How John Wayne Helped Revolutionize The Art Of On-Screen Fighting

Most of John Wayne’s greatest movie moments involve punching something or someone. The sound of his punch alone echoed throughout movie halls and became a famous signature of his. Since the actors weren’t really punching each other, the sound of the hit would be added later in post and it always seemed like the hero’s punch was always a little louder. Back when the action star began his career, however, the actors really were making contact. “At that time, in pictures, the way they did a fight was, you and your opponent, you hit each other in the shoulders and faked it to look like real,” Wayne said in an interview in author Maurice Zolotow’s biography “Shooting Star.” Wanting the fights to be as realistic as possible, Wayne emulated world heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey, studying old newsreels of Dempsey training before a bout. 

Unfortunately for performers like Yak Canutt, someone who found himself on the other end of those punches on more than one occasion, Wayne’s commitment to authenticity resulted in some real abuse. “I wouldn’t hold back when I felt myself gettin’ all worked up with hatred for a villain,” Wayne recalled. “I wanted to kill the son-of-a-b****. Matter of fact, I guess I liked these fight scenes more than any other stunts we did.” 

Canutt went on to perform incredibly dangerous, spectacular stunts in “Stagecoach” and “Zorro’s Fighting Legion,” but he went up against John Wayne’s fists first. Complaints from Canutt and a little ingenuity from director Robert Bradbury (“West of the Divide,” “Westward Ho”) wound up leading to a completely new way to shoot a fight scene, with a technique still used today. 

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