute. It could have ended in disaster, but luck was with Sylvester as he pulled off one of the greatest spectacles in a franchise packed with jaw-dropping stunts. Cut to Roger Moore casually hanging in a parachute harness before we go to Carly Simon for the theme song. 

Nobody does it better, indeed.