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The Technicolor Desert: Cinema and the Mojave

C-3PO and R2-D2 walk toward Jabba's Palace, which was filmed in Death Valley's Twenty Mule Team Canyon for this scene in “Episode VI: Return of the Jedi.” Lucasfilm, LTD.
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The Mojave Project is an experimental transmedia documentary and curatorial project led by Kim Stringfellow exploring the physical, geological and cultural landscape of the Mojave Desert. The Mojave Project reconsiders and establishes multiple ways in which to interpret this unique and complex landscape, through association and connection of seemingly unrelated sites, themes, and subjects thus creating a speculative and immersive experience for our audience.

Virtually pressed up against the northern boundaries of Los Angeles, the Mojave Desert can be considered Hollywood’s backyard if not its backlot, just as it has been exploited as L.A.’s adjacent playground and dumping ground. It is, after all, a land of manhunts and murders, of all-terrain vehicles, of landfills and landing strips, of gambling houses and weapons stations, as much as it is a place of miners and ranchers, of parks and monuments, of beauty and light. But the Mojave's natural role as a setting for motion pictures is one that dates to the beginnings of photography itself. Pioneer still photographers first staked their claim on the Mojave in the nineteenth century, with such luminous practitioners as Timothy O'Sullivan and Carleton Watkins developing memorable glass-plate negatives, particularly of the Colorado River regions of the desert. In the following century, Ansel Adams and Edward Weston would explore its greatest depths — Death Valley — and areas that now comprise the Mojave National Preserve and beyond. Witness Adams's iconic prints of Death Valley's Golden Canyon or Weston's desert "Hot Coffee" road sign photographed in 1937 along U.S. Route 66 at Siberia, California.

And the allure for the motion-picture camera — specifically for narrative cinema — seems to have offered the Mojave a unique part to play. Unlike the more familiar and caricatured deserts of Arizona and the Colorado Plateau, whose angular buttes, table-top mesas and signature saguaros have functioned as clichéd landscapes for everyone from director John Ford (who claimed the archetypal Monument Valley as his own) to Wile E. Coyote, whose cartoon adventures were set amid animator Chuck Jones’s giddy and gravity-defying backgrounds, the Mojave hasn't been as easily stereotyped or pigeonholed. Perhaps because of its sheer vastness and variability — no single landform truly epitomizes it, as does, say, Monument Valley or the Grand Canyon in neighboring deserts. The Mojave serves instead as a kind of geographic tabula rasa, whose broad limitless sweeps and uninterrupted horizons offer a blank screen on which filmmakers can project any or all of their imaginative fantasies with shimmering impact. Not only has the Mojave played its cinematic role as a traditional “desert,” whether in America or elsewhere, but its volcanic outcrops have substituted for Iceland (“Journey to the Center of the Earth,” 1959), its fluted canyons for ancient Egypt (“Land of the Pharaohs,” 1955), its dry lakebeds for ostensible other worlds (“Planet of the Apes,” 2001) or as landing strips for UFOs (“Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” 1977), its northwest perimeter for the Himalayan foothills (“King of the Khyber Rifles,” 1953) and its borate deposits for the mines of Libya (“Spartacus,” 1960).

The number of movies made at least partly in the Mojave is legion, and for this dispatch, I have selected nearly a dozen representative titles that have included key sequences in this desert while also serving as compelling emblems for other stories the Mojave has to tell, whether literally or metaphorically. Those movies are: “Greed” (1924), “Gunga Din” (1939), “Bad Day at Black Rock” (1955), “The Conqueror” (1956), “The Big Country” (1958), “The Professionals” (1966), “Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here” (1969), “Zabriskie Point” (1970), “Star Wars” and “Star Trek V” (1977, 1989) and “Casino” (1995). In passing, it will be necessary to touch on other works with memorable scenes that have capitalized on the Mojave's diverse terrain, but arranging a discussion of several signal titles serves to underscore a narrative relationship that the Mojave, perhaps more than any other desert, has nurtured with Hollywood.

Geographically, the Mojave ranges over such great distances that a camera is well advised to be focused on infinity. And while its landforms are not always distinctive, it often is true that the desert rouses itself to be at its most dramatic and photogenic at its very margins, where it collides with other geographic barriers such as the Sierra Nevada and the San Bernardino Mountains, or the Colorado River, Desert and Plateau. Thus, the Alabama Hills, in California's northern Mojave; the Antelope Valley and Joshua Tree National Park to the south; and the chromatic canyons on its eastern edge such as Valley of Fire and Snow Canyon state parks in Nevada and Utah, respectively — all of them on the desert's outskirts — have regularly burst on screen as the Mojave's most dazzling settings and backdrops.

McTeague (Gibson Gowland) and Schouler (Jean Hersholt) brawl it out on the Death Valley’s salt flats in Erich von Stroheim’s 1924 silent film classic, Greed. Turner Entertainment.
McTeague (Gibson Gowland) and Schouler (Jean Hersholt) brawl it out on the Death Valley’s salt flats in Erich von Stroheim’s 1924 silent film classic, Greed. Turner Entertainment.

The Valley of Greed

("Greed," 1924)

The chief photographic exception to this perimeter-focused rule of thumb is the great white heart of the Mojave itself (to employ writer Edna Brush Perkins’ phrase[i]): Death Valley. America’s hottest, deepest sink and storied natural landmark (since 1994 a national park of vast proportions), Death Valley has served as a location in countless major films and many minor ones, and one of its earliest appearances has become legendary.

It was here that director Erich von Stroheim ventured nearly a century ago to film climactic sequences of “Greed," the movie based on Frank Norris’s novel “McTeague” and one whose original nine-hour version (edited from as much as eighty-four hours' worth of original footage), now famously lost, was heralded to be one of the greatest films ever made.[ii] The movie is remarkable in many respects, but not least because its production was a monumentally arduous undertaking, mirroring the tortured exertions of its own plot. Stroheim insisted on realism and chose to film exclusively on location in the selfsame places Norris described in his novel.

“Greed” recounts the early twentieth-century saga of John McTeague (Gibson Gowland), a miner’s son who is apprenticed as a young man by a traveling hack dentist called Dr. “Painless” Potter. McTeague later establishes his own lowbrow dentistry in San Francisco’s gritty Polk Street district. After befriending his flat neighbor, Marcus Schouler (Jean Hersholt), McTeague encounters Schouler’s cousin and fiancée, Trina (ZaSu Pitts), when he is asked by Marcus to attend to her recent broken tooth. On the same day of her appointment, Trina impulsively purchases a lottery ticket. Smitten with Trina, McTeague soon convinces Schouler to allow him to marry her. Not soon after, in a profound twist of fate, Trina discovers her ticket has won $5,000 in gold coin, which she promptly deposits in the bank. She then begins to habitually hoard her husband’s paltry income along with her own winnings in behavior that is a caricature of frugality. Her former beau Schouler believes the lottery winnings ought rightly to be his — and takes revenge on McTeague by reporting his unlicensed practice to authorities as he prepares to leave the city to take up ranching. McTeague and Trina consequently sell their remaining possessions living as virtual paupers — even though Trina now has over $5,000 in savings. In a fit of rage over her continued money hoarding, McTeague eventually kills Trina and escapes with the gold she had since withdrawn from the bank. He flees to Placer County, where he hooks up with a new prospecting friend and heads for Death Valley. Here, the two discover a purportedly gold-rich quartz deposit. Because he is an outlaw and fearful that he is being pursued (as indeed he is, by the vengeful Schouler and other lawmen), McTeague flees alone into the heart of Death Valley with a horse, a filled canteen, along with the remaining money. Slowed by the searing heat, McTeague finally meets up with Schouler, who, after a scuffle, shoots McTeague’s horse, puncturing his water supply; the two fight a final time, and McTeague kills his former friend, who had handcuffed himself to him during the fight. “Greed” concludes with its protagonist left to die in the desert, without water and shackled to a corpse.

As histrionic as its plot may now seem, “Greed” was considered to be a Greek tragedy by Stroheim, and again, in an act of mirroring, one can reflect on the "tragedy" of the film itself — its long-lamented lost footage with cuts made at the studio's insistence that Stroheim had objected to along with the human suffering of its production. Filming of the Death Valley sequences began in the summer of 1923 and lasted six weeks, with temperatures soaring to as high as 125˚ FahrenheitAt this time, Death Valley was remarkably inaccessible, with no paved roads, gas stations, running water or hostelries. It would be another decade before President Herbert Hoover declared it a national monument, and more infrastructure was created. At the time, Furnace Creek was still known as Greenland Ranch — certainly a far cry from the visitor center hub that it would later become. Nevertheless, it was at Greenland where Stroheim's crew of more than forty individuals (all men plus one woman, script girl Eve Bessette) were holed up, encamped in the blazing heat on outdoor army cots. Stroheim enlisted two musicians, a harmonium player and violinist, whose charge was to supply “mood music” for the actors, a trademark technique of Stroheim’s that was largely effective, except that the violin soon warped due to the heat and became unplayable. (The musical repertoire included “Nearer My God to Thee” of Titanic import.) After shooting on the sand dunes and salt flats, performers and crew would regularly collapse of heat exhaustion. Actor Jean Hersholt spent a week in the hospital after the filming was completed, suffering from blisters, internal bleeding and claiming to have lost nearly thirty pounds. Tellingly, one of the gaffes often pointed out in Hersholt’s final scenes as a corpse is that he can is visibly panting as a result of the extreme heat. Of the forty-three crew members encamped in Death Valley, fourteen became ill and were sent back to Los Angeles. It is no wonder Goldwyn Studio executives refused to insure the film company during its stay there.[iii]

Among the suffering fellow-travelers in this stock company were cinematographers Ben Reynolds and William Daniels, whose revolutionary contributions to “Greed” cannot be overestimated. While they may have been taking their deep-focus direction from Stroheim, both Reynolds and Daniels were skillful lensmen and were tested by the director in almost every sequence, as Stroheim's insistence on location photography posed countless lighting challenges — particularly in the San Francisco interiors (which had to be balanced with bright exteriors) and in mining scenes that took place reportedly some 3,000 feet deep and required incandescent illumination. In the Death Valley episode, the shimmering deep-focused scenes on the salt flats are indelible. Significantly, Daniels went on to become the preferred cinematographer for Greta Garbo (she insisted on him) and developed a reputation as a "glamour" cameraman. Nevertheless, the gritty realism of Death Valley that he helped project onscreen may have contributed later to Daniels' Oscar-winning effort in the groundbreaking urban film noir, “The Naked City” in 1948.[iv]

The Mojave’s contributions to “Greed,” it turns out, were not limited to Death Valley. On the long-reviled cutting room floor (preserved, if at all, in still photos) are scenes shot by Stroheim in the ghost town of Skidoo, high in the Panamints; at the mining town of Darwin; and at Keeler, on the shores of Owens Lake, where an evocative sequence of a locomotive arriving at the Carson & Colorado narrow-gauge depot has been included in a reconstructed four-hour version of the film undertaken by Turner Classic Movies in 1994. In decades after (and to this day), many movie aficionados revere “Greed” as a groundbreaking accomplishment (the poet Kenneth Rexroth was among the handful of individuals who recalled seeing the original) — a wrenching tale of the conditions of the working poor, of feverish dreams and of avarice and dogged retribution. Yet it is not unlike many other tales that have been told in (and by) the Mojave.

The exotic temple scene in “Gunga Din” (1939) starring Cary Grant and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., was constructed in the heart of the Alabama Hills outside of Lone Pine, California — a favorite location for classic Western films. RKO Radio Pictures.
The exotic temple scene in “Gunga Din” (1939) starring Cary Grant and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., was constructed in the heart of the Alabama Hills outside of Lone Pine, California — a favorite location for classic Western films. RKO Radio Pictures.

A Din in the Alabamas

(“Gunga Din,” 1939; “Bad Day at Black Rock,” 1955)

If we steal away from the desert’s white heart and stray westward, beyond the Panamints and Inyos, into the Owens Valley, the Mojave's intersection with the Sierra reaches its most arresting terminus near the town of Lone Pine, which for more than a century has celebrated itself as a film-location mecca. Known to virtually every location scout in Hollywood, and part of the collective unconscious of countless filmgoers and TV watchers, the Alabama Hills, just west of town, is a jumbled orange-brown community of boulders whose stunted expanse of volcanic rock and weathered granite are as old as the towering gunmetal Sierra just beyond. Here, early Hollywood stalwarts like Fatty Arbuckle and director Clarence Badger discovered the distinguished foreground-and-background phenomenon that results when the slate-blue granitic escarpment of Mt. Whitney's minarets are accented upfront by the golden, rounded jumble of rocks that cry out for ambushes or hidden temples or wagon trains or cattle stampedes.

For decades, Hopalong Cassidy (William Boyd), the Lone Ranger (Clayton Moore), Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and virtually any major Western star imaginable, from Randolph Scott to Gregory Peck, from Barbara Stanwyck to Clint Eastwood, have ridden past or through these precincts (Stanwyck’s ashes are even scattered here). It as if the echoes of gunfire or roundups still reverberate among the parked Winnebagos that now call this newly designated National Scenic Area their weekend home.

In 1938, when the Alabamas were still old, but the movies were young, the location was already something of an industry mainstay, but it had yet to see as elaborate a production as the one mounted by director George Stevens (who would later direct other classics like “Giant,” "Shane" and “A Place in the Sun,” his Oscar winner). Based on Rudyard Kipling's eponymous verse, “Gunga Din” expanded Kipling's conceit to create a male-bonding adventure/epic that, at the time, was the RKO studio's most expensive undertaking. The movie would epitomize the Mojave's illusory potential by positioning the Alabama Hills and their Sierra backdrop as a simulacrum of the Khyber Pass region of India.

“Gunga Din” as realized by Stevens, RKO and the raft of scenarists who worked on the script (William Faulkner among them), is the tale of an 1880s valiant water-carrier and bugle boy who accompanies three sergeants of the British Royal Engineers and their attachment to investigate the cause of a lost telegraph contact with the British outpost of Tantrapur. This trio of boisterous comrades (Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Victor McLaglen), accompanied by loyal Gunga Din (Sam Jaffe), discover that Tantrapur has essentially been laid waste by a murderous cult of indigenous Thuggees, led by its menacing guru (Eduardo Cianelli). The ensuing plot involves Gunga Din’s discovery of a golden palace that turns out to be the Temple of Kali, the Thuggee stronghold. Gunga Din, the lowly water-boy, who yearns to be a regimental soldier, is ultimately the story’s sacrificial hero when — having discovered that the Thuggees have gathered massive troops ready for attack — is mortally bayoneted by the enemy. As he is about to die, Gunga Din sounds his bugle to warn the regimental troops of the gathering Thuggee forces, and thus precipitates the final, elaborate battle sequence in the film.

Seen from a twenty-first-century perspective, “Gunga Din” suffers from its glorification of British colonialism and its casting of European-American actors in non-white roles (both Sam Jaffe and Eduardo Cianelli appear in ludicrous brownface). Even at the time, the Indian government objected to the movie's portrayal of native Indians as stereotyped villains. Despite these dated conventions, the overall film remains a pioneering and watchable action-adventure staple — one that demonstrably influenced such filmmakers as Steven Spielberg (“Indiana Jones”) and sound-effects wizard Ben Burtt, among others. Cinematographer Joseph August, who earned an Oscar nomination, achieves dazzling natural cloud effects and dramatic captures of shadows and light throughout the picture. From a production perspective, the film is remarkable because of the sheer extent of its location work: the cast and crew of several hundred spent more than 100 consecutive days in Lone Pine, far exceeding the original budgeted schedule and indeed exceeding the standard length of time to shoot an average motion picture, period. (It is unlikely another film crew ever spent as long a time at a single remote Mojave Desert location.) An entire tent city was erected near today’s Movie Road to house the lion’s share of the company (a notable exception was ingénue Joan Fontaine, who had quarters in town at the historic Dow Villa Hotel). As shooting commenced, the massive set of Tantrapur, constructed in the Alabamas, tragically caught fire, requiring the film crew and others to extinguish it with a bucket brigade. The set was hurriedly rebuilt at a great cost while scenes were shot at other locations in the area — the Temple of Kali in a nearby small slot canyon and a large cantonment set several miles to the north. For the concluding battle sequences filmed at the southern reach of the Alabamas, some 1,500 extras were employed.[v]

It should be no surprise that this film has left its mark on the community where it was largely made. Only a handful of Lone Pine old-timers can now recall that three-month period in the summer of 1938 (the film was released the following year), when the desert town was transformed by Hollywood caravans, including an elephant, horses, trainers, artists and technicians. Today, at the Lone Pine’s Museum of Western Film History and the annual Lone Pine Film Festival each October, film buffs can read about — and visit — locations from “Gunga Din” and other pictures and be regaled with stories of excavations that have unearthed bits of plaster and rusty nails from the sites of the elaborate movie sets that now exist only as mirages in the nearby sagebrush.

Given the singular and exceptional concentration of motion pictures photographed at or near Lone Pine in the desert, it is appropriate to pause to address the area's importance in the Western film canon. It has been a challenge to select a single Western film to epitomize this now-iconic location, which was initially a beachhead for B-grade programmers and serials that, while not critically applauded, were fixtures of American popular culture. Along with Roy Rogers and the Lone Ranger and Hoppy, other lesser-remembered headliners such as Tim Holt, Dave Sharpe, Tom Mix, Rex Allen and Randolph Scott performed in many features and two-reelers here. Soon thereafter, the Alabamas and its environs became the location for more well-established and epic westerns: films such as “Yellow Sky” (1948), “How the West Was Won” (1962), and “Nevada Smith” (1965), while also remaining no stranger to other genres, including film noir (Ida Lupino’s classic “The Hitch-Hiker” of 1953) and suspense (a second-unit appearance in location-averse Alfred Hitchcock's “Saboteur” of 1942).

“Bad Day at Black Rock” (1955) stars Spencer Tracy and Robert Ryan, along with upcoming A-list actors including Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine. Filmed between Owenyo and Lone Pine, California, on the northern edge of the Mojave Desert. MGM Entertainment.
“Bad Day at Black Rock” (1955) stars Spencer Tracy and Robert Ryan, along with upcoming A-list actors including Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine. Filmed between Owenyo and Lone Pine, California, on the northern edge of the Mojave Desert. MGM Entertainment.

But for these purposes, I have selected a "meta-Western" (much in the mold of the true western “High Noon” of 1952, which it has been compared) that capitalizes on the settings of the Owens Valley for their true historical and cultural resonances. “Bad Day at Black Rock” is a mid-century melodrama (and Technicolor film noir) that, despite its modern-day trappings, adheres to a Western-movie trope: a stranger comes into town, someone dies. In this case, the stranger is a returning war veteran named John Macreedy (Spencer Tracy) who stops in the jerkwater hamlet of Black Rock (population: almost zero) in search of the son of a World War II fellow-soldier and confronts an entire town consumed by guilt and fear, bent on thwarting the stranger’s efforts to seek out the man, a Japanese farmer named Komoko, who was murdered in a fit of racist rage by one of the townspeople, a ranch owner named Reno Smith (Robert Ryan), while the others (a rogues’ gallery of pedigreed character actors including Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Walter Brennan and Dean Jagger) passively allowed it to happen. “Black Rock” was a significant message picture at the time, having been the first major studio production (M-G-M's Dore Schary greenlit it) to confront the bigotry aimed at Japanese Americans during and after the Second World War. (Ironically, no Japanese are depicted in the film; they are the invisible elephants in the room.) Director John Sturges, who later made his name in such action features as “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral,” “The Magnificent Seven” and “The Great Escape,” was lauded by critic Pauline Kael for helming "a very superior example of motion picture craftsmanship,”[vi] And indeed the film, while certainly unsubtle and overly melodramatic, manages to suggest an epic treatment that belies the economy of its eighty-two-minute running time. William C. Mellor (“Giant”) was responsible for the widescreen CinemaScope camerawork, and this grand aspect ratio, coupled with André Previn’s bold, insistent musical score, contribute to the movie's impact and durability.

While half of the movie’s scenes are soundstage-bound (interiors were filmed on M-G-M's Culver City lot), its exteriors are memorable for capitalizing on the wide Owens Valley horizons. The false-fronted town itself (which art director Cedric Gibbons seemingly intended to look as artificial and symbolic as possible) is located in an anonymous part of the American West, somewhere between Tucson and Los Angeles, and is situated along a railway whose trains never stop there — until Macreedy shows up. But the resonance of the true locale, in which Mt. Whitney can be clearly identified in the distance, is that the very site of the film set — between Lone Pine and Owenyo along the Southern Pacific "Jawbone" line — is only five miles from Manzanar, the largest and most well-known concentration camp for the wartime Japanese, which would have been dismantled less than a decade before the film was shot. For me, the movie is also freighted with the awareness that many of the Japanese American evacuees were transported from Los Angeles to the Owens Valley on the same railroad tracks (now long removed) that bestride the Black Rock set (Lone Pine Station, just barely visible in the background of the opening sequence as the Streamliner train crosses a bridge was the terminus for several hundred internees who arrived in the Owens Valley by train). But this is not the only desert location with import in “Bad Day at Black Rock.” In another pivotal sequence, the location shifts to the nearby Alabama Hills, glimpsable on the horizon, where Spencer Tracy’s character has driven in a borrowed Jeep to seek out the Japanese farmer at his home at Adobe Flat. Macreedy is chased and run off the road by Coley (the heavy played by actor Borgnine) in what is almost a twentieth-century parody of — or homage to — the innumerable chase and ambush scenes set in the Alabamas that even by 1955 had become almost stock footage in the Western-movie playbook. For these reasons, “Black Rock” is a meaningful exemplar of the Mojave as a resonant and self-conscious film setting, but it is significant in other respects. The script, by Millard Kaufman — from a story by Howard Breslin with adaptation by Don McGuire — was nominated for an Oscar and for good reason. In addition to its groundbreaking exploration of postwar racism, the movie offers a bonanza of epigrammatic commentary on the West, on the desert, on greed and human weakness. The character of Doc Velie (Walter Brennan), the movie's physician-cum-mortician and jack of other trades, summarizes his profession and his dealings with the desert's fortune seekers thus:

“First, I sell ‘em a piece of land. Do you think they farm it? They do not. They dig for gold. They rip off the topsoil of ten winding hills, then sprint in here all fog-heaved with excitement, lugging nuggets — big, bright, and shiny. Is it gold? It is not. Do they quit? They do not. Then they decide to farm, farm in a country so dry that you have to prime a man before he can spit. Before you can say 'Fat Sam' they're stalled, stranded, and starving. They become weevil-brained and buttsprung. So I bury ’em. But why bore you with my triumphs?”

Another biting passage comes in a diner scene when Borgnine’s character accuses Tracy of being “a yellow-bellied Jap lover. Am I right?” Tracy’s character responds, “Not only are you wrong, you’re wrong at the top of your voice.” This quick exchange and Doc Velie’s soliloquy above brief can be seen as an index of many true Mojave stories — dashed hopes of gold strikes, failed attempts at irrigation and agriculture, ethnic tensions and hatred, and the constant, oppressive and unforgiving heat.

I once spoke with screenwriter Kaufman about his work on “Black Rock” and asked him if he visited the set outside of Lone Pine during filming in the summer of 1954. His response: “Nah, it was too damn hot up there.”[vii]

Chuck Connors and Gregory Peck duel it out in California’s Red Rock Canyon in “The Big Country” (1958). Jerome Moross composed the film’s bombastic musical score. United Artists.
Chuck Connors and Gregory Peck duel it out in California’s Red Rock Canyon in “The Big Country” (1958). Burl Ives won an Oscar for his role supported by an all-star cast that included Charlton Heston, Jean Simmons and Charles Bickford. Jerome Moross composed the film’s bombastic musical score. United Artists.

A Red Rock Canon

(“The Big Country,” 1958)

Ninety miles south of Lone Pine, across the Kern County line, lies what geologists tell us is the Dove Spring Formation, a colorful assemblage of volcanic rock and sandstone with its most vivid upthrust in Red Rock Canyon State Park — again, at the Mojave's edge. One of several Red Rock canyons in the American desert (another well-known namesake is outside of Las Vegas), this particular canyon and the adjacent El Paso Mountains, by virtue of being a two-hour drive from Los Angeles, have formed the backdrop of a litany of movies, television programs and commercial advertisements. The eroded, cathedral-like columns of the canyon with their horizontal lintels of red sandstone have their place in Mojave history as well as in movie annals. In 1850, the Death Valley argonauts passed this way, some led by William Lewis Manly and Jim Rogers, who rescued them from the desolate sink they had themselves named. In subsequent years miners took hold of the area in attempts to become rich from gold, copper, precious opal, tungsten and even Old Dutch cleanser. In 1932, Universal Studios came here with Boris Karloff and a host of extras to "mine" the canyon's visual riches for sequences used in “The Mummy,” in which the canyon doubled for Egypt's Valley of the Kings. Nearly 60 years later, Universal returned with Steven Spielberg to film the early sequences of “Jurrasic Park” (1993) in which the canyon substituted for the dinosaur fossil beds of Wyoming. In between, John Wayne, Glenn Ford, Gary Cooper and dozens of others showed up for routine Westerns.

One of the grandest appearances of Red Rock Canyon and indeed of this scenic corner of the Mojave was realized in 1958’s “The Big Country,” an epic western of its day whose exteriors were largely filmed in the San Joaquin Valley but whose narrative relied on pivotal scenes based at Red Rock Canyon and the adjacent El Pasos. Although criticized by many as being an overblown horse opera, the film, directed by the exacting (and for many actors, often difficult) William Wyler, is the story of a Baltimore-based sailor, Jim McKay (Gregory Peck), who courts a young woman, Patricia Terrill (Carroll Baker), to whom he proposes and moves west to meet her cattle-baron family on a huge spread in the anonymous western plains (the Drais Ranch, near Stockton, California, served as the location). Upon arrival, Peck’s character is harassed by some local hooligans belonging to the down-and-out Hannassey clan and refuses to fight them off, dismissing their actions as harmless hazing and horseplay. When Patricia’s father, Major Terrill (Charles Bickford), learns of McKay’s “humiliation,” he dispatches a war party to terrorize the Hannassey encampment in remote Blanco Canyon (portrayed here by Red Rock Canyon). During the course of the film, McKay learns the ropes of ranching and discovers that the longstanding enmity between Major Terrill and the head of the Hannassey clan, Rufus (Burl Ives, in an Oscar-winning turn) is merely personal, and is held at bay by a local schoolteacher, Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons), on whose inherited property stands a bountiful and necessary livestock watering hole, the Big Muddy, which she allows both warring families' cows to use. McKay strikes up a friendship with Julie and offers to buy the Big Muddy from her as a wedding present for his fiancée. She is reluctant because such a sale would likely violate the pact she made to share the watering place with both families — but McKay assures her he will honor that pact. Tensions grow between Patricia and McKay, and ultimately they become estranged until Patricia learns she is to receive the Big Muddy as a wedding present, but by that time McKay is disillusioned by her jealousy and vindictiveness toward the Hannasseys as well as her blind devotion to her tyrant father and his henchman (Charlton Heston). He has also, of course, fallen in love with Julie.

The film ends with a mortal showdown in Blanco Canyon between the two elder ranchmen, while Julie and McKay ride off together into a future of wedded bliss, if not into the sunset. As star (and producer) Peck once noted, the film was conceived as “a left-wing parable of the Cold War,”[viii] employing petty range disputes among cattlemen as a substitute for east-west political hostilities. It may be no accident that “The Big Country” was President Dwight D. Eisenhower's favorite movie (he screened it at the White House more than once) — and while overlong and at times heavy on melodrama, it is redeemed by its dynamic musical score, a thrumming, oft-imitated pentatonic main title and additional tracks that suggest the influence of Aaron Copland but are the work and trademark of composer Jerome Moross, whose film scores are comparatively scarce but whose admired oeuvre includes accomplished symphonies and sonatas. The score dominates much of the film — including the segments that take place in Red Rock Canyon, and in the rarely photographed but stunning Last Chance Canyon and Copper Basin areas of the El Paso Mountains just to the east. (The movie's climax is rumored to have been filmed in Upper Jawbone Canyon, nearby).[ix]

“The Big Country” is also a striking example of panoramic cinematography, by Franz Planer, in a short-lived widescreen format called Technirama, which relied on 35mm film running through the camera horizontally rather than vertically to increase its resolution and scope. When taking into account both the visual and musical virtues of the film, I believe the movie’s Red Rock Canyon sequences remain among the most memorable uses of this much-photographed location. For a time, the sets of the Hannassey spread remained in the Hagen Canyon section of what later became Red Rock Canyon State Park, and in fact the set was recycled at least once in another revered Anthony Mann-directed western, “Man of the West” (1958), with Gary Cooper and Julie London. Today, one can still locate rusty nails scattered at the site, now part of a nature trail, just as one can unearth scraps left over from sets for “Gunga Din” and “Bad Day at Black Rock” farther north at Lone Pine. But to position this particular setting — as “The Big Country” does — as a cattleman's outpost is also to acknowledge the Mojave's own legacy — albeit a fraught one — as a domain of range cattle and a realm for other livestock and beasts of burden, from the sheep once driven northward by Basque immigrants to the wild horses and burros that still roam its more isolated canyons and valleys. To this day, motorists passing through Red Rock Canyon can observe cattle guards and signage, as they can throughout much of the Mojave.

Snow Canyon, along with other locations near St. George, Utah, provided the backdrop for the film, which began production just after the “Dirty Harry” above ground nuclear test was detonated in 1953. RKO Radio Pictures.
A shackled Temujin (John Wayne) stars in the Howard Hughes-produced Mongol epic “The Conqueror,” co-starring Susan Hayward and Pedro Armendáriz. Snow Canyon, along with other locations near St. George, Utah, provided the scenic, but deadly backdrop for the film, which began production just after the infamous “Dirty Harry” above ground nuclear test was detonated in 1953. RKO Radio Pictures.

Desert Fallout

(“The Conqueror,” 1956)

At least one Mojave-made picture, photographed in yet another red-rock domain a few years before "The Big Country," owes its significance not from aesthetic, thematic or technical considerations, but from true situational circumstances that have made it the stuff of legend and a touchstone for a tragic chapter in Mojave Desert history. “The Conqueror,” released in 1956, was an ill-conceived "barbarian epic" of Genghis Khan that has been called "deliriously bad" by one critic and has sadly become something of a camp classic due to its egregious unwatchability. I say “sadly” because, of course, much of its legacy is mournfully solemn: fully one-third of the production’s 200-plus cast and crew succumbed to some form of cancer within one or two decades of the movie’s release.

It has become customary to attribute this troubling statistic to the movie’s exterior settings — again, on the Mojave's outermost fringes, just north of St. George, Utah — some 140 miles east and downwind of the Yucca Flat nuclear test site. The St. George locations (including what is now Snow Canyon State Park) were meant to evoke the Mongolian steppe and Gobi Desert regions. While it's arguable that these choices prove convincing in the effort (my own impression is one of obvious Utahan red-rock country embellished with strategically placed yurts), it was certainly understandable for Hollywood (in this case RKO, bankrolled by producer Howard Hughes) to choose a location within its budgetary constraints. The movie, which was the directorial debut of tough-guy actor Dick Powell, chronicles the story of Temujin (John Wayne, outstandingly miscast in Fu Manchu makeup), a fierce Mongol warrior who, in order to seize the empire of a rival Tartar king (Pedro Armendariz), kidnaps the monarch's daughter (Susan Hayward), whom he intends to woo. Inevitable battle scenes ensue, grandly staged and choreographed, and boy gets girl. The movie was decidedly lavish in planning and intent. It engaged the estimable Joseph LaShelle to photograph it (LaShelle had won an Oscar for “Laura” in 1945 and was nominated for his work in eight other pictures).

Just a year or two prior to the movie’s filming, Yucca Flat had been the site of an extensive nuclear testing program known as Operation Upshot-Knothole. Its most notorious detonation — not communicated to the public at the time — was called UK-9, code-named "Hamlet" and nicknamed "Harry." Because of various miscalculations based at least partly on wind direction, the extremely radioactive fallout from this test was swept over a 300-mile radius, much of it accumulating in the St. George, Utah, vicinity. The bomb would much later be called "Dirty Harry" once word got out of the severity of its impact. When the cast and crew of “The Conqeuror” later ventured into the painted canyons near St. George in the summer of 1954, no one was sufficiently aware that the horses and wagons would be kicking up radioactive dust, and that their al fresco workplace would have set off Geiger counters with a vengeance. Although the nuclear tests in Nevada had not been a secret, there was no apparent impetus for alarm. And no one could have then predicted that the cast and crew of this picture would constitute a veritable necrology of cancer-related demise: star John Wayne (stomach cancer), star Susan Hayward (brain cancer), co-star Agnes Moorehead (uterine cancer), co-star Pedro Armendariz (suicide, kidney cancer) and director Dick Powell (lymphoma).

To make matters worse, truckloads of the red radioactive Utah soil had been driven to RKO’s Hollywood soundstages to be deployed in interior sequences, exposing more cast and crew members who had not been on location. Even before the death toll had reached its apex in the 1970s (director Powell was among the earliest casualties, having died in 1963), cynics referred to “The Conqeuror” as an "RKO Radioactive Picture" — and a shamefaced Howard Hughes pulled the film out of circulation for many years. To watch “The Conqeuror” now, without an awareness of its background, would be to indulge in harmless ridicule of a movie's excesses and sheer ineptness. The actors speak using a forced, faux-King James Bible vocabulary that especially casts John Wayne's performance in an unflattering light, although even the more professionally trained thespians in the movie fare little better. Instead, “The Conqeuror” has become a "guilt-watch": a forlorn celluloid record of a tragedy — decried by some as "the movie that killed John Wayne," although many have observed that Wayne (and others in the cast) were also career cigarette smokers and that no medical consensus can likely be reached. Insurance actuaries still could have a field day with the risk analysis surrounding this failed Hollywood endeavor. In 1980, People magazine reported that of the 220 cast and crew members who worked on “The Conqeuror,” ninety-one had contracted cancer and forty-six had succumbed to the disease.[x] And those statistics alone are nearly forty years old. At the time, this cancer rate was about three times the norm, prompting some authorities to categorize “The Conqeuror” phenomenon as an epidemic, given the sobering number of subsequent cancer diagnoses of St. George-area residents.

Today, travelers to St. George can drive fifteen minutes north on Highway 18 to enjoy the campgrounds and viewpoints of Snow Canyon State Park. Its web site encourages visitors to “explore the dunes and trails of beautiful Snow Canyon on foot, bike and horseback.” It also points out that “the canyon has been the site of Hollywood films such as “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “The Electric Horseman,” and “Jeremiah Johnson” — all nods to the films of longtime Utahan Robert Redford, but without any acknowledgment of the failed and tragic extravaganza that preceded them.

Claudia Cardinale and Woody Strode are pictured against Nevada’s Valley of Fire in Richard Brooks’ 1966 film, “The Professionals,” that also starred Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan and Jack Palance. Columbia Pictures.
Claudia Cardinale and Woody Strode are pictured against Nevada’s Valley of Fire in Richard Brooks’ 1966 film, “The Professionals,” that also starred Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan and Jack Palance. Columbia Pictures.

Valleys of Fire and Death

(“The Professionals,” 1966)

After above-ground nuclear tests were banned in Nevada in 1963 and the radioactive dust had settled and ultimately dissipated, not only did Robert Redford and his colleagues continue to capitalize on the scenery of the northeastern Mojave, but other productions blazed trails into new and seasoned territories there and beyond. Some four decades after “Greed,” Death Valley — and another, more distant Mojave Desert valley between Las Vegas and St. George — made colorful contributions to an outstanding action/adventure Western written and directed by Richard Brooks. “The Professionals” is an engaging, fast-paced yarn (based on the novel “A Mule for the Marquesa” by Frank O'Rourke) of a team of soldiers of fortune — "specialists" in their respective fields of explosives (Burt Lancaster), firearms (Lee Marvin), archery (Woody Strode) and horsemanship (Robert Ryan). They are hired by wealthy industrialist J.W. Grant (Ralph Bellamy) to rescue his ransomed Mexican wife (Claudia Cardinale), who has been ostensibly kidnapped by a Pancho Villa-like former revolutionary-turned-bandit Jesus Raza (Jack Palance).

“The Professionals” follows the team's journey across the Mexican border, into Raza’s territory, in search of their client’s wife. When they secretly observe Maria in an embrace with Raza, the team realizes she is not a hostage at all but the longtime lover of Raza who had been “bought” by Grant in an arranged marriage. They nevertheless proceed to “rescue” her and honor the contract with their employer after a showdown with Raza, who is wounded and brought back by the team to the American side of the border. However, a plot reversal at the movie’s conclusion leaves the wealthy J.W. Grant getting his due.

Filmed almost entirely on location in several California deserts, with luminous cinematography by the celebrated Conrad Hall, including innovative day-for-night scenes shot on the floor of Death Valley and at its Mesquite Sand Dunes, the movie’s well-choreographed action sequences and zesty castanet-inflected score (composed by Maurice Jarre) set in motion a smoothly paced and superbly edited narrative. Perhaps not since William Daniels first focused his lens on these same salt flats in 1924 had Death Valley been so scrupulously and lovingly photographed. In the film, the setting may be beautiful — but it is meant to be deadly. The character played by Robert Ryan at one point complains: "Broiling by day. Freezing by night. Alkali dust choking every hole in your body. How in the name of God does anybody live here long enough to get used to it?”

But just as treacherous and stunning is another location, farther east, which stands in for the stronghold where Jesus Raza is keeping Grant’s wife: Nevada’s Valley of Fire State Park (an hour’s drive north of Las Vegas). This aptly named enclave served “The Professionals” as a versatile backdrop for gunfights, explosions and acrobatics on the part of star Lancaster. Brooks took pride in his stated fact that his was the first project to receive permission to film here (and where he returned for “Bite the Bullet” in 1975).[xi] Other impactful sequences were filmed just outside the Mojave, in the Colorado Desert’s Coachella Valley, along the now-dismantled Kaiser Eagle Mountain railroad line, where an evocative train ambush takes place. For the Valley of Fire sequences, an entire Mexican compound was built, and it is among these reddish-pink rocks that the former circus performer Lancaster exhibits some muscular rope climbing talents (Lancaster often shunned stunt doubles).

Director Brooks, whose other works include “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “In Cold Blood and Looking for Mr. Goodbar) once noted in an interview that The Professionals’ premise was adapted for the television series “The A-Team,”[xii] which starred George Peppard, in the 1980s. But unlike “The A-Team,” the original film remains a critically admired achievement, especially by cinematographers, and it is one of the subjects of the 1994 paean to golden-age cinematography, the documentary "Visions of Light." This tribute, in which director of photography Conrad Hall is interviewed, singles out "The Professionals" as a beacon of cinematographic achievement (Hall earned an Academy Award nomination for his work in the film). All told, "The Professionals" is a masterly tribute to its panoramic Mojave locations in their guise as a substitute for the treacherous deserts of northern Mexico.

When “Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here” was released in 1969 the film provided an alternative representation of Native Americans previously missing from the Western genre. Universal Pictures.
When “Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here” was released in 1969 the film provided an alternative representation of Native Americans previously missing from the Western genre. Starring Robert Blake as Willie Boy with Robert Redford as Deputy Cooper, the film was shot in Pipes Canyon Preserve and other scenic locations near Joshua Tree National Park where the actual incident occurred in 1909. Universal Pictures

Native Son

(“Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here,” 1969)

Conspicuously absent from so many movies made in the Mojave are its indigenous people — the Chemehuevi, Serrano, Mojave, Paiute, Shoshone, Serrano and others — whether as performers or characters (local Paiutes did serve as extras in “The Conqueror,” and a few likely did so in “Gunga Din”). It would be tempting to single out “Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here” as a notable exception on both counts, were it not for the unfortunate fact that even forty years after the brownface enormities of “Gunga Din," this self-consciously progressive film nevertheless had to abide by Hollywood casting practices that demanded Anglo headliners in ethnic imposture — in this case, Katharine Ross, fresh from “Butch Cassidy” and “The Graduate” as the female lead Lola, and Robert Blake in the title role, a Chemehuevi man who was the real-life subject of an early twentieth-century manhunt. (Blake, né Michael Gubitosi, was already a veteran of non-white portrayals, making an early appearance as the Mexican boy who sells Humphrey Bogart a lottery ticket in 1948’s “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”). Here, despite both Blake's and Ross's bootblacked hair and dark makeup, and because of the participation of Morongo and other Mission tribes as extras and contributors, the message of “Willie Boy” remains elegiac and compelling.Willie Boy’s story, as adapted for film (from the nonfiction book, “Willie Boy: A Desert Manhunt” by Harry Lawton), takes the 1909 Romeo-and-Juliet theme of the nonfictional protagonists and focuses it into an account of the posse led by Deputy Sheriff Cooper, portrayed by Robert Redford. The occasional outlaw, Willie Boy, has fallen in love with his cousin Lola, who is living on the Morongo Indian reservation near Banning, California, and he elopes with her — in defiance of tribal custom which forbids unions of close relatives, and is tracked down by Lola's disapproving father, who is killed by Willie Boy in self defense, thus freeing up the lovers to united in wedlock according to another tribal convention known as "marriage by capture."

Local white authorities insist on bringing the young Willie Boy back to justice and thus ensues what was considered to be the Mojave's last posse-led manhunt. The movie's director and co-scenarist, Abraham Polonsky, who was blacklisted during the McCarthy Era, tempted critics to assume a parallel between the ostracism faced by Willie Boy and the director’s own travails, although the film more overtly and sensitively addresses the issues of discrimination between Native Americans and whites at the turn of the twentieth century.

When Willie Boy and Lola escape together after the murder of Lola’s father, Willie Boy tells a frightened Lola that "they won't chase us. They won't even try. Nobody cares what Indians do." The film is set among the Morongo tribe and was filmed near the tribe's ancestral places in the chaparral country near the San Bernardino Valley and Whitewater River in the Colorado Desert, but also traces Willie Boy's and Lola's flight into the same high desert regions of the Mojave where the historical figures met their ends — in an area known as The Pipes and Ruby Mountain, near the town of Landers. This laconic film — spare in dialogue but intensely felt, requires patient viewing — its pace is restrained, its protagonists flawed and complex. And again, the camerawork of Conrad Hall distinguishes this project with its sensitive lighting, especially in night sequences. The climactic scenes set in The Pipes region (again, on the fringes of the Mojave, where the historical actions took place) are exposed in muted colors that impart the film with its sense of bleakness and solemnity.

After the film's climax, when Willie Boy allows himself to be killed in self-defense by Redford's Deputy Cooper, the body is given to his tribal fellows, who build a bonfire on the site and cremate the remains. When he is confronted by the county sheriff, who affirms the public's "right" to see Willie Boy's body, Cooper responds, "Tell them we're all out of souvenirs." In this respect, “Willie Boy” is an essential Mojave movie, embodying as it does the desert's tradition as a place of flight, pursuit and ephemerality.

The infamous orgy scene from Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1970 counterculture classic, “Zabriskie Point,” starring Mark Frechette, Daria Halprin and Rod Taylor, was shot at Death Valley’s popular scenic overlook of the same name. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.