By Deborah Lightfoot Sizemore
(Abridged reprint from
Persimmon Hill magazine)
The stagecoach rattled across a dry lake bed, its six-horse team pounding the ground in a dead run just ahead of the attacking Indians. A warrior raced alongside the coach's lead horses and leaped from his galloping pinto, sprawled across the back of the near horse, and swung over to stand on the harness tongue.
As the Indian grasped the lines to stop the coach, the driver took aim and fired. The warrior doubled over and fell to the ground between the two lead horses. Grabbing the tongue, he dragged on his back between the flying hooves. The driver fired again and the Indian lost his hold. The six speeding horses raced by, three on either side, and the coach swept over him. When the stage was past, the downed warrior tried to rise, then crumpled and lay deathly still.
"Cut!" yelled director John Ford, and one of the most famous action scenes in motion picture history was on film. The movie was the 1939 epic western, Stagecoach, starring John Wayne. The stagecoach team was timed in the run at 45 miles an hour [see note]; no more than three feet separated the two files of horses. The stuntman who planned the sequence and performed it flawlessly for the cameras was Yakima Canutt, champion rodeo cowboy and silent screen actor of the 1920s who became Hollywood's most respected stunt performer and a legendary action director.
One of the best to follow the rodeo road in the 1910s and 1920s, Enos Edward "Yakima" Canutt mastered the great bucking horses of his day. He rode Fox (also known as No Name) at Sheepshead Bay, New York, and Bootlegger at Cheyenne's Frontier Days in 1916; Cul de Sac at the Pendleton Round-Up in 1917; Tipperary at Belle Fourche, South Dakota, in 1920 and 1921; Black Diamond in 1921; and Corkscrew at Monte Vista, Colorado, in 1922.
Admired in Hollywood as a cowboy hero, Canutt launched a second career churning out blood-and-thunder westerns for the silent screen. When "talkies" took over, he became a stunt double for such celebrities as John Wayne, Clark Gable, Errol Flynn, Roy Rogers, and Henry Fonda. He capped a 53-year film career by directing cliffhanger scenes for some of the greatest action films ever made, including Ivanhoe, Ben-Hur, Spartacus, El Cid, Khartoum, and Where Eagles Dare.
Born November 29, 1895, on a farm in the Snake River hills of Washington, Canutt started breaking horses when he was a skinny 13-year-old. His rodeo career began with a win in the bronc-riding contest at Colfax, Washington, in 1912, when he was 16. . . .
In 1914, at the Pendleton Round-Up in Oregon, Canutt earned the nickname he carried for 72 of his 90 years. During bucking stock try-outs, he was pitched sky-high. "All the Yakima boys ride alike," commented a spectator, expressing the disdain the Oregonians felt for the riding skills of cowboys from the Yakima River region of neighboring Washington. A photographer caught Canutt in mid-flight, upside down above his horse's back. The picture ran in a local newspaper with the caption, "'Yakima' Canutt leaving the deck of a Pendleton bronc." The cowboys on the circuit immediately took to calling him "Yakima," which they soon shortened to "Yak."
In ten years of rodeo competition, Canutt built a national reputation as bronc rider, bulldogger, and all-around cowboy. . . . His rodeo fame drew the attention of a Hollywood moviemaker who had seen the champ on a newsreel and liked the six-foot Canutt's flashy on-screen presence. In 1923 "Yak" was signed to star in a series of western action pictures—the "blood-and-thunder quickies" of the silent era.
Though painfully ill-at-ease during intimate scenes with his leading ladies, Canutt proved to be a natural in the fast-paced action shots. In chase scenes, canyon jumps, clifftop leaps and fisticuffs, he performed all of his own stunts and often those of the other actors as well. He perfected the flying mount, leap-frogging over the horse's rump into the saddle. . . .
The work was steady: Canutt starred in eight westerns a year from 1923 to 1926. It was also dangerous. In one film, when his horse balked and threw him over the edge of a bluff, the actor fell twelve feet and broke his nose on the rocks below. In the 1926 film The Devil Horse, he was bitten on the neck, knocked to the ground and nearly trampled by the big black stallion of the title role.
By 1928 the silent era had given way to talkies and the cowboy star was in trouble. On a sound track, by his own admission, he sounded like "a hillbilly in a well." Others said he had a voice like a hummingbird's.
Unable to find work as an actor except for bit parts, Canutt fell back on his talent for executing difficult stunts on the first take, an ability that made him very popular with budget-minded producers and directors. For $50 an episode he wrote action scenes for serial pictures, directed the stunt work and performed the major "gags."
In the early 1930s Canutt began working with John Wayne, a professional association that would last through the making of Rio Lobo in 1970. In their early films together, Wayne and the stuntman solidly landed their punches during the fight scenes. Seeking relief from the pounding, Canutt convinced the director to place the camera at an angle so it would look like Wayne's fist met his adversary's face, though in fact it passed by without even grazing him. That was the invention of the "pass system." Other stuntmen and directors adopted it, and for years it was the standard for movie fistfighting. . . .
After stunting in Gene Autry films and in serials like The Lone Ranger and Zorro, Canutt moved up to the big time in 1939. Following his daring work in Stagecoach, he doubled Clark Gable as Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind, driving a one-horse hack through the burning streets of Atlanta.
In another Gable movie, Boom Town (1940), Canutt suffered serious internal injuries when a bucking bronc went over backward, ramming the saddle horn into Canutt's stomach. After a long recuperation, the 44-year-old stuntman returned to work, but then snapped both ankles in a leap from a wagon.
Over the next several years Canutt phased out of stunt work and into directing. He took charge of the action for more than a dozen western films in the 1940s and early 1950s. In 1952 he branched out into Hollywood spectaculars—the sweeping, romantic costume pictures that required hordes of extras for the big battle scenes.
The first of these was Ivanhoe, which was shot in England. In his first overseas film job, Canutt had to teach his English horsemen to ride western using a one-handed neck rein, so they could hold swords and lances with the free hand. He directed one of the best jousting scenes ever captured on film, and staged the siege of the castle with many dramatic falls from the high castle walls. After several days of filming, he had sent so many men plunging to their "deaths" that the director told him good-humoredly, "Yak, I don't believe there is room in the moat for any more bodies."
At age 63, still going on location around the world in well-worn boots and jeans, Canutt established himself as Hollywood's stunt master in the 1959 spectacular, Ben-Hur. Shot in Rome, it features what may be the finest action sequence ever filmed: the famous chariot race.
Using one of the largest sets in film history, an 18-acre arena, and 78 horses imported from Yugoslavia, Canutt staged a violent and apparently deadly race that holds audiences spellbound throughout its 20-minute length. For years after Ben-Hur was released, rumor had it that men had died during the filming of the chariot race. To see the picture was to believe—the sequence is frighteningly realistic. But in fact, under Canutt's direction the stunt crew of American and Italian drivers performed the race's spectacular skids, wheel locks and wrecks without an injury to man or horse.
After Ivanhoe and Ben-Hur, Canutt was picked to handle the action in Spartacus, El Cid, Fall of the Roman Empire, and Khartoum. . . . His last picture was Equus, in 1976. He retired that year at age 80.
For his achievements in stunt work, Canutt was honored in 1966 with a special Academy Award, the first Oscar presented to a stuntman. He was inducted into the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in 1975. Before his death May 24, 1986, the master was presented with a star on Hollywood Boulevard's Walk of Fame and received the Stuntman's Association Life Achievement Award.
Daredevils who thrill today's movie audiences owe much to Yakima Canutt's inventiveness. Before he entered the field, stunt work was disorganized and often deadly. When Canutt began risking life and limb in stunts for the early silent westerns, he realized the need for safer ways to get better effects on film. He is credited with designing lifesaving stunt maneuvers and equipment, such as the open "L" stirrup that made it easier to fall or jump from a running horse. By the time he retired from the film business, he boasted a record of more than 100 pictures without a serious injury to a performer or a horse. . . .
Enduring as the wild-west tradition itself, the master daredevil's work continues to command a wide audience. Classics of motion picture action that Canutt devised years ago are imitated in modern filmwork. In 1981's popular Raiders of the Lost Ark, a stunt double falls under a speeding truck and is dragged to the rear of the careening vehicle. The scene is a re-creation of Yak Canutt's fall between the horses' flying hooves in Stagecoach—still spectacular after more than four decades.
—Condensed from the Autumn 1988 Persimmon Hill, the quarterly magazine of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.
Copyright © 1988, 2008 Deborah Lightfoot Sizemore
All Rights Reserved
Several interesting black-and-white photos accompanied my article in Persimmon Hill. Back issues are available from the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum if you'd like to see the pictures. Here are the photo captions:
 Canutt doubled for John Wayne in Stagecoach, "the picture that put Wayne in the big money," Yakima noted.
 Canutt mastered a horse called Corkscrew at Monte Vista, Colorado, in 1922, adding to a string of great bucking broncs that he rode to a finish.
 In the film Dark Command (Republic, 1940), Canutt and three other men rode a wagon off the bluff into a lake. No one was hurt and the horses were back to work in an hour or so. Canutt was doubling John Wayne in the film.
 Canutt with a few of his trophies, including his Oscar, saddles won at Pendleton, and four Police Gazette belt buckles.