If you’ve read as many books on John Wayne and the western in general as I have then I am sure you’ll agree that the name of Yakima Canutt is always referred to in print with a great respect and admiration from those behind the scenes on film sets. Specifically the action genre and western in particular.
For the uninitiated, “Yak” was one of Hollywood’s most daring and well known stuntmen during the early days of cinema. So you thought it was John Wayne leaping between horses during John Ford’s Stagecoach back in ’39? Nope, it was Yak. During the same year he put on Clark Gable’s duds and drove a wagon through the burning of Atlanta in Gone With the Wind.
This book with a foreword by Charlton Heston is really broken into three parts. During Yak’s early days he was a regular rider on the rodeo circuit when that sport was just finding it’s legs. He would become a champion rider leading to fame and work in Hollywood where other men were making a name on the big screen as the worlds favorite cowboys. People like Tom Mix who Yak came in contact with.
Yak wound up filming some of his own silents but never seemed at home as an actor. What he felt he could do properly was create more thrills and real live action compared to what many silent movies were offering. Hence he became a very much in demand stuntman. It was during the early days of John Wayne’s career in the low budget fodder Duke was saddled with through much of the thirties that the two engaged in some memorable on screen fights and falls becoming fast friends. They’d even swap outfits during some of their fights so Yak could take the fall for both the villain and Duke. Hence he’s really just fighting himself through camera trickery!
Yak would do the stunts for the likes of Errol Flynn, Robert Taylor and take countless falls off horses as bad guys meeting their deaths in the years to follow.
It wasn’t always a safe out coming and the injuries began to take a toll on Yak’s body. A couple of broken ankles on one fall pretty much spelled the end and he began to move into the planning and directing second unit work on action sequences. Thankfully for cinema fans, Yak trained well and paid attention throughout his stunting career.
The third portion of the book goes into his work directing action sequences on titles like Ben Hur where he planned and filmed the great chariot race. It was actually Yak’s son Joe who doubled Heston in the big race. Aside from the westerns, Yak seemed to find steady employment on the popular spectacles of the day. He worked on Ivanhoe, Spartacus, El Cid, Fall of the Roman Empire and Khartoum before returning to the western as the book comes to a close. He even reunited with Duke on Rio Lobo.
Some of the other well known titles Yak worked on in one capacity or another are Virginia City, Gentleman Jim, Mogambo, Old Yeller, Cat Ballou, Where Eagles Dare, A Man Called Horse and Breakheart Pass.
A pretty impressive resume that allows Yak to talk quite a bit about his career and mingling with many of cinema’s biggest names.
The book ends with an afterword from John Wayne and was published in 1979. Yakima Canutt passed away in 1986 leaving an incredible amount of screen credits to his name and an honorary Oscar on the mantle for his achievements as a stuntman and developing safety devices to protect men in his field.