The silent screen movies of the 1920s catapulted the cowboy into the centre of popular culture.
During that era, the majority of actors who portrayed the rugged, virtuous cowboy were experienced cowboys who were excellent horsemen and could perform their own stunts. But one of these silent screen heroes excelled over all the others. Yakima Canutt was born and raised on a ranch in Washington State and broke his first wild horse at age 11.
By the time he was 17, he won the title of World’s Best Bronco Buster and he won numerous championships in the next few years. In 1919, after traveling to Los Angeles for a rodeo, Canutt decided to winter in Hollywood. While there, he met many screen personalities, including the King of the Cowboys, Tom Mix, who invited him to be in two of his movies before returning to the rodeo circuit.
Canutt was invited back to Hollywood in 1923 and worked in eight movies. He proved to be an expert at staging stunts involving horses and perfected the crupper mount, which involved leapfrogging over the horse’s rump into the saddle. Famous actor, Douglas Fairbanks, used some of Canutt’s stunts in his 1927 film The Gaucho, and the two became good friends. By 1928, Canutt had appeared in 48 silent movies. But, when talkies began to appear, he knew his career was in trouble. He had done damage to his voice while in the navy in the First World War and was reduced to doing bit parts and stunts in movies. This challenged him to perfect more and more difficult stunts which became staples in the western movie genre, such as horse falls and wagon wrecks. Canutt developed cables and harnesses that made the stunts safer. Among the new safety devices he invented was the L stirrup, which allowed a stunt rider to fall off a horse without getting hung-up in the stirrup.
Many of Canutt’s most famous stunts could be found in John Ford’s 1939 classic, Stagecoach. His drop and drag from a stagecoach, first used in that film, became a standard stunt in westerns.
While working in Hollywood in 1932, Canutt met a young man named Marion Morrison, who had just taken the stage name, John Wayne.
Wayne admired Canutt’s stunts and asked him to teach them to him. Canutt taught him how to fall off a horse and the two men developed a technique to make fight scenes more realistic. Much of Wayne’s on-screen image , such as his drawling speech and his hip-rolling walk, was copied from Canutt.
He was still working as a stunt expert in 1959 when he staged the chariot race in the first screen version of Ben Hur.
Canutt taught Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd to do their own chariot driving and ensured that no animals were injured in the film.
Canutt died at the age of 90 in 1986 and is credited with being the innovator of western movie stunts and in making the cowboy an icon in North American movies.