Western Movie Stunting 101: The Art of Falling: Part 1:
Elementary Western Horse Stunting
There’s only one good thing about Falling off a horse. It’s damn easy.
(Especially galloping full speed, handling a weapon, or without a saddle)
Making it look good however – and landing safely – is another matter.
So Saddle up … or not … we’re goin’ Stunting!
Those Poor Horses
Yakima Canutt. was a Rodeo Champion, before and during his career as a Western Film Stunt Artist. He knew what Falling was all about – and it’s obvious side effects – injury and death – though he obviously Fell a lot less than most cowboys. But his experience in Rodeo is definitely what led to his place as a Western FilmStunt Master.
But getting bucked off in a Rodeo, and Falling in a Western movie, are not quite the same thing. In Rodeo you don’t want to Fall. And if you do, you aren’t very concerned about how it looks. In Stunt Falling you’re trying to Fall – and make it look good – the more sensational, the better – higher, farther, faster …. always pushing the envelope. And in Rodeo, and especially Stunting, Yak pushed the envelope big time. He pretty well invented the Stunt industry. In either case however, you still need to land safely. Not an easy thing to do.
But before we ride any further, there’s one thing that needs to be mentioned … the Horses.
Early Western Horse Stunts seemed to demonstrate a tremendous disregard for the safety of the horses.
One example: Stunt Falls from horses sometimes employed trip lines that tripped/yanked the horses down – while galloping at full speed. The Stuntman, of course, knew a Fall was coming – the horse did not. I haven’t seen any statistics, but I can surmise there was a considerable toll on the horses. This was rightfully criticized and eventually stopped. Nowadays Stunt horses are extensively trained in Falls and any other Stunts involving horses. To Yak’s credit he later took great care and pride in inventing techniques which greatly limited injury to both man and beast – culminating in his masterpiece – one of the greatest Stunt events in film history – the spectacular (and dangerous) – Chariot Race in Ben Hur (1959) – a monumental stunting achievement that took Yak two years of planning and preparation. And despite urban legends to the contrary, there is no evidence that any horses (or actors) were killed.
Ben Hur …
Western Movie Stunting 101: The Art of Falling: Part 2:
Western Stunting 101:
Elementary Western Stunt Horsemanship
and Weapon Handling Cont …
Alright … your next Stunt is another location shot. It’s pretty simple – no riding or shooting involved.
I just need you to climb out of the speeding stagecoach and get on it’s roof … nothin’ to it.
What? You want a safety harness!!??? Wellll … we don’t have any of those … how about an extra five bucks?
Good … here we go …
Action !! … Open the door … out you go !
Hold ‘er steady boys !!!
Just climb up there … !!
Hey! Not bad! – Didn’t fall or anything.
We might make a Stuntman outta you yet.
Here’s your 15 bucks.
Western Stunt Gun Handling
Stunt 3 is mostly a series of ‘close up’ shots – so to speak – done in the studio.
You’re playing Andy Devine‘s role – stagecoach driver. You’ll only have to pretend to handle the reins – but there’s no horses on the set. Just try to look like you know what you’re doing; Handling a real team of horses would be Advanced Western Stunt Horsemanship ...
Here’s an interesting anecdote from Stagecoach (IMDB): “(Director) John Ford liked to bully actors on the set, and this was no exception. At one point he said to Andy Devine, “You big tub of lard. I don’t know why the hell I’m using you in this picture.” Undaunted, Devinereplied, “Because Ward Bond can’t drive six horses.” Point taken.
Because Andy Devine usually played a ‘comic relief” role in Westerns, his skills as a Western Actor are massively under-appreciated. He was a really a very accomplished gun handler and rider. And obviously could do other things – like drive a rig.
Now for Stunt 3… this scene will clearly demonstrate some of the dangers of Western Gun Handling/Firearms.
After you(Yakima Canutt) climb up on the roof of the stagecoach the shooting starts in earnest …
But he keeps on shootin’…
Marshal Curley Wilcox (George Bancroft) is ‘riding shotgun’ … and let’s fly …
John gets smoked again …
Note the huge muzzle flash from the shotgun … about 3 feet long!
Imagine standing in front of that?!
Doc (Thomas Mitchell) starts shootin’ too …
Did you notice Actress Louise Plattcovering her ears? She’s not Acting …
That idiot is shooting his pistol about a foot from her face !!!.
The boys keep blasting away …
OK … time to get you into some action !!
Hold still … while we blast a shotgun off beside your head …
Injuries sustained by Yakima Canutt during his career:
Rodeo (evidently a form of Stunting – or may lead to Stunting) While bulldogging in Idaho, Canutt’s mouth and upper lip were torn by a bull’s horn. After stitches, Canuttreturned to the competition. It was not until a year later that a plastic surgeon could correct the injury. Yak was Cowboy tough.
Yakfell off a 12-foot cliff and broke his nose while filming “Branded a Bandit” (1924). Minor injury.
Yak broke six ribs when a wall fell on him in “San Francisco” (1936). Not minor.
Yakpunctured a lung when a horse fell on him during the filming of “Boom Town.” Life threatening.
Yak broke both legs while falling off a wagon in “Idaho” (1943). Potentially crippling.
Wikipedia: “In the five years between 1925 and 1930, fifty-five people were killed making movies, and more than ten thousand injured. By the late 1930’s, the maverick stuntman 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.” – from Falling – (How Our Greatest Fear Became Our Greatest Thrill by Garrett Soden)
In early Stunting there were no rules, no guidelines, no techniques, no unions … nothing. Stuntman and horses were cannon fodder. Somebody would walk up to the Stunt guys and say: “I’ll pay 10 dollars for someone to fall off a 30 foot cliff.” Fall – not jump – not mentioning the rocks. Some stunt guy would jump up and say” I’ll do it.” Hey, it was the 20’s and 30’s – 10 bucks was a lot of money. Off he’d go. And possibly return. But maybe not.
But I figure Stunting accidents and injuries are greater than reported. The Stuntmen didn’t want anyone to know they got hurt – nor did the Filmmakers. Especially animals.
Because of all this Yakima Canutt rose to forefront of modern Stunt innovators – creating techniques and devices that enhanced Stunting while saving life and limb.
Elementary Western Stunt Horsemanship
and Weapon Handling
So … let’s practice some Elementary Western Stunt Horsemanship and Weapon Handling.
We’ll use the famous chase scene from Stagecoach (1939) (Directed by John Ford and Starring John Wayne) as an exercise backdrop:
OK … here we go:
Western Horsemanship: Though many people wouldn’t consider riding a horse much of Stunt, over the years a great many Stunt injuries occured from riding and horse Stunting – probably more than any other Western Stunt. Good Horsemanship in Westerns is therefore, a requirement. But in Western Stunting EXCELLENT Horsemanship is a necessity.
Weapon Handlingin Westerns: Guns can kill you – and are meant to do so. Over the years there have been accidental deaths and many injuries caused by firearms in Westerns and Action movies. Even prop guns employed in Film Making and using blank cartridges are dangerous. And as I said before, there’s likely been a lot more incidents than have been reported.
Gun Handling in Westerns opens a particularly rather large can of worms. Why? Because the Stars of the Westerns are required to handle guns (Hand Guns and Rifles …) and perform some Stunting/shooting. And Stars, in a lot of instances, are most likely not experts in Weapon Handling – NOR Stuntmen. Therefore …
Training is required – by experts. If you have no training or expertise in Weapon Handling you are a danger to yourself and and a risk to your co-workers. Movies, these days, employ Licensed Weapon Specialists to ensure the safety of the actors and crew production insurance premium as well. None of this existed in Yak’s day.
There are at least 2 ways in which Western prop firearms they can injure you:
Blank cartridges. There was notion conveyed in early Westerns was that blanks couldn’t hurt you – blank cartridges essentially being bullets with the lead projectile removed. As already noted people have been seriously injured – and killed – by guns firing blank cartridges. The initial concussion/blast – muzzle flash discharge from the barrel of the gun is deadly. I’d say it’s generally unwise to stand less that 8 feet away ?? Let’s make that 10 if possible. And often it’s not.
“Firing Blank Guns are REAL guns that have been modified to use blank ammunition. These firearms are to be considered extremely dangerous and should never be handled by anyone other than a legitimate firearms expert” – The Entertainment Weapons Specialists: http://propguys.com/gundanger/
Listen carefully: The second way in which guns can harm you is NOISE!!: BOOOM!! BWAM!! POW!!! Guns are very loud and can be damaging to your eardrums. Use earplugs when necessary/able.
OK. For your first Stunt we’ll start you off easy:
While galloping at full speed …
I want you to reload your rifle – then fire it.
This will require that you ride using no hands –
Yeah … again it would be useful if you had some experience in riding and handling firearms …
and sorry … you’re required to use blanks for this. We need to see some flash and smoke.
I’d prefer duds – safer for you – the horse – and everybody else. But …
OK … now go ahead, try it …
Got it loaded yet ??? … Good …
Now …. try leveling the rifle and shooting at something. Anything.
Uh huh …
Now … do it again.
(I won’t wait)
Here’s your ten bucks. There you go – Lesson 1: Elementary Western Stunt riding and Weapon Handling.
Next: Advanced Western Horse Stunting and Weapon Handling and Stunt 2:
I found a couple of clips that show some of Yakima Canutt’s early Western Stunt work. I hope you enjoy them. The first one shows Yak‘s stunts with a particularly dangerous horse that had already killed a man. His method of working with the horse might seem brutal by today’s standards, but was likely typical of his time.
The second is a mini documentary showing some early Stunts by Canutt – and then right up to his Stunt Directing on Ben Hur. Canutt says that his Stunt planning and Direction on the famous chariot race in Ben Hut took 2 years.
In the 20’s or 30’s real Cowboys were often recruited to Star in Westerns – like Tim McCoy, Tom Mix, Hoot Gibson, Ken Maynard, Wild Bill Elliott .etc.
And who could be a realer Cowboy than Yakima Canutt?
So in 1919, established Western Star and former rodeo contestant Tom Mix, invited Yak to be in 2 of his movies.Later Yakgot his first stunt work in a serial called Lightning Bryce; Starring Jack Hoxie.
Yak eventually worked with John Wayne 30 times and was also a stunt double for (among others) Roy Rogers, Gene Autry …
Acting, however, was not really a high factor in many early Westerns – they weren’t even ‘Talkies’, which helped a helluva lot to excuse less than sterling performances. Sometime later however, the great Western Director John Ford was given to say: “It is easier to get an actor to be a cowboy than to get a cowboy to be an actor.” (Do I detect a tinge of bitterness in there?) Thus the movement to recruit Cowboys as actors (with some noted exceptions like Slim Pickens and Ben Johnson) started to come to an end.
Let’s put it this way: Yak, was not a natural actor. He was pretty wooden with not much range of emotion – and absent a bit on that mysterious stuff called charisma. He was not destined to be a big Western Star. He still did damn well though – worked in over 300 movies: Acting, Stunting and Directing.
Golden Boot Award
Yak was eventually awarded the Golden Boot Awardin 1984 –which recognized the achievements of Cowboy film heroes and heroines, as well as writers, directors, stunt people and character actors who had significant involvement in the film and TV Westerns.
Yakima Canutt Selected filmography (Wikipedia)
Yakima’s film credits are massive – over 300 movies as either Actor, Stuntman and action Director.
Too much to list here … so this is an impressive abbreviated list:
Sagebrush Trail (1933)
West of the Divide (1934)
The Man From Utah (1934)
Lawless Range (1935)
Stagecoach (1939) second unit director, stunt coordinator, and stunts/Cavalry scout, all uncredited
Gone With the Wind (1939) as man who attacks Scarlett while riding through shanty town; also uncredited stunt coordinator/stunt double for Clark Gable
Ivanhoe (1952) second unit director
Knights of the Round Table (1953) second unit director, uncredited
The Lawless Rider (1954) director
King Richard and the Crusaders (1954) second unit director
Old Yeller (1957) second unit director
Ben-Hur (1959) second unit director
Swiss Family Robinson (1960) second unit director
El Cid (1961) second unit director
The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) second unit director
Cat Ballou (1965) second unit director; executive in charge of production; uncredited stunt coordinator
Khartoum (1966) second unit director
Where Eagles Dare (1968) second unit director
A Man Called Horse (1970) second unit director
Rio Lobo (1970) second unit director
Breakheart Pass (1975) second unit director
1959 – National Board of Review of Motion Pictures Special Citation shared with Andrew Marton for directing the chariot race in Ben-Hur
1967 – Academy Honorary Award for achievements as a stunt man and for developing safety devices to protect stunt men everywhere
1976 – Inducted into National Cowboy Hall of Fame
1978 – Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences “A tribute to Yakima Canutt” dinner
1984 – The Motion Picture & Television Fund’s Golden Boot Award
There is no bronc that can’t be rode ….
and there is no cowboy that can’t be throwed
– Cowboy Proverb
Back a ways, Don (https://donostertag.wordpress.com/) (has a hell of a blog) asked about me to do a bit on Yakima Canutt. No problem with that. Yak was one of the greatest Rodeo contestants, Stunt Artists and Stunt Innovators who ever lived – and deserves a large nod. He is profiled on many Western Blogs or Western Websites and I could easily have just re-posted one of his Bios from any of them. Don’t want to do that. So I’ve been feverishly working on coming up with my own compliment to him. Let’s get started
Yakima Canutt (Nov. 29, 1895 – May 24, 1986)
Born: Colfax, Washington
Yakima Canutt was anAmerican Champion Rodeo competitor, Actor, Stuntman and film action Director.
Yakima Canutt / Cowboy
Raised on a Washington ranch, Yaklearned to hunt, trap, shoot, and ride – and he’s said to have broke a wild bronco when he was 11.
Started competing in rodeos at age 16 – then joined a wild west show at age 17 as a trick rider.
Age 16, he won the title of World’s Best Bronco Buster at the Whitman County Fair in Colfax.
At 17 he started rodeo riding professionally and gained a reputation as a bronc rider, bulldogger and all-around cowboy.
At the 1914 Pendleton Round-Up, Pendleton, Oregon, he got the nickname “Yakima” when a newspaper caption misidentified him.
Winning second place at the 1915 Pendleton Round-Up brought attention from show promoters, who invited him to compete around the country.
Won his first World Championship at the Olympics of the West in 1917 and won more Championships in the next few years.
Between rodeos, he broke horses for the French government in World War I.
In 1918, he went to Spokane to enlist in the United States Navy and was stationed in Bremerton, Washington. That fall, was given a 30-day furlough to defend his rodeo title. He was discharged in spring 1919 due to the Armistice.
At the 1919 Calgary Stampede, he competed in the bucking event.
He traveled to Los Angeles for a rodeo where he met Western Film Star Tom Mix, who had also started in rodeos. Mix invited him to be in two of his pictures.Canutt got his first taste of stunt work in a fight scene on a serial called Lightning Bryce.
Left Hollywood to compete in the 1920 rodeo circuit.
The Fort Worth rodeo was nicknamed “Yak’s show” after he won the saddle-bronc competition three years in a row from 1921 to 1923.
He had won the saddle-bronc competition in Pendleton in 1917, 1919, and 1923 and came second in 1915 and 1929.
Won the steer bulldogging in 1920 and 1921, and won the All-Around Police Gazette Belt in 1917, 1919, 1920 and 1923.
Inducted into the National Cowboy Hall of Fame / Rodeo Hall of Fame.
Pendleton Round Up Hall of Fame.
The Pro Rodeo Hall of Champions Hall of Fame.
The Stuntmen’s Hall of Fame.
Hollywood Walk of Fame.
While in Hollywood in 1923 for an awards ceremony, he was offered eight western action pictures for producer Ben Wilson at Burwillow Studios …