The Evolution Of Stunts - Part Three

The evolution of stunts series aims to go through the history of stunt performance in cinema. It’s been quite the journey so far, and if you are just joining us you can re-cap the journey so far with Part One and Part Two.

We last left off in 1950’s Hollywood…

1950 - 1960

After World War II, the film industry, and in particular Hollywood were dealt some huge blows. First of all the rise of television meant that the public could experience the joys of the moving images from the comfort of their home. A court ruling in America also meant that the major studios had to dismantle their monopolies, forcing them to sell off their theatre chains. In turn, they had to change their business model and slow down their production output to concentrate on films which would be a box office success in a more competitive market. This led to a rise in independent films.

The 1950’s started by drawing from the past and in particular the resurgence of Swashbucklers. In film, the most influential of these was Ivanhoe in 1952. In television, the bow-wielding charge was led by The Adventures of Robin Hood which ran between 1955 and 1959.

In order to combat the growing adversary of television, movie studios decided to make cinema going more of an experience. They tried a host of gimmicks including 3-D and smell-o-vision and experimented with different formats of displaying their movies such as Cinerama, cinemascope and vistaVision.

They also focused on lavish, epic, and expensive blockbusters. Creating the sword and sandal epics we know and love today. These movies were experiences which could only be fully appreciated on the big screen, with huge run times that often exceeded three hours. These films cost an incredible amount to make, utilising massive sets, and thousands of extras. Two of the most famous epics from this time were The Ten Commandments in 1956 and Ben-Hur in 1959.

The Ten Commandments saw legendary Hollywood Director Cecil B. DeMille remaking his own film, with Charlton Heston in the lead. Heston wasn’t put in much danger during the shooting of this film, as technology had started to improve, and the filmmakers were able to utilise special effects, which can be seen in particular with the parting of the sea sequence.

Charlton Heston rounded off the year with Ben-Hur, which if anything proved that stunt work was still required, and was still incredibly risky. Here, Charlton Heston did all of his own stunts except the most dangerous which came in the films climactic chariot race. Legendary stunt co-ordinator Yakima Canutt was bought onboard to put the sequence together and created one of the most thrilling, and most talked about action sequences in movie history.

Canutt was given over a year to prepare for the scene, and utilised 78 horses, with a full production team to train the animals, build the chariots and train the actors. Charlton Heston had chariot lessons for three hours a day once he arrived on-location in Rome, and as an experienced horseman picked it up quickly. Canutt filmed the whole scene as a wide shot with his stunt team and presented it to director William Wyler so he had an idea what the sequence would look like and where to place the close-ups of the main cast.

The scene was considered so dangerous that an infirmary was built next to the set, to care for anyone who got interested, although there was the only serious incident which involved Yakima Canutt’s own son Joe Canutt, who was doubling for Heston.

Yakima had planned for Ben-Hur’s chariot to jump over the wreckage of another chariot. They had trained the horses to leap the wreckage and had planted a pole in the ground which would force the chariot to jump after them. Unfortunately, Joe Canutt was thrown into the air and took a nasty blow to the chin. It was the closest the production came to a fatal accident, and parts of the shot were used in the final edit.

There have been countless myths and rumours that have sprouted up over time about the production of Ben-Hur and in particular the chariot race. These include numerous injuries and even the death of a stunt performer. These are just myths though, and whilst it may still be considered one of the most dangerous scenes to ever be filmed, there were no serious injuries to either the human performers or the animal performers. These myths can be attributed to the previous Ben-Hur movie, made in 1925, which saw the death of one stunt man and five horses. This just goes to show how far stunt performance had evolved over those 24 years.

If certain stunts had been made safer during the ’50s, it wasn’t all good news. Thunder Road was released in 1958, and stunt coordinator Cary Loftin and his stunt team kicked off the era of the car chase.

This introduced audiences to modern action movies, and as the demand for these movies increased so did the accident rate. In a movement started decades before with the stunt group called “The Cousins”, stunt performers decided to make their industry a real profession and banded together to develop performer ran registers, proper training, and action led booking agencies. The Stuntmen’s Association of Motion Pictures was formed in  America in 1961 and set the precedent for all stunt performers in the film and television industry.

The ’50s was a turning point for Stunt Performers, and the effects of the developments both on screen and off are still being felt today. If Hollywood started the decade looking towards the past, they ended it with their gaze firmly fixed on the future.


We’ll be back with Part 4 of The Evolution of Stunts where we will be looking at the growth in technology available to stunt performers!


If you’ve been inspired to start a career in the world of stunts, you can find our full range of courses HERE.

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