Sunset in the West

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In the not so very long ago I started a talk in a properly sombre way with the single sentence: “Yakima Canutt is dead!” Now don’t think I didn’t calculate the shock value of a line lamenting the death of a man that probably not one listener in 10,000 had ever heard of.

It was, however, I hope, a praiseworthy effort to attract enough people long enough to learn at least the identity of a man to whom millions of movie goers owed much of their pleasure and not a few of their near heart attacks.

The wonderful name Yakima Canutt almost always appeared on the screen but you had to be very quick to catch it because it came when the movie was over and they started what is known as the credit crawl which these days, since every carpenter and assistant make-up man has to have his name printed in letters as big as the stars, ought to be called the whizzing credit roll.

You’ll guess the crucial breathtaking part that Yakima Canutt always played when I tell you that, watching the breathtaking feats of horsemanship performed by Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, John Wayne, it might have been a comfort for you to know that Rogers, Autry and Wayne were cosily sitting up with the cameraman or the director – that the body falling from a horse over a cliff or being dragged at a gallop through a mile of mud or dust or leaping from one bare back to another 10 feet away was the tough and by then pretty battered body of Yakima Canutt – the greatest stuntman in the history of the movies.

To fill in a little more about him: he was born in the far western state of Washington just a little over a hundred years ago. He was a ranch hand since boyhood and joined rodeos and Wild West shows which toured the country with great dash and valour once the Indian had been tamed and penned off in reservations.

In his early 20s he became the world’s rodeo champion and pretty soon in Hollywood’s early 20s he was beckoned and begged to fill in for the handsome male cowboy stars, who with the increasing popularity of the Western movie, needed somebody to perform the appalling stunts that tended to rough up the handsome profiles of the originals.

Canutt’s name was Enos Edward Canutt but it was in the small town – famous for its rodeo – of Yakima, Washington that he’d made his name and that was the name he stayed with. It was granted by the most sceptical prop man and the most self-important star that Canutt performed the most dangerous and the most spectacular stunts ever seen on the screen. It was attested by the X-rays that by the time he was approaching 40 he’d broken most of the bones in his body.

Patched up he retired to direct other less gifted stuntmen. In the teeth of the best medical opinion he defied mortality and died at the astonishing age of 91.

Well I recalled him and some of his more excruciating gymnastics this week when Roy Rogers died – the singing cowboy. One generation, at least, found its spokesman on Tuesday in President Clinton who said: “There will be a lot of sad and grateful Americans especially of my generation.”

President Clinton was born in – I can’t believe it – 1946. What’s he doing telling us about the Second World War and the Berlin airlift? I believe him when he says Roy Rogers was his hero but the generation just before him that had seen most of the Roy Rogers 91 feature films and probably bought Roy Rogers lunch baskets and slept on camping trips on Roy Rogers blankets – that generation, in a Life magazine national survey conducted among children – at the time Clinton would have been minus two – the three greatest Americans named were Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and Roy Rogers.

This reputation will astound previous generations who think back to Gene Autry, to Tex Ritter, to Tom Mix not to mention the commanding figures of John Wayne and Gary Cooper. And how about the most brooding, most realistic cowboy of them all, who from much roaming out west as a youngster in the 1970s knew that the cowboy tended to be more than anything a land pirate, greedy to intrude on the homesteader’s land, in many ways a hustler and sometimes a reformed killer or shootist. This man was 50 when he became the world famous film cowboy. I’m about the only living person who remembers him – William S. Hart – so I won’t even mention his name.

But I don’t think Roy Rogers’s resounding popularity in the late 40s and early 50s – when there were 2,000 or more Rogers fan clubs – I don’t think it’s difficult to explain. He represented for the young the lighter myth of the cowboy. Daring, of course, a good horseman, properly devoted – as the Constitution requires – to his horse Trigger. Having a pretty wife, always kindly, always coming out top man. America then had come out top dog and was set for a dozen more years of prosperity and general cheerfulness under President Ike.

What a rollicking time the 50s was. When he first appeared the New York Times said of Roy Rogers: “He has a drawl like Gary Cooper” – Gary Cooper never had a drawl by the way – “and a smile like Shirley Temple.” The studio didn’t like that and suggested he use some special drops to widen his eyes. But to their great relief his young fans liked his crinkly look and since Gene Autry had gone off to war – I mean for real, in life – Roy Rogers became the king of the cowboys and from then on solidified his image protecting the weak, being kind to animals, doing good deeds every day – a singing Boy Scout.

But if other times require other heroes that means in the history of the Western movie another type of cowboy. I never fail to marvel anew at the hold that the cowboy figure has on Europeans – maybe on Asians too, I don’t know – but I read only the other day in a biography that when at the very end of the 1950s Nikita Khrushchev – on his first, I believe, visit to the United States – was asked by President Eisenhower if there was one American more than another he wished to meet – Khrushchev didn’t hesitate: “John Wayne,” he said.

That time close to the threat of nuclear war with the Soviets and not far away from the nightmare of Vietnam was no time for the kids’ cowboy – a crooner who was kind to animals and old ladies. Mr Khrushchev and other Europeans used to confess very reluctantly that the American they most admired and feared was the tough hombre, and nobody met the formula more impressively than John Wayne.

Before we talk about what he came to mean to so many millions of people I think it’s worth noticing how rarely, if ever, a movie cowboy hero was born to the trade. Roy Rogers was the son of a shoemaker in Ohio christened one Leonard Slye, whose ambition was to be a dentist. Gene Autry was a telegrapher at an Oklahoma railway junction who sang on a local radio station. John Wayne was born in the Midwestern state of Iowa, christened Marion Morrison. And after winning a football scholarship to the University of Southern California, raised heaven and earth and also Cain to get rid of the first name of Marion.

He was a big 6′ 3″ labourer on the Fox lot when the director – the Western director John Ford – saw in him the very symbol, the right man to stand or ride or fight against the brilliant far horizons and bulging clouds of Ford’s Western scenes.

Wayne was ideally matched to his time. He was most famous in his 50s in America’s doom-ridden 60s – the era of the feared Soviets, of riots, assignations, youth’s drug culture, the rise of feminism against just such macho images as John Wayne personified.

In his enormously popular The Green Berets and True Grit he came to be for many more millions than the ones who loathed or mocked him the all-American, grim-jawed, super patriot that a country floundering for an acceptable positive image seemed to yearn for.

But before him, before Roy Rogers and long after William S. Hart, there was a man who for people long familiar both with the West and with the American characters who peopled it as late as 60 years ago, there was Gary Cooper. A man who, for most Americans, during the anxious Hitler days of the 30s personified the heroic myth of the taut but merciful plainsman who dispenses justice with a worried conscience, a single syllable, a blurred reflex action at the hip and who faced death in the afternoon as regularly as the matador but on Main Street and for no pay.

Incidentally no stuntman filled in for him. He was a superb horseman and the best shot Hemingway had ever seen.

It was in two films, appropriately named the Plainsman and High Noon, that Cooper best filled this glowing and probably glowingly false picture of the town marshal, heading down the railroad tracks back to duty with that precise mince of the cowboy’s tread – the rancher’s squint that smells mischief in a tumbleweed, sees round corners and is never fooled.

Gary Cooper’s representation of this hero was not a tough guy necessarily brutal to withstand the brutality of his enemies – he represented every man’s secret image of himself: the honourable man slicing through the daily corruption of morals and machines. He isolated and enlarged to 6′ 3″ an untainted strain of goodness in a very male specimen of the male of the species.

By Alistair Cooke – BBC News – July 13, 1998

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