THE AMERICAN WEST (mostly): Fact and Fiction (mostly fiction)

"NOBODY GETS TO BE A COWBOY FOREVER." -- Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) in MONTE WALSH (NG, 1970)

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Friday, December 2, 2016


There will probably never be another stuntman who can compare to Yakima Canutt.  He had been a world champion cowboy several times and where horses were concerned he could do it all.  He invented all the gadgets that made stunt work easier. One of his clever devices was a step that attached to the saddle so that he had leverage to transfer to another moving object, like a wagon or a train.  Another was the 'shotgun,' a spring-loaded device used to separate the tongue of a running wagon from the horses, thus cutting the horses loose.  It also included a shock cord attached to the wagon bed, which caused wheels to cramp and turn the wagon over on the precise spot that was most advantageous for the camera. -- William Witney, Director

Enos Edward Canutt was born in 1895 on a farm in the Snake River Hills in eastern Washington. He began his rodeo career at age 16 when he won the bronc riding competition in nearby Colfax, Washington.

Although the details differ depending on the source of the story, it is generally conceded that he received his nickname Yakima, Yak for short, during the Pendleton Round-Up in 1914.  

During a decade of competing in the top rodeos of the day, Yak became a champion bronc rider and bulldogger, and on several occasions had the honor of All-Around Cowboy bestowed upon him.

How good was he?  He was the only cowboy to ever ride the legendary bucking bronc, Tipperary.  Not only that, he rode him twice.  And this was after the horse had bucked-off more than eighty riders.  It is only fitting, that both Yak and Tipperary were inducted into the Cowboy Hall of Fame in 1976.

Like many another cowboy, Yak was lured to Hollywood and in 1923 he signed with independent producer Ben Wilson to star in a series of silent B-Western quickies.

He was not a natural in front of the camera when it came to scenes that called for interaction with other actors, especially when it involved scenes with his leading lady, but when action was called for he was a natural.  

In those early days the stars were called upon to perform at least some of their stunts.  Yak, on the other hand, performed all of his.  As good as he was, he was seriously injured on several occasions during the filming of the series.

But he also began to experiment with new techniques and equipment that made stunting less hazardous.  This would become his major contribution to film production.

The clip below will demonstrate why it was not good business to allow the star of a film to do his own stunts and it may also be the first instance of Yak performing his under the stagecoach stunt.  The clip also contains an interview with an older reminiscing Yak and scenes from his most famous starring role: THE DEVIL HORSE (Roach/Path, 1926).

The end of the silent era and the advent of sound spelled trouble for the cowboy.  His voice sounded, as he admitted, "like a hillbilly in a well." He said that his flat voice which lacked resonance was the result of a bout of flu that he had contracted in 1918 when he was in the navy.  After starring in one independent quickie, CANYON HAWKS (Big 4, 1930), Yak realized that if he was going to have a further career in the movies it was clear that it was not going to be as a western star.

In the five years between 1925 and 1930, fifty-five people were killed making movies, and more than ten thousand injured.  By the late 1930s, the maverick stunt man willing to do anything for a buck was disappearing.  Now under scrutiny, experienced stunt men began to separate themselves from amateurs by building special equipment, rehearsing stunts, and developing new techniques. -- Garrett Soden, Falling: How Our Greatest Fear Became Our Greatest Thrill

In the early '30s Canutt began appearing in supporting roles in westerns starring a young actor by the name of John Wayne.  It was an association that would last four decades and one that would advance the respective careers of both men.  Wayne readily admitted that he admired Canutt because he was the genuine article -- a real cowboy.  In fact, Wayne copied Canutt's rolling walk, his speech pattern, and many of his gestures.

Since Yak was nearly always a villain and found himself in a fistfight with Wayne, he devised a plan to make the fights look more realistic while reducing the landing of accidental punches.  He persuaded directors to place the camera in such a manner that it faced one of the participants thus making it appear that punches were actually landing on the adversary.  It was a method that was soon adopted by other directors and stunt men.

For an example of the brawling techniques of Canutt and Wayne, you can watch the following clip.  It is taken from a colorized version of PARADISE CANYON (Lone Star/Monogram, 1935).

It was also during that time that Yak became a much sought after stunt man in the cliffhanging serials of the day.  He often did double duty by filling a supporting role in the chapter plays.  Republic produced several serials featuring masked heroes such as the Lone Ranger and Zorro.  These were ideal for they made it much easier for Yak to disguise himself as the hero.

In 1939, he doubled Reed Hadley in ZORRO'S FIGHTING LEGION, a serial that many consider to be the most action filled ever filmed.  That reputation is due in no small part to Yak's stunting skills.

Click on the clip below and you will see Yak make Reed Hadley look very good:

However, it was two films in 1939 that catapulted Yak into the big leagues. First up was John Ford's STAGECOACH (UA), in which Yak not only doubled John Wayne, but also doubled Apaches attacking the coach as it raced across the western landscape.    

In the clip below you can view Yak as an Apache biting the dust several times when his horse goes down head over heels.  He is also the Apache who jumps onto the stagecoach's team of horses and is shot by Ringo (John Wayne) causing him to fall between the running horses and eventually passing under the stage.

In addition, when the driver (Andy Devine) is wounded and loses control of the stage's team, Yak doubles Wayne who regains control by leaping from the stage to the back of the horses.  Watch the clip and you will see what I mean.


As a follow-up to STAGECOACH, Yak doubled Clark Gable in GONE WITH THE WIND (Selznick/MGM).  In a famous scene it was he who drove a buggy through a burning Atlanta.

A year later Yak suffered his most serious injury while doubling Gable in BOOM TOWN (MGM) when a horse went over backward and the saddle horn slammed into his stomach.  After undergoing major surgery and a long recovery, Yak returned to work only to break both ankles when a stunt went awry during the filming of a Roy Rogers film, IDAHO (Republic, 1943).

Already forty-four years old at the time of the accident, Yak began to phase out his personal stunt work in favor of stunt coordination and eventually second-unit directing.  Throughout the 40's and 50's he staged stunts in serials and western films.  During the latter decade he also began to coordinate stunts in Hollywood spectaculars, films that required organizing scenes involving large numbers of extras engaging in huge battle scenes.

First up was IVANHOE (MGM, 1952).  Filmed in England, it was Yak's first movie to be produced outside the United States. Even though it was a different experience for him, the producers had nothing but praise for the way that he organized and staged the action.

Then in 1959 came BEN HUR (MGM).  It was this film that cemented Yak's place at the top of any list of legendary stunters and stunt coordinators.  Shot in Rome, the chariot race directed by Yak may very well be not only the most famous action scene ever filmed, but also the finest.  And it was done without any serious injury to either stunt men or horses.  It is a remarkable achievement. 

After BEN-HUR, Yak was hired to stage the action scenes in other Hollywood spectaculars: SPARTACUS (Universal, 1960), EL CID (AA, 1961)THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE (Paramount, 1964), and KHARTOUM (UA, 1966).  

He finally retired in 1976.  He was eighty-years old.

As earlier noted, Yakima Canutt is in the Cowboy Hall of Fame; he also has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame; and in 1967 he received an honorary Academy Award for his accomplishments as a stunt man and for devising safety techniques and equipment designed to make stunting a less dangerous line of work.  It was only fitting that Charlton Heston made the presentation.  

Yak died in 1986.  He was ninety-years old.

Yak was simply the best that ever was at what he does. -- Charlton Heston

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