At the end of How to Train Your Dragon (2010), Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III loses one of his legs. But does he let that slow him down in How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014)? Does he heck; by the time of the sequel Hiccup has not just learnt how to cope with his artificial limb, but, with his inventor’s skill, has turned it into a practical enhancement. And he’s not the only character in the film with bits missing: Hiccup’s dragon, Toothless the Night Fury, has lost part of his tail and needs an artificial attachment in order to fly, while Gobber the blacksmith makes up for a missing hand by replacing it all manner of useful attachments.
In each these examples, the “disability” is treated with an almost radical matter-of-factness; the characters are not defined by it, but find clever ways to work around it. There have been one-legged characters in children’s animation before – Fidget in Basil the Great Mouse Detective (1987) is a peg-legged bat – but Hiccup is different. Fidget is a villain’s henchman, but Hiccup is the hero. He can do anything anyone with two legs can do. And more – he rides a dragon!
Peg-legs are traditionally associated with pirates and sailors, perhaps because it was safer to amputate an injured limb rather than risk infection on a long sea voyage. Long John Silver, played with maximum “arrrrrrrgh” by Robert Newton in Treasure Island (1950), has one, as does Geoffrey Rush as Captain Hector Barbossa in the third Pirates of the Caribbean sequel. Captain Ahab (played by Gregory Peck in John Huston’s 1956 film of Moby Dick) had his bitten off by the Great White Whale, leaving him thirsting for vengeance but unbalanced in more than just the literal sense. His modern film noir equivalent, Alex Cutter in the 1981 noir Cutter’s Way (John Heard in a career-best performance) has lost not just a leg in Vietnam, but also an arm and eye, leaving him not just off balance but blinkered in his quixotic quest for justice.
There’s an entire subset of villains and bogeymen who seem to have taken Peter Pan‘s Captain Hook as their hand model: Candyman, Inspector Gadget‘s Dr Claw, George Kennedy in Charade (1963). The Chinese-German criminal scientist Dr. No has metal pincers in place of the hands lost to radiation exposure, while Enter the Dragon‘s Mr. Han has a set of stabby, slicey attachments that wouldn’t look out of place dicing vegetables in an industrial kitchen. The fact that, hook or no hook, it might not be cricket to beat up an amputee never seems to occur to the heroes of these movies, nor even to audiences, a notion that reaches its apogee in Robert Harmon’s 2004 thriller Highwaymen, in which we’re rooting for able-bodied good guy Jim Caviezel against a psychokiller who has prosthetic limbs and is confined either to a wheelchair or a customised killer-car, in which he squats like a homicidal turtle in its shell. “His headlights are like his eyes; only one works.”
But for every “one-armed man” who frames The Fugitive, there’s a hero made even more heroic by having one less limb than the norm. In Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), Spencer Tracy goes up against a formidable line-up of racist thugs (Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin) implicated in the death of a Japanese-American farmer, and defeats them, literally single-handedly, with his one-armed martial art skills. There’s a sub-genre of martial arts movies in which one-armed boxers or swordsmen have to fight their way back from the loss of a limb, exemplified by the stunning fight at the end of Chang Cheh’s bloody bromance The New One-Armed Swordsman (1971, aka Triple Irons aka La rage du tigre) in which David Chiang only needs one arm to notch up one of the bloodiest body-counts in kung-fu cinema.
Ronald Reagan’s most famous line as an actor, which he co-opted as the title of his 1965 autobiography, was “Where’s the rest of me?”, which he yells upon waking up after a railroad accident to find a sadistic doctor has essentially emasculated him by unnecessarily amputating his legs in Kings Row (1942); a moment replayed for horror in the 1970 sci-fi thriller Scream and Scream Again (1970) in which a hapless male jogger collapses and, each time he wakes up in his hospital bed, finds yet another of his limbs missing. And in a class of his own (later spoofed by Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove and Kenneth Mars in Young Frankenstein) there’s Lionel Atwill with his mechanical arm in Son of Frankenstein, polishing his monocle with robotic precision and saying, “One doesn’t easily forget, Herr Baron, an arm torn out by the roots.”
A favourite device in exploitation cinema is for a character to replace their lost extremity with a weaponised substitute, such as Bruce Campbell hacking off his own demon-possessed hand and replacing it with a chainsaw in Evil Dead II (1987) or mechanised gauntlet in the sequel, Army of Darkness (1992) or Rose McGowan and her machine-gun leg mowing down the zombies that tore off her original limb in Planet Terror (2007), or Ving Rhames and his titanium shotgun prosthetic in Piranha 3DD (2012).
Before the days of digital effects, the absence of an extremity on an able-bodied actor was depicted via a combination of camera angle, costume, lighting and hobbled performer. But in Forrest Gump (1994), Gary Sinise’s own legs were wrapped in blue fabric before being removed by CGI in what was then the most “realistic” depiction of an amputee played by an able-bodied actor to date.
While heroic real-life amputees are played by full-bodied Kenneth More as war hero Douglas Bader in Reach for the Sky (1956), or Cuba Gooding Jr. as the first Afro-American amputee Navy diver in Men of Honor (2000), genuine amputees are often relegated to being the stars’ stunt doubles, posed to make it seem that already absent limbs are being hacked off before our very eyes in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), Dawn of the Dead (1978), The Thing (1982), or Saving Private Ryan (1998).
But the coolest amputees in movies are the real ones, transcending whatever hardship they faced in everyday life to show everyone how it should be done. The 1932 horror movie Freaks was banned in the UK for 31 years because the British Board of Film Censorship felt it “exploited for commercial reasons the deformed people that it claimed to dignify.” Watched now, though, it seems a compassionate, far-from-exploitative glimpse into the world of “sideshow freaks” such as Prince Randian, known as “The Human Caterpillar”, born without arms or legs but filmed rolling and lighting a cigarette, or Johnny Eck, born without legs, whose amazing life story Leonardo DiCaprio has long been trying to bring to the screen.
Cigarettes having once been considered the epitome of cool, we also see Harold Russell lighting one with his metal appendages near the beginning of William Wyler’s multiple Oscar-winning drama The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). Russell, whose hands were replaced by metal hooks after an explosives accident during World War Two, plays one of a trio of American veterans struggling to fit back into smalltown life after the war. His affecting performance won not one but two Oscars – one for Best Supporting Actor, the other an honorary award for “bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans”. And you can’t argue with that.
This piece was first posted on the Telegraph website in July 2014. It has since been edited and added to.