A Leap of Faith

Beale's Cut

One of the most famous shots from old cowboy movies is the leap across the canyon for the movie Three Jumps Ahead, released in 1923, featuring Tom Mix and his excellent horse Tony. Mix, born in Mix Run, Penn., on Jan. 6, 1880, was Hollywood’s first Western megastar and is credited with defining the genre for cowboy actors. He  appeared in more than 300 films (counting “shorts”) from 1909 to 1935 and was known for

Tom Mix and Tony
Tom Mix and his most famous horse, Tony, who he purchased for $600. Tom and Tony made an impressive 181 movies together, most silent but with some ‘talkies’ later in their career. Tony retired to Mix’s ranch at age 22 after injuring his hip during the filming of ‘Hidden Gold’.

performing his own daredevil stunts. His most famous horse was Tony the Wonder Horse. Tom’s most famous horse was Tony, who trusted Tom to do any stunt. Reportedly, Tom would talk to Tony and explain each stunt ahead of time, and then they would just do it.

The photo above was used in the publicity stills for the movie Three Jumps Ahead. While the final film has been lost, several stills of the jump are owned by collectors. The big question — even at the time — was whether the jump was really performed and, if so, if it was done by Mix or another stunt actor.

Certainly, contemporary interviews believe it happened, although it was questioned.

“In his latest story of the western plains, Mix mounted, leaps a canyon 20 feet wide and 90 feet deep, undoubtedly the longest and most daring leap ever performed by a screen star.” The Palladium, Benton Harbor, MI, 7/7/1923.

Tom Mix with the original Tony (on the left) and his successor, Tony Jr. According to Helen Brunk Greenwalt, who is an expert on the breed, he was foaled on the Sellman ranch and was a son of Headlight Morgan. Click on the link to see more photos of Tom and Tony.

“And the crashing climax – Tony’s very remarkable jump across a yawning abyss with Tom Mix on his back – is startling in its realism. There’s no fake to this scene. No possible way it could be faked. And besides, faking scenes is beneath the dignity of Tom and Tony.” The Democrat, Washington, IN, 6/5/1923.

“This is the picture that caused the accident insurance people to cancel all the policies of the redoubtable cowboy when they learned of the stunts he had mapped out to put into the creation. The horse Tony was assigned also a part that simple stood out by itself. The jump of the horse and rider of a yawning chasm has never been equalled in the realms of picture making. It was this stunt which even the Fox people thought too daring for Mix, which caused the cowboy and his insurance people to part company: Three Jumps Ahead is simply the last word in action.” Arizona Republican, Phoenix, AZ, 5/6/1923.

There were rumors that it was one of several stuntmen: Ed Stimpson or Richard Talmadge (who at one point claimed to have made the jump riding a horse named Ranger) or Andy Jauregui. There were even rumors that a stuntman died attempting the jump . . . or that there was no jump at all — that Mix and Tony rode across a bridge that was removed from the print (although that would not have resulted in the appearance of a jump). Another source claimed that several riders performed the jump over many days to get the right shots.

According to this article, here is what Tom Mix said (in the Commerce Journal, Commerce, TX, 9/21/1923):

“On Monday,” said Tom, “I drove a stage coach and four horses over a 100 foot cliff. All rolled to the bottom but no one was hurt. Tuesday, I jumped Tony over a twenty foot chasm that spanned a ninety foot drop. To get the best possible angle the stunt was repeated five times but still there were no injuries. Wednesday, I rolled down another cliff with Tony and neither of us were scratched. Thursday, being a legal holiday, I stayed at home with my family. Friday morning, I went to see a doctor to be sure that I was in perfect condition.”

My feeling is the jump was probably real. Back then, stunts were a lot more dangerous than they are today (and remember those diving horses in Atlantic City?). Certainly to ask your horse to take that kind of leap requires a great deal of faith and a horse with some real jumping talent.

9 thoughts on “A Leap of Faith

  1. I can’t fathom such a jump. It’s so incredibly dangerous, risking the life of horse and rider for no good reason … I’m glad such stunts aren’t done anymore.

  2. There’s no way on earth I’d do something like this jump. Just seeing the picture makes chills run up my spine. But, my husband is a photographer and I’m sure he could tell you what placement of the camera can make a relatively narrow chasm look much wider.

    I notice something odd in the two pictures of Tony on this blog page. They show two different horses. The “Tony” next to Mix has a blaze consisting of a diamond and then a thin race down the nose ending just below the bosal, and then tehre’s a snip on the upper muzzle. In the picture with Mix and a girl, the horse has a blaze that’s the same width from top to bottom with no snip.It

    1. Well spotted! It turns out there were two Tonys. The original had the diamond blaze and his replacement (as he got older) had the wider blaze. I’ll put a photo in with both of them. The original Tony was a Morgan and the second Tony was also thought to be at least mostly Morgan.

      1. I had come here to say that Tony was a very nice Morgan. Amazing horses, both of them.

  3. By the way, any idea what breed Tony Next To Tom With a Hat in this blog post is? He looks Saddlebred. I think the early cowboy flicks all used Saddlebreds, although I can’t say for sure as I don’t watch westerns, early OR late.

  4. Thank you for including the photo of Tom and the Two Tony’s. Some spots on the ‘net say Tony 1 was grade, yours says they both were Morgans. I tend to believe you.

    Maybe I’m being too, oh, I don’t know the word. I have no problems with people riding cross country 3 day events, which can be outright dangerous and let’s admit it, horses have been killed. But x country events pale in comparison to stunts like this. When I see such stunts, like the chasm jump, I have to think that this is, in a way, abuse. Or ‘four horses down a 100 foot cliff.” What in the world was he thinking? Isn’t this abuse? Or at least outrageous behaviour, something done solely for a movie? For monetary gain, let’s even say inspired by Testosterone. No woman I know of would dream of doing something profoundly stupid as this.

    For that matter, the scenes in “The Man From Snowy River”, where the rider rides his horse down an almost vertical cliff..that, to me, just smacks of callous and careless disregard for one’s horse. It’s like the Omak Stampede in WA state. The tribesmen race their horses down a steep slope and every year, horses are injured or even killed. Because it’s run by and on Native American land, not much can be done to stop it. What an abuse of trust from a horse.

    I don’t see that chasm jump as being ‘only’ twenty feet. It looks more to me like fifty, maybe more. I would love to find out where that chasm is.

    1. I wouldn’t dream of taking those kinds of risks. And I hope that in today’s movie-making world, it would be safer. Back in the 1920s, I suspect there was little regard for the safety of the animals (and even the people) involved in the stunts. FWIW, I got the information about Tony’s breeding from this website: https://www.morganhorse.com/upload/photos/page_1144_1-tmh_june_july2020_historical_morgansin_western_films_i_tom_mixandhis_horse_tony.pdf.

  5. It’s in Santa Clarita, California. It’s called “Beale’s Cut”. It was carved open in 1854 to allow stage coaches to make it to a town on the other side.

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