Welcome to How’d They Do That? — a monthly column that unpacks moments of movie magic and celebrates the technical wizards who pulled them off. This entry explains how they shot the drag stunt in the 1939 movie Stagecoach.
The year is 1880. A group of strangers boards a stagecoach heading from Arizona to New Mexico. Each passenger is running from something, be it a gang of moralists, debt, or a searing desire to avenge murdered family members. The journey takes them through the Indigenous territory, which — god knows why — triggers the ire of the local tribal leader, Geronimo. Sure enough, a long, heart-pumping chase sequence ensues, almost ending in defeat for the travelers before the cavalry shows up at the 11th hour to save the day.
Released unto the world in 1939 like a bucking bronco, Stagecoach set a new, visceral standard for what cinema was capable of. Orson Welles (as cited in This is Orson Welles) claimed to have watched it every night after dinner for about a month (“It was like going to school”). In 1995, the movie was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry, a testament to the deft talents of director John Ford, its preeminently iconic star John Wayne, and the door kick it represented for the Western genre writ large.
Its reputation comes with a weighty caveat, worth signposting before we get any deeper into the weeds. The dehumanizing depiction of Indigenous folks is unfortunate and unavoidable. As Roger Ebert noted in his 2011 reappraisal: “The film’s attitudes towards Native Americans are unenlightened. The Apaches are seen simply as murderous savages…Ford shared that simple view with countless other makers of Westerns, and if it was crude in 1939 it was even more so as late as The Searchers (released in 1956).”
It’s very easy to hoot and holler about a movie that basically did Fury Road nearly 80 years before George Miller did Fury Road. And yet, given the context of one particular stunt in Stagecoach, Ebert’s statement above is worth keeping in mind. (While we’re here, I very much recommend our own Shea Vassar’s incredible Through a Native Lens column, in which she dives deep into the nuance of cinema’s best and worst cases of Indigenous representation.)
The drag stunt in Stagecoach
While the chase sequence in Stagecoach is absolutely stacked with jaw-dropping stunt work, one moment eclipses all others. An “Apache” (played by a white man in red-face), vaults from his own horse onto the stagecoach team, straddling the two lead horses. While regaining his senses after his daring leap, the man is shot, and his body steadily falls between the galloping horses, his arms grasping at straps and hitches until he smacks into the ground. He holds onto the yoke for dear life, his feet dragging between the galloping hooves until his grip slips.
And before you can blink, in one continuous shot, the man lets go and all six horses (and the stagecoach in tow) drive straight over him. This is 1939, so unless Ford had a time machine, that’s not CGI. And the continuity of the shot — which concludes with the man rolling over, in pain or in shock — makes it clear that this is no puppet or detailed dummy. That is a real person risking their life for a stunt. How on Earth did they pull that off?
How’d they do that?
Long story short:
The drag stunt in Stagecoach was executed by former rodeo veteran Yakima Canutt, as seen on-screen, in one take.
Long story long:
The stunt was accomplished — or should we say survived — by Yakima Canutt. Born in 1895, Enos Edward “Yakima” Canutt grew up on a ranch and began breaking in wild broncos from the age of 11. He steadily gravitated towards professional rodeo riding, and his infamous stuntwork began to attract the attention of Hollywood bigwigs like Douglas Fairbanks.
When talkies rolled around, Canutt was embarrassed by his drawl — according to his autobiography, Stunt Man, he sounded like “a hillbilly in a well.” But realizing that there was a gap to be filled in the world of thrills, excitement, and stunts, Canutt envisioned a whole new job description “in the action end of the motion picture industry.”
John Ford hired Canutt on John Wayne’s recommendation for a scene in Stagecoach that was felt to be unfilmable. The titular stagecoach, full of passengers, was to float across a river. Canutt devised a scheme in which hollowed-out logs buoyed the coach while an unseen underwater cable pulled the vehicle. Rumor has it that pulling off the river crossing is what secured Canutt carte blanche on the movie’s stunts.
Canutt was also John Wayne’s stunt double in the scene where his character, Ringo Kid, jumps from the coach to the trio of speeding yoked horses. All of Canutt’s work on Stagecoach — as second unit director, stunt coordinator, and the part of a cavalry scout — is uncredited. However, he deservedly received an honorary Academy Award in 1967.
The drag stunt was filmed on location at Lucerne Dry Lake in the Mojave Desert, the footage later intercut with studio shots of the actors in close-up against rear-projected backgrounds. According to True West magazine, the chase is moving at about 45 miles per hour (72 kilometers per hour). As quoted in Scott Eyman’s book Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford, for Yakima, this speed was essential:
“You have to run the horses fast, so they’ll run straight. If they run slow, they move around a lot. When you turn loose to go under the coach, you’ve got to bring your arms over your chest and stomach. You’ve got to hold your elbows close to your body, or that front axle will knock them off.”
While from our perspective the stunt looks absolutely suicidal, several “safety” measures were in place. Canutt attached metal bars between the harness hames of the three teams, which were invisible from the perspective of the camera (you didn’t hear it from me, but if you look hard at the gif below, the bars are not that invisible). These ensured that the distance between the horses remained at three feet, preventing Canutt from being pancaked by the galloping horses. When Canutt “falls” to ground level, he was able to catch himself on a modified tongue-tie, letting his back drag in the dirt.
When he finally let go of the tongue-tie, Canutt crossed his arms across his chest, making himself as compact as possible to clear the stagecoach. When Canutt finally comes to a stop, he rises to his knees to prove that he, a real living person, did the stunt.
Once the stunt was completed, Canutt supposedly ran up to Ford to make sure that they got it on film. Per Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford, the director replied that even if they hadn’t, he’d “never shoot that again.”
What’s the precedent for the drag stunt in Stagecoach?
Yakima Canutt is widely considered to be the originator of the “being dragged under a moving vehicle and not dying” stunt. And sure enough, as with most of his death-defying acts, Canutt made a habit out of perfecting the gag over time. Or, at the very least, doing it on-screen at least once before he got tapped by John Ford for Stagecoach.
As far as I can gather, the most notable precedent for the “drop” stunt occurs in the 1937 release Riders of the Dawn, in which Canutt doubles for Jack Randall (it’s very easy to confuse with 1935’s The Dawn Rider, in which Canutt appears as a saloon owner). The movie is notoriously hard to find — buried, as it is, under a veritable pile of inexpensive Westerns starring Randall. So, you’ll have to forgive me for failing to track down video proof of the stunt’s first on-screen appearance. This citation from Sue Matheson’s The John Ford Encyclopedia will have to suffice.
While I imagine few folks have heard of Riders at Dawn, there is a very good chance you’ve seen the stunt’s most famous homage: the transport truck drag stunt in Raiders of the Lost Ark. During a desert chase, our hero, Indiana Jones, leaps off a galloping horse onto a Nazi truck, only to get knocked over the hood and dragged underneath. After crawling his way down the undercarriage — all while the vehicle is speeding ahead — he uses his trademark whip to pull himself back up onto the tailgate.
The Raiders scene isn’t just a tribute to Canutt’s Stagecoach stunt, but also to its innovation in Zorro’s Fighting Legion, which was released the same year as Ford’s movie. Doubling for the titular hero in Zorro, Canutt jumps off his horse onto the front of the team, goes under the horses in full charge, and then — BRACE YOURSELVES — does a backflip somersault so that when he goes under the horses and carriage he can grab onto the back of the stagecoach.
If there was ever a stunt worthy of a homage, this is it.
The Raiders stunt was performed by Terry Leonard, a six-foot-plus cowboy, a.k.a. a chip off the old Canutt block. Fun fact: Leonard had already tried once before to duplicate Canutt’s stunt, in 1981’s The Legend of the Lone Ranger, but he got run over. Replacing horses with a five-tonne truck, the goal was to maximize the impact of the stunt without Leonard being run over (again).
The team dug a trench so that Leonard would have enough clearance. And shot in three days, the gag went off without a hitch, for lack of a better word. Indiana Jones actor Harrison Ford, outfitted with a protective breastplate, had the distinct pleasure of being dragged behind the truck for close-ups to sell the stunt.
While the Raiders homage is incredible, it is worth noting that unlike Canutt’s stunt in Stagecoach, the Indiana Jones movie employed cuts. This is partially a sign of the times, as well as insurance to keep Leonard as safe as possible. All told: the edits are probably a good thing, but it is worth remarking that they just don’t make ’em like Canutt anymore. But maybe in George Miller’s next Mad Max movie some brave soul will do a somersault underneath a semi-truck.