- Spectacular stunt work is, of course, a staple for any Western or action film today. But early Western directors were slow to develop methods of using extra, stunt actors to perform death-defying tricks on-screen. When the hapless victims are thrown from the coal tender at the end of The Great Train Robbery (1903), it is obvious that dummies are being used for the fall. The earliest silent eraWesterns rarely show much more than feigned fist fighting for action, although William S. Hart rode Fritz through a plate glass window, without trick photography, in Truthful Tulliver (1917). Early studios such as Biographand Essanay were slow to develop a “starsystem,” and as a result, directors felt no need to protect actors from dangerous scenes. With the development of the star system, the need for extras arose. By the late silent era, Westerns were becoming famous for the spectacle of their action scenes. At first, to film horses falling, directors experimented with a technique called the “Running W,” in which a series of wires were stretched across the path so that the horses, unawares, would trip. The riders, of course, were prepared and jumped on cue. Naturally, complaints about animal cruelty eventually ended the use of such devices. Yakima Canuttis usually considered the first great stunt actor and a pioneer in developing original stunts. His favorite stunt was to ride after a speeding stagecoach, jump off at the rear, pull himself up over the top, engage in a drawn-out fight while the stage careens out of control, and end with both actors falling on the horses and underneath the rolling coach. Through the years various cowboy stars such as Tom Mix, Johnny Mack Brown, and Ken Maynard developed reputations for doing their own stunts. Favorites included falling off a horse on an incline, jumping off trains atop horses, and knock-down saloon fights.
Historical Dictionary of Westerns in Cinema. Paul Varner. 2012.
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