Sunday, September 13, 2020

Architects of Action: Western Stunt Performers and Their Craft

By Christopher Robinson, WMD Senior Editor

Rousing up-tempo music cues the anticipation and excitement; horses feverishly gallop while fists swing and six-shooters blast; glass from saloon windows shatter and cowpokes take impossible spills through rooftop balconies onto hard dirty ground below. It makes for entertaining western fun, in spite of so many other aspects that go into the cinematic process.

Ultimately, it’s the single word ‘action’, that initiates production when the set is silenced and a camera starts rolling.

In fact, motion picture stunts are so integral that they are often taken for granted, because it’s just as easy to forget that the celebrated leading stars aren’t always making that action happen.

Having evolved into an industry in itself, the western stunt community emerged after the dawn of cinema when rodeo stars were recruited to stand in for matinee idols or supporting actors and villain players that they may or may not have bore a resemblance to. Rodeo work entailed a variety of rugged skills like roping and horsemanship that suitably qualified many of those performers for western movie action.

Stunt Men or Stunt Horses?

Soon former rodeo stars who took their fair share of abuse as stunt men like Art Acord, Tom Mix, Hoot Gibson and Buck Jones became cowboy stars in their own right, with their peers now doubling for them.

Additionally, where would any of them be without their trusty horses to enable them in their endeavor? Many faithfully vigorous steeds consistently performed physically strenuous rides, jumps and falls alongside their regular stunt riders. Safety was always a primary consideration in the field of movie stunts where elaborate planning was carried out with utmost precision. Many wonder still, just how dangerous those stunts actually were.

Undeniably, stunt work was every bit as crucial to the motion picture formula as its other elements and even more so in that of westerns. The necessary practice of ‘fooling’ the audience might explain why so little was known about the lives and professions of stunt men and women. Often their feats and accomplishments were kept secretive rather than promoted so as not to shatter the illusion of the pictures themselves. As such, the movie stunt industry had developed into a somewhat autonomous and ‘underground’ organization, distinctly disparate from other familiar Hollywood coalitions.

So who were these unsung, rough-and-tumble heroes and how did they manage their unique occupation?

One undisputed pioneer of movie stunt work was Yakima Canutt, born in Colfax, Washington in 1896. He transitioned from champion rodeo performing to working in hundreds of westerns from the silent era to the mid-Seventies, doubling as an actor and originating innovative stunts that became industry standards.

Initially a leading cowboy star, the arrival of sound brought his employment options to a halt when his oddly-pitched voice proved unsatisfactory. (This was a common outcome for many stars during cinema’s sound transition.)

Canutt began working to emphasize and restructure the ways in which action was performed and photographed in movies, believing that a wide array of possibilities could be attempted and achieved.

The Wagon Drop

In the classic western, Stagecoach, Canutt vaults off a speeding horse onto a runaway stagecoach, landing between two of the team’s horses. Dodging gunfire, he drops below to the team’s galloping hooves climbing face-up towards the stage until he finally lets go as it runs over him, leaving him lying on the ground.

A similar approach was performed in another scene from Stagecoach where Yak jumps from the cargo area to the rear horses, moving across the three pairs to finally mount one of the lead horses.

The Classic Fist Fight

Beginning with the action serial Shadow of the Eagle, Canutt formed a friendship and working partnership with John Wayne throughout a series of films for Mascot and Monogram Pictures. The two developed an on-screen fighting technique that gave fistfights more believability with the placement of the actors in relation to the camera hiding the ‘point of contact.’ The subsequently dubbed-in ‘slap’ sound effect would complete the exciting illusion and become the industry standard more or less still used today.

Canutt also invented several utilitarian devices that assisted in the execution and(more importantly) safety of countless stunts. After a number of increasingly severe injuries, he continued his career as a stunt coordinator and second unit director until his retirement.

Hal Needham
Needham, often a stunt double for Burt Reynolds was, at one point, the highest-paid stunt man in the world. He introduced the use of airbags in stunts and won an Oscar for his ‘camera car.’

For Needham, one of the most dangerous western stunts was the ‘stirrup drag.’ Despite rehearsing horses’ movements their directions could not be controlled assuredly. Additionally, upon falling down while being dragged by a cable, one could end up getting trampled by a horse’s hind legs.

The Standing Stage Broad Jump

Needham’s toughest and deadliest stunt was in Little Big Man, doubling as an Indian who does a standing jump from his horse 14 feet onto one hitched to a stagecoach. As the stagecoach speeds away, Dustin Hoffman’s double jumps to the lead horses, followed by Needham. It took two days to shoot in 13 takes, shot at various angles, following six months set aside to train 18 horses.

The Fall Through the Roof

Often seemingly routine stunts can place a performer in extreme danger due to minor circumstances. In Sergio Leone’s epic, Once upon a Time in the West, Henry Fonda stands on a street where he is ambushed by his double-crossing henchmen. A nearby Charles Bronson spots a gunman on a rooftop above a painted clock face and warns Fonda.

“It’s already past twelve!” Fonda then fires his gun and we see a stuntman, believed to be actor Fabio Testi, fall over the false front, crash straight through a first floor roof and seemingly hit the ground landing on his head.

Women Wanted

In the earliest days of the western stunt profession, men, often of small stature, would double for most actresses with varying results. Whitey Hughes did so throughout his stunt career as did Dean Smith, who doubled for Maureen O’Hara in McLintock. Once accomplished stunt women like Helen Gibson(wife of Hoot) and Polly Burson arrived on the scene, a more realistic approach could be appreciated. Burson, whose husband was fellow stunt professional Wayne Burson, doubled for Dale Evans as well as Betty Hutton in The Perils of Pauline when Hutton’s stunt man was injured. Years later, Burson fell down a snake pit for Kim Darby in True Grit.

Alice Van, who doubled for Gail Davis and Dale Evans, first rode a palomino named Golden Cloud while doubling for Olivia de Haviland in The Adventures of Robin Hood in 1938. Golden Cloud was later bought by Roy Rogers and renamed ‘Trigger.’

Needless to say, considerable risks were inherent in nearly every western stunt attempted by these men and women, depending, of course, on the nature of the stunt itself and how it was filmed, as well as the extent to which it had been embellished or perfected.

Editor's Note: Learn more about Alice Van on Action Actors by Neil Summers! 

They may often be dismissed as crazy or mindless, but these were a special brand of professionals who took their risks into account and planned their work meticulously, accepting the obligatory injuries and pain that went along with it. Like much that can be attributed to the world of the old west- they simply don’t make ‘em like that anymore.

About the Author

Western Magazine Digest Senior Editor Christopher Robinson is a writer, filmmaker and musician in New Jersey who has contributed to several magazines and websites.

Robinson also worked as a cameraman, videographer, cable access TV host, teacher and producer. He scripted and produced commercial videos as well as cable television programs for local consumption.

For more info about Christopher, click here.

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