Many industry professionals have cautioned me that due to my Tea Party like beliefs, I will have limited opportunities to work in film, either in front of the camera as a whip consultant, as I have done a time or two, or behind the camera as a writer. My specific attitude toward collective oriented labor unions is the nail in the coffin as today’s Hollywood for the most part has become an arm of the federal government, and the policies of statism advocated there. But there are rare exceptions, and of late Warner Brothers with Legendary Pictures have produced fantastic films like Man of Steel and Dark Knight Rises, while Disney Studios is putting out pictures like Iron Man, the Avengers and now the upcoming The Lone Ranger. It is the Lone Ranger that has me extremely excited because that character as I have mentioned before goes deep into my past. I love the old versions of the Lone Ranger, the old Saturday morning serials that were recaptured by George Lucas when he made Star Wars and Indiana Jones. I love the old serials so much that I have seen many of them, even though they are way before my time. While they lack the polish and sophistication of modern films, they are filled with heart and soul. Many of the film techniques used today in all the popular blockbusters were developed during the period of the popular Republic serials. And of those serials there was none I love more than the 1939 series called Zorro’s Fighting Legion.
For readers of my novel The Symposium of Justice, I pay tribute to that 12 chapter serial in three different ways. The first is that the character conflict of Fletcher Finnegan is much like the fight that Don Diego had with Don Del Oro in Zorro’s Fighting Legion. I even went to the trouble of naming the antics of my protagonist in the novel Cliffhanger’s Fighting Legion. The third is that the restaurant that Fletcher Finnegan worked at as a grill cook so that he could learn the movements of the towns politics behind the scenes was named Republics, after of course the company that produced Zorro’s Fighting Legion. It was Zorro’s Fighting Legion that inspired me to take up the bullwhip to the extent that I have, and make it part of my life, almost as important to me as an arm or a leg on my body. There is a lot of whip work in Zorro’s Fighting Legion and I wanted to learn every single trick, which I did. I came to learn about Zorro’s Fighting Legion because I learned at age 12 while watching a documentary about the making of Raiders of the Lost Ark that the great stunt performed by Terry Lenard during the famous “Desert Chase” scene was first done by the great stuntman Yakima Canutt who I feel virtually built Hollywood on his back. Without the great work of stuntmen like Yakima Canutt and Republic Pictures there would never have been a modern-day Star Wars, an Indiana Jones, or even movie versions of Man of Steel, Iron Man, or Dark Knight Rises.
Hollywood was not always liberal. Communism slowly seeped into the Hollywood movie machines in the late 1930s during The Red Decade, but studios resisted. Hollywood Black Friday is the name given, in the history of organized labor in the United States, to October 5, 1945. On that date, a six-month strike by the set decorators represented by the Conference of Studio Unions (CSU) boiled over into a bloody riot at the gates of Warner Brothers‘ studios in Burbank, California. The strikes helped the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947 and led to the eventual break up of the CSU and reorganization of the then rival International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) leadership. The Conference of Studio Unions was, at the time, an International union belonging to the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and represented the Carpenters, Painters, Cartoonists and several other crafts working for the Studios in Hollywood.
Seventy-seven set decorators broke away from IATSE to form the Society of Motion Picture Interior Decorators (SMPID) and negotiated an independent contract with the producers in 1937. The SMPID joined the CSU in 1943 and the CSU represented the SMPID in their contract negotiations. After the producers stalled the negotiations for nine months, IATSE questioned CSU jurisdiction over the Set Decorators which led to a further five-month delay as the CSU and IATSE fought over jurisdiction. When the Producers refused to acknowledge an independent arbitrator appointed by the War Labor Board‘s assessment that the CSU had jurisdiction over the Set Decorators in February 1945, it set the stage for the strike
By October, money and patience were running low as some 300 strikers gathered at Warner Brothers’ main gate on October 5, 1945. Temperatures were abnormally warm for the already hot LA autumn. When non-strikers attempted to report for work at 6:00 in the morning, the barricades went up and tensions flared. As replacement workers attempted to drive through the crowd, their cars were stopped and overturned. Hollywood would never again be the same as a gradual erosion of value began to leave Hollywood projects as the labor unions were backed by communist sympathizers with eyes favoring the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
Reinforcements arrived on both sides as the picket increased to some 1,000 people and Glendale and Los Angeles Police came to aid the Burbank Police and Warner Security attempting to maintain the peace. When more replacement workers attempted to break through to the gate, a general melee ensued as strikers mobbed them and strikebreakers responded by attacking the strikers with chains, hammers, pipes, tear gas, and night sticks. Warner security rained more tear gas down from the roofs of the buildings adjoining the entrance. Warner firefighters sprayed the strikers with fire hoses. By the end of the day, some 300 police and deputy sheriffs had been called to the scene and over 40 injuries were reported.
The picketers returned the following Monday with an injunction barring the police from interfering with the strike while Warner retaliated with its own injunction limiting the number of pickets at the gate. Although the violence would continue through the week, national exposure forced the parties back to the bargaining table and resulted in an end to the strike one month later but the CSU victory was a Pyrrhic one, where contentions over wording dictated by an AFL arbitration team would lead to further questioning as to CSU and IATSE jurisdiction on the set.
Zorro’s Fighting Legion was created during this turbulent period but was still free of unionized influence. That makes it much more special to me for the sheer fact that the foundations of American story telling were built upon these Republic serials. It was film projects like this one that helped slow the erosion of communism in America with the western that so proudly articulated American values of justice, and Zorro’s Fighting Legion is certainly that type of film collection. I see the Republic serials as Hollywood’s response to the growing tension forming ahead of the Cold War between the communism of the Soviet Union and the capitalism of America. The struggle of this philosophical debate is all over the story of Zorro’s Fighting Legion, and has resonated with me for decades. One of the greatest days in my life was when the emergence of DVD technology allowed me to purchase the entire series to own for myself to watch over and over again, which has only been possible in recent years. But even better than that, Zorro’s Fighting Legion is now available on YouTube, so to share this unique treasure with my readers here, and to share my vision of what Hollywood is all about in celebration of the upcoming Lone Ranger by Disney, please do enjoy all twelve episodes shown below. They are kind of slow and boring compared to today’s entertainment, but try to watch them the way I do, for their purity of purpose, simplicity in design, and sheer bold stunt work by the great Yakima Canutt. Mixed through the rest of the article between the episodes is information that is needed to compliment the films.
Zorro’s Fighting Legion is a 1939 Republic Pictures film serial consisting of twelve chapters. It features Reed Hadley as Zorro. The plot revolves around his alter-ego Don Diego’s fight against the evil Don Del Oro.
A trademark of this serial is the sudden demise of at least one native informant in each episode. The direction was identical for each informant’s death, creating a source of unintentional humor: each informant, upon uttering the phrase, “Don Del Oro is…”, is shot by a golden arrow and dies before being able to name the villain’s alter ego. The serial is also unusual in featuring a real historical personage, Mexican President Benito Juárez, as a minor character.
The mysterious Don Del Oro (“Lord of Gold”), an idol of the Yaqui Indians, has emerged and attacks the gold trade of the Republic of Mexico, planning to take over the land and become Emperor. A man named Francisco is put in charge of a fighting legion to combat the Yaqui tribe and protect the gold, but he is attacked by men working for Don Del Oro. Zorro comes to his rescue, but it is too late for him. Francisco’s partner recognizes Zorro as the hidalgo Don Diego Vega. Francisco asks Diego, as Zorro, to take over the fighting legion and defeat Don Del Oro.
Republic Pictures was an American independent film production-distribution corporation with studio facilities, operating from 1935 through 1959, and was best known for specializing in westerns, movie serials and B films emphasizing mystery and action.
The studio was also responsible for financing and distributing one Shakespeare film, Orson Welles‘ Macbeth (1948), and several of the films of John Ford during the 1940s and early 1950s. It was also notable for developing the careers of John Wayne, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers.
Born Enos Edward Canutt in the Snake River Hills, near Colfax, Washington; he was one of five children of John Lemuel Canutt, a rancher, and Nettie Ellen Stevens. He grew up in eastern Washington on a ranch near Penawawa Creek, founded by his grandfather and operated by his father, who also served a term in the state legislature. His formal education was limited to elementary school in Green Lake, Washington, then a suburb of Seattle. He gained the education for his life’s work on the family ranch, where he learned to hunt, trap, shoot, and ride.
He broke a wild bronco when 11. As a 6-foot-tall (1.8 m) sixteen-year-old he started bronc riding at the Whitman County Fair in Colfax in 1912 and at 17 he won the title of World’s Best Bronco Buster. Canutt started rodeo riding professionally and gained a reputation as a bronc rider, bulldogger and all-around cowboy. It was at the 1914 Pendleton Round-Up, Pendleton, Oregon he got his nickname “Yakima” when a newspaper caption misidentified him. “Yakima Canutt may be the most famous person NOT from Yakima, Washington” says Elizabeth Gibson, author of Yakima, Washington. Winning second place at the 1915 Pendleton Round-Up brought attention from show promoters, who invited him to compete around the country.
“I started in major rodeos in 1914, and went through to 1923. There was quite a crop of us traveling together, and we would have special railroad cars and cars for the horses. We’d play anywhere from three, six, eight ten-day shows. Bronc riding and bulldogging were my specialties, but I did some roping,” said Canutt.
During the 1916 season, he became interested in divorcee Kitty Wilks, who had won the Lady’s Bronc-Riding Championship a couple of times. They married on July 20, 1917 while at a show in Kalispell, Montana; he was 21 and she 23. The couple divorced about 1922. While bulldogging in Idaho, Canutt’s mouth and upper lip were torn by a bull’s horn; but after stitches, Canutt returned to the competition. It wasn’t until a year later that a plastic surgeon could correct the injury.
Canutt won his first world championship at the Olympics of the West in 1917 and won more championships in the next few years. In between rodeos he broke horses for the French government in World War I. In 1918, he went to Spokane to enlist in the Navy and was stationed in Bremerton. In the fall he was given a 30-day furlough to defend his rodeo title. Having enlisted for the war, he was discharged in spring 1919. At the 1919 Calgary Stampede he competed in the bucking event and met Pete Knight.
He traveled to Los Angeles for a rodeo, and decided to winter in Hollywood, where he met screen personalities. It was here that Tom Mix, who had also started in rodeos, invited him to be in two of his pictures. Mix added to his flashy wardrobe by borrowing two of Canutt’s two-tone shirts and having his tailor make 40 copies. Canutt got his first taste of stunting with a fight scene on a serial called Lightning Bryce ; he didn’t stay, and left Hollywood to play the 1920 rodeo circuit.
The Fort Worth rodeo was nicknamed “Yak’s show” after he won the saddle-bronc competition three years in 1921, 1922 and 1923. He had won the saddle-bronc competition in Pendleton in 1917, 1919, and 1923 and came second in 1915, and 1929. Canutt won the steer bulldogging in 1920, and 1921 and won the All-Around Police Gazette belt in 1917, 1919, 1920 and 1923. While in Hollywood in 1923 for an awards ceremony, he was offered eight western action pictures for producer Ben Wilson at Burwillow Studios; the first was to be Riding Mad.
Canutt had been perfecting tricks such as the Crupper Mount, a leap-frog over the horse’s rump into the saddle. Douglas Fairbanks used some in his film The Gaucho. Fairbanks and Canutt became friends and competed regularly at Fairbanks’ gym. Canutt took small parts in pictures of others to get experience. It was in Branded a Bandit (1924) that his nose was broken in a 12-foot fall from a cliff. The picture was delayed several weeks, and when it resumed Canutt’s close shots were from the side. A plastic surgeon reset the nose, which healed, inspiring Canutt to remark that he thought it looked better.
When his contract with Wilson expired in 1927, Canutt was making appearances at rodeos across the country. By 1928 the talkies were coming out and though he had been in 48 silent pictures, Canutt knew his career was in trouble. His voice had been damaged from flu in the Navy. He started taking on bit parts and stunts, and realized more could be done with action in pictures.
In 1930 between pictures and rodeoing, Canutt met Minnie Audrea Yeager Rice at a party at her parents’ home. She was 12 years his junior. They kept company during the next year while he picked up work on the serials for Mascot Pictures Corporation. They married on November 12, 1931.
When rodeo riders invaded Hollywood, they brought a battery of rodeo techniques that Canutt would expand and improve, including horse falls and wagon wrecks, along with the harnesses and cable rigs to make the stunts foolproof and safe. Among the new safety devices was the ‘L’ stirrup, which allowed a man to fall off a horse without getting hung in the stirrup. Canutt also developed cabling and equipment to cause spectacular wagon crashes, while releasing the team, all on the same spot every time. Safety methods such as these saved film-makers time and money and prevented accidents and injury to performers. One of Yakima’s inventions was the ‘Running W’ stunt, bringing down a horse at the gallop by attaching a wire, anchored to the ground, to its fetlocks and launching the rider forwards spectacularly. This either killed the horse, or rendered it badly shaken and unusable for the rest of the day. The ‘Running W’ is now banned and has been replaced with the falling-horse technique. It is believed that the last time it was used was on the 1983 Iraqi film al-Mas’ Ala Al-Kubra when the British actor and friend of Yak Marc Sinden and stuntman Ken Buckle (who had been trained by Yak) performed the stunt three times during a cavalry charge sequence.
It was while working on Mascot serials that Canutt practiced and perfected his most famous stunts, including the drop from a stagecoach that he would employ in John Ford‘s 1939Stagecoach. He first did it in Riders of the Dawn in 1937 while doubling for Jack Randall. In his 1981 film Raiders of the Lost Ark, Steven Speilberg paid homage to Canutt, recreating the stunt when a stuntman, Terry Leonard, (doubling for Harrison Ford) ‘dropped’ from the front of a German Army transport truck, was dragged underneath (along a prepared trench) and then climbed up the back and round to the front again.
While at Mascot, Canutt met John Wayne while doubling for him in a motorcycle stunt for The Shadow of the Eagle in 1932. Wayne admired Canutt’s agility and fearlessness, and Canutt respected Wayne’s willingness to learn and attempt his own stunts. Canutt taught Wayne how to fall off a horse.
“The two worked together to create a technique that made on-screen fight scenes more realistic. Wayne and Canutt found if they stood at a certain angle in front of the camera, they could throw a punch at an actor’s face and make it look as if actual contact had been made.”
Canutt and Wayne pioneered stunt and screen fighting techniques still in use. Much of Wayne’s on-screen persona was from Canutt. The characterizations associated with Wayne – the drawling, hesitant speech and the hip-rolling walk – were pure Canutt. Said Wayne, “I spent weeks studying the way Yakima Canutt walked and talked. He was a real cowhand.”
In 1932, Canutt’s first son Edward Clay was born and nicknamed ‘Tap’, short for Tapadero, a Spanish word for a stirrup covering. It was in 1932 that Canutt broke his shoulder in four places while trying to transfer from horse to wagon team. Though work was scarce, he got by combining stunting and rodeo work.
In 1934, Herbert J. Yates of Consolidated Film Industries combined Monogram, Mascot, Liberty, Majestic, Chesterfield, and Invincible Pictures to form Republic Pictures, and Canutt became Republic’s top stuntman. He handled all the action on many pictures, including Gene Autry films; and several series and serials, such as The Lone Ranger andZorro. For Zorro Rides Again, Canutt did almost all the scenes in which Zorro wore a mask, and he was on the screen as much as the star John Carroll. When the action was indicated in a Republic script, it said “see Yakima Canutt for action sequences.”
William Witney, one of Republic’s film directors, said:
“There will probably never be another stuntman who can compare to Yakima Canutt. He had been a world champion cowboy several times and where horses were concerned he could do it all. He invented all the gadgets that made stunt work easier. One of his clever devices was a step that attached to the saddle so that he had leverage to transfer to another moving object, like a wagon or a train. Another was the “shotgun,” a spring-loaded device used to separate the tongue of a running wagon from the horses, thus cutting the horses loose. It also included a shock cord attached to the wagon bed, which caused wheels to cramp and turn the wagon over on the precise spot that was most advantageous for the camera.”
In the 1936 film San Francisco Canutt replaced Clark Gable in a scene in which a wall was to fall on the star. Canutt said: “We had a heavy table situated so that I could dive under it at the last moment. Just as the wall started down, a girl in the scene became hysterical and panicked. I grabbed her, leaped for the table, but didn’t quite make it.” The girl was unhurt but he broke six ribs.
Canutt tried to get into directing; he was growing older and knew his stunting days were numbered. Harry Joe, Canutt’s second son, was born in January 1937. Joe and Tap would become important stuntmen, working with their father.
In 1938, Republic Pictures started expanding into bigger pictures and budgets. Canutt’s mentor and action director for the 1925 Ben-Hur, Breezy Eason was hired as second unit director, and Canutt to coordinate and ramrod the stunts. For Canutt this meant hiring stuntmen and doing some stunts himself, but laying out the action for the director and writing additional stunts.
“In the five years between 1925 and 1930, fifty-five people were killed making movies, and more than ten thousand injured. By the late 1930s, the maverick stuntman willing to do anything for a buck was disappearing. Now under scrutiny, experienced stunt men began to separate themselves from amateurs by building special equipment, rehearsing stunts, and developing new techniques.” – fromFalling: How Our Greatest Fear Became Our Greatest Thrill by Garrett Soden.
John Ford hired Canutt on John Wayne‘s recommendation for Stagecoach, where Canutt supervised the river-crossing scene as well as the Indian chase scene, did the stagecoach drop, and doubled for Wayne in the coach stunts. For safety during the stagecoach drop stunt, Canutt devised modified yokes and tongues, to give extra handholds and extra room between the teams. Ford told him that whenever Ford made an action picture and Canutt wasn’t working elsewhere, he was on Ford’s payroll. Also in 1939, Canutt doubled Clark Gable in the burning of Atlanta in Gone With the Wind; he also appeared as a renegade accosting Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) as she crosses a bridge in a carriage driving through a shantytown.
Second Unit Director
In 1940, Canutt sustained serious internal injuries when a horse fell on him while doubling for Clark Gable in Boom Town (1940). Though in discomfort for months after an operation to repair his bifurcated intestines, he continued to work. Republic’s Sol Siegel offered him the chance to direct the action sequences of Dark Command, starring Wayne and directed by Raoul Walsh. On Dark Command, Canutt fashioned an elaborate cable system to yank back the plummeting coach before it fell on the stuntman and horses; he also created a breakaway harness from which they were released before hitting the water.
It was in 1943 while doing a low-budget Roy Rogers called Idaho that Canutt broke both his legs at the ankles in a fall off a wagon. He recovered to write the stunts and supervise the action for another Wayne film In Old Oklahoma. In the next decade Canutt became one of the best second unit and action directors. MGM brought Canutt to England in 1952 to direct the action and jousting sequences in Ivanhoe with Robert Taylor. This would set a precedent by filming action abroad instead of on the studio lot, and Canutt introduced many British stuntmen to Hollywood-style stunt training. Ivanhoe was followed by Knights of the Round Table, again with director Richard Thorpe and starring Robert Taylor. Canutt was again brought in for lavish action scenes in King Richard and the Crusaders.
Canutt directed the close-action scenes for Stanley Kubrick‘s Spartacus, spending five days directing retakes that included the slave army rolling its flaming logs into the Romans, and other fight scenes featuring Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis and John Ireland.
For Ben-Hur, Canutt staged the chariot race with nine teams of four horses. He trained Charlton Heston, (Judah Ben-Hur) and Stephen Boyd, (Messala) to do their own charioteering. He and his crew spent five months on the race sequence. In contrast to the 1925 film, not one horse was hurt, and no humans were seriously injured; though Joe Canutt, while doubling for Charlton Heston, did cut his chin because he did not follow his father’s advice to hook himself to the chariot when Judah Ben-Hur’s chariot bounced over the wreck of another chariot.
Walt Disney brought Canutt in to do Second Unit for Westward Ho, the Wagons! in 1956; the first live action Western Disney feature film followed by Old Yeller the next year, and culminating in 1960’s Swiss Family Robinson which involved transporting many exotic animals to a remote island in the West Indies.
Anthony Mann specifically requested Canutt for Second Unit for his 1961 El Cid, where Canutt directed sons Joe and Tap doubling forCharlton Heston and Christopher Rhodes in a stunning tournament joust. “Canutt was surely the most active stager of tournaments since the Middle Ages” – from Swordsmen of the Screen. He was determined to make the combat scenes in El Cid the best that had ever been filmed. Mann again requested him for 1964’s The Fall of the Roman Empire. Over the next ten years, Canutt would continue to work, bringing his talents to Cat Ballou, Khartoum, Where Eagles Dare and 1970’s A Man Called Horse.
For his contribution to the motion picture industry, Yakima Canutt has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1500 Vine Street. In 1967, he was given an Honorary Academy Award for achievements as a stunt man and for developing safety devices to protect stunt men everywhere. He was inducted into the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum (Hall of Fame).
1985 – Yakima appeared as himself in “Yak’s Best Ride” directed by John Crawford. Produced by Clyde Lucas and Ed Penny
He is buried at Valhalla Memorial Park Cemetery there.
Now you might understand why dear reader that I feel the way I do. The kind of Hollywood, and adversely the kind of America I want is the one that made movies like Zorro’s Fighting Legion which were populated by men like Yakima Canutt. My admiration for George Lucas is that he kept this type of America alive for the world by paying direct tribute to the old Republic serials, particularly Zorro’s Fighting Legion with his creation of Indiana Jones. Like Republic Studios, George Lucas’ Lucasfilm made movies with the same level of independence which fashioned the Republic serials to be so important in American storytelling. Raiders of the Lost Ark, not to take anything away from the visionary story of placing a globetrotting archeologist in a high adventure setting which has advanced science in so many wonderful ways, borrowed heavily from the old Republic serials and because it did, made me aware of their existence across time and space. And now you too dear reader have seen one, the best one in my opinion. One of the big fears that many current day Star Wars fans has is that Disney will ruin the Saturday morning serial feel to the films that mean more to people than even modern religions can duplicate. The reason is that the stories have values that are not provided in modern society, and movie fans are hungry for films with value. But Disney, even though it is a large company has not forgotten where it came from. It knows what Uncle Walt told them from beyond the grave and Star Wars is in good hands. The evidence is in The Lone Ranger which Disney is producing to re-invent the western the way they re-invented the pirate stories. But it cannot be forgotten that what came first, was the great Republic serials like Zorro’s Fighting Legion where truth, justice, and the American way were plot points of value not avoided by a growing consensus toward world-wide communist domination.
The Don Del Oro of our time is all those statist lovers who would destroy all who attempt to stand for goodness. They reside among us in reality with masks hiding their true intentions from behind the desks of union leadership, political office, even movie studio heads. But not everyone is playing by the rules, and like Don Diego from Zorro’s Fighting Legion there are film producers like George Lucas who kept the old serials alive for a new generation, and Jerry Bruckheimer who is making the modern version of The Lone Ranger possible. But more importantly, it is the work of men like Yakima Canutt, and Terry Lenard who gave wings to the ideas of freedom, which motion pictures have traditionally stood for, and still do in isolated cases like Disney’s The Lone Ranger, and Warner Brother’s Man of Steel.
It is worth taking a day or two to watch all these clips. So make up some snacks in the kitchen and take some time to enjoy the foundations of American film and the heroic ideals that accompany them.