With Westworld riding purposefully back to our screens later this month, promising plenty more horse and six-shooter themed action, we take a look back at two of the Western genre’s most famous equine-based stunts and their modern-day interpretations.
One of the most enduring and celebrated stunts in Hollywood history was perfected by Yakima Canutt, a rodeo rider turned stuntman and later action director who also used to break horses for the French military during World War 1!
In 1937’s Riders of the Dawn, Canutt thrilled audiences by dropping from a stagecoach and passing underneath it and repeated the stunt two years later in Stagecoach when doubling for John Wayne.
As legendary stunt coordinator Vic Armstrong says in this video, the scene is all the more impressive because of the basic, rudimentary nature of the equipment available to film crews at the time.
The feat was later paid homage to in Raiders of the Lost Ark in the scene where Indy (Harrison Ford) finds himself knocked from the truck carrying the Ark of the Covenant.
Director Steven Spielberg had stuntman Terry Leonard, doubling for Ford, pass beneath the truck Canutt-style, before remounting the vehicle and taking on the driver.
Another stunt that’s always a hit with audiences is the boarding of a train from horseback.
The move is commonly shown in early Westerns as the preferred method of outlaws robbing a train and, despite there being no record or any outlaw ever doing so (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Train_robbery), the stunt stuck in audiences’ imaginations.
The stunt has become so popular that it routinely appears outside of ‘pure’ Westerns – one of the more memorable TV examples is The A-Team two-parter ‘When You Comin’ Back, Range Rider?’ in which Hannibal (George Peppard) and Face (Dirk Benedict) hijack a train full of stolen horses.
Hollywood is also keen to revisit the set-up, such as Back to the Future Part III’s ‘Is this a hold up?’, ‘No, it’s a science experiment’ scene, there’s also an even more ambitious version in The Legend of Zorro (2005) where de la Vega’s horse jumps into the train alongside its owner and, of course, from horseback is how Indy boarded the truck he fell off in the first place:
High octane scenes can be dangerous which is why stuntmen normally fill for actors and, as explained in this 2006 article in The Horse, specialists such as the American Humane Association monitor shoots involving animals to ensure appropriate care, stabling arrangements and even the right horse food are always available, as well as ensuring the animals aren’t exposed to unfair or unnecessary risk for our entertainment.
As with Canutt’s work, this stunt has also been modernised, with action heroes routinely leaping from motorbikes, cars, trucks and trucks onto lorries, trains and planes – all taking their inspiration from same early Westerns.
And now, thanks to WestWorld, audiences are able to enjoy a weekly, big budget, trip back to the old west and relish in a new wave of stunts, shoot-outs and intrigue.
WestWorld season two arrives on Sky Atlantic and Now TV later this month.