John Wayne is famed for his bravery and courage, both on and off the screen. When it came to a good gunfight, no one was more revered than The Duke himself. Despite his acclaim for toughness, there is one area for which he does not receive enough credit: his live-action stunts!
It’s a little known fact that John Wayne performed his own stunts in several of his films, including certain scenes in Big Jake, Sons of Katie Elder, Lawless Frontier, Randy Rides Alone, and True Grit, as well as others. Some of the scenes included action so impressive that many believe Wayne didn’t do them- such as the moment he fell backwards down a mudslide in McClintock, or the time he steered his horse’s reins from between his teeth and jumped over a four-post fence in True Grit.
Perhaps his most exciting stunts occurred in Back to Bataan. While Wayne used a stunt double for the more grueling scenes in most of his movies, in Back to Bataan he decided to do all of his own stunts. When the director and stage writer of the film discovered his resolution, they became determined to make Wayne’s stunts difficult enough that he would break his vow and request the help of a stunt double. One particular scene had Wayne fly through the air in a chest harness (simulating an explosion), and another scene required Wayne to remain underwater for an extended period of time in an icy pool, breathing only out of a reed that poked above the water’s surface. Despite their best efforts to sway him, Wayne remained true to his word and performed each of the stunts himself - without the help of a stunt double.
Wayne didn’t always do his own tricks; his aptitude for stunts blossomed when he befriended Yakima Canutt. Canutt was an inspiration unto himself; he was renowned for revolutionizing action scenes by performing the most dangerous stunts in a way no one else would dare to attempt. Canutt acted as the stuntman for many famous Hollywood actors including Clark Gable and Errol Flynn, but he doubled as John Wayne more than he did anyone else.
Together the pair starred in over a dozen films. In fact, Wayne credits Canutt as the model for Wayne’s own cowboy persona, pulling from his drawling speech, hip-shot walk, and tougher-than-nails character.
Canutt and Wayne remained lifelong friends - and Wayne learned his stunts from the best.