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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Rocks In My Head

Western locations have suddenly become something I notice. Part of that comes of reading about places like Lone Pine and Corriganville on line and in pages of Western Clippings. There's a yearly festival at Lone Pine, that rock formation horn of plenty over which horse and rider by thousands chased and show-downed against majestic backgrounds. Fans go there because these are actual and largely unchanged sites still host to cowboy spirits who rode but will no more. John Wayne and Gene Autry may be gone, but Lone Pine is forever. They'll not be striking these sets. Trips to Lone Pine amount to pilgrimage for fans who've committed environs to memory. They'll tell you which boulder appeared in what Hoppy, identify a mountain far distant and spell out how many features that peak backgrounded. It matters for me now where screen cowboys rode just as it always did among seasoned watchers. Why did I take so long appreciating nature's role in making these shows great?

John Wayne Waits Out Crew Preparation for a Next Fort Apache Scene.

I've known some who trekked to Monument Valley. That's where John Ford practiced his art. Would seeing those towering edifices make The Searchers from then on a different experience? No doubt it would, and yet I've not gone, and probably never will (they say it's hot in deserts). Authentic western locations aren't generally visible from air-conditioned hotel balconies. Guess it needs a seasoned breed to venture there. Much as I'm curious about these places, it's enough to view them on screen from a recliner's distance, and yet I know I'm missing a lot by not toughing out a flight or long distance drive to give dimension to these places so immortalized on film. This I did not know about Fort Apache until I read Carlo Gaberscek and Kenny Steir's In Search Of Western Movie Sites column in the latest Western Clippings: It seems the fort itself was not built in Monument Valley, but was instead designed (by veteran James Basevi) from the ground up at nearer-by-Hollywood Corriganville, a ranch owned/operated by one-time screen cowboy Ray Corrigan, who made acreage available to film folk for outdoor lensing, then kept the built (and often lavish) sets for use by future renters. Turns out John Ford's company (with Merian C. Cooper) Argosy Pictures, spent a pile on Basevi's accurate-to-detail frontier fort and left a finished job from which Corrigan could profit for years to come. Think of it like someone building a carnival in your backyard, operating it for a week, then leaving the rides for which you'll charge from there on.

Lone Pine's festival has yielded printed annuals (two I've found on Amazon --- are there more?) with terrific articles about westerns shot there. Genre experts Richard Bann and Ed Hulse are among contributors. Ed's appreciation of lost-till-now Republic serial (and largely LP-shot) Daredevils Of The West inspired me to order the DVD from Serial Squadron. I'll not be writing about it here because he's covered the topic definitively, as has Bann on 1935's Westward Ho!, John Wayne's first for newly organized Republic Pictures, and happily streaming on Netflix, so I was able to read, then watch.



There's nothing of the Fort Apache set left. A guy on You Tube went there and photographed ground where it once stood, matching footage from the film with rocks still around to establish what stood where. There's a melancholy about these location crawls, though I'm glad fans are still willing to make them. Ray Corrigan himself is long departed (1976). I met him at the first western fair I ever attended and he seemed prosperous. Ray's interesting for fact he traded cowboy duds for a gorilla skin after B westerns went flat, hiring himself out as ape-menace to serial heroes and here-and-there Bowery Boys. RC even got round to donning monster attire as It!, yet another Terror From Beyond Space.
The Fort Apache set naturally got re-used for cavalry-based pics. I looked at a pair, Ambush and Escape from Fort Bravo, after umpteenth viewing of Fort Apache. It needs not repeating that cavalry westerns aren't created equal. There's ones John Ford directed ... and all the rest. My declaring that however, even if backed by ranks of the auteurist-establishment, doesn't make it right. I've a feeling lots would disagree and say Ford's patrols could have used tighter narrative and less meandering incident. Here's the difference I see between a Fort Apache and the Ambush/Fort Bravo parlay. The latter two are all about story ... conflict ...complications. On their own, both are fine, comfort westerns. Beside Fort Apache, however, they seem contrived and mechanical. But that's only by admittedly unfair comparison with John Ford at his best and backed by John Wayne, Henry Fonda, and sterling character support.
It's looseness and meandering I like best in Ford's cavalry. Once you're told Bravo and Ambush's story, the party's over. Fort Apache, longer than either but never seemingly so, ambles in no hurry to a blowout finish you'd think came from a movie more committed to action than this one that's so long withheld it. You know a western's great when you'd rather hear the players talk than watch them fight. Ford seemed to look for moments to distract us from Plot Point One's progression to Plot Point Two. He was ahead of most filmmakers for knowing story conventions were things better dismantled, so long as a basic premise was strong enough to withstand side-trips he'd take along the way.
Ambush and Escape From Fort Bravo reflect well rules others played by. What these two do best is take us far afield of studio ranches and too-familiar brush. Ambush was filmed around Gallup and Lupton, New Mexico. I wonder if kids ever played cowboy/Indians among those majestic rocks. MGM and director Sam Wood (his final outing) make most of outdoors and what crisp photography captures of it (Warner Archives' Ambush DVD is an exceptionally nice one). You could sell westerns in 1950 with the promise of fresh settings for action. Warners' Rocky Mountain did as much the same year, also on Gallup location.
Lowered expectations are best company to Ambush and Fort Bravo, especially if you're coming off Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, or Rio Grande. Robert Taylor is Ambush's hard-bitten scout, refereeing love triangles in addition to renegade Indians. There's less adherence to period authenticity here than Ford enforced. Metro glamour would not be forfeited amidst dust swirls, thus an Arlene Dahl-ed up to studio specification. Exhibitors would complain through much of the fifties about overabundance of Indians biting said dust in westerns. Not that social/liberal impulses were aroused ... it was endless repetition of a too familiar device getting ticket-sellers down.

Much arrow extraction in evidence throughout cavalry pics that flourished during the fifties.

Escape From Fort Bravo is a 1954 MGM release unfortunately shot with Anscocolor. The process represented an economy measure. Ansco never looked very good, and otherwise satisfactory films like this and Seven Brides For Seven Brothers suffered for its being utilized. As with Ambush, there was location work at Gallup and on this occasion, Death Valley. Corriganville's Fort Apache was used again, for a first time in wide screen, Escape From Fort Bravo being released in 1:66 ratio. Trouble once more was with Indians, mass-gathered to serve as action respite to love rivalry between William Holden and John Forsythe for Eleanor Parker. Here was where resourceful direction could take onus off commonplace dramatics, as new-to-A's John Sturges demonstrates with a whale of a third-act redskin siege favorably noticed at the time and doubtless responsible for his moving further up to Bad Day at Black Rock and eventual star-studded western Gunfight At The OK Corral.


Anonymous Jim Lane said...

As a kid I never missed The Adventures of Rin-Tin-Tin on TV; now I wonder if it was shot on Ray Corrigan's Fort Apache set (it was even called by that name in the series). I know that when I finally saw Ford's picture, that fort looked mighty familiar.

The guy with the YouTube video of where Fort Apache once stood reminds me: Last time I saw How the West Was Won at the Cinerama Dome in LA, they showed a little video compiled by Dave Strohmaier, the man behind Cinerama Adventure, called "HTWWW Locations Then and Now". It took us to a bunch of locations photographed by Tom March from the exact spot where the Cinerama camera had stood -- Convict Lake, Cal.; Cave-In-Rock, Ill.; Chimney Rock, Colo.; and so on (Lone Pine was there, of course). Over these shots Strohmaier superimposed the shot from the movie, with the appropriate snatch of the soundtrack echoing behind it. The effect was elegiac and eerie, like seeing ghosts or having a peek through the time tunnel. It's a pity that video wasn't included as a supplement on the HTWWW Blu-ray.

7:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So how did John Wayne wind up in that "Epic Last Stand" picture?

You should check out the Lone Pine Fest in October. It isn't always hot there, sometimes it's pretty cold. The rocks are well worth the trip.

'Bad Day at Black Rock' was filmed outside of Lone Pine. The debris from the town is still there.

8:16 AM  
Blogger Dugan said...

I love Ford's Monument Valley westerns, but the place looks like a hell hole to me. Making those films must have been an endurance contest at times.

7:48 AM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

The ending of ESCAPE FROM FORT BRAVO is simply terrific and really grabs your attention.

John Sturges is a director who managed to put a series very good and solid films, even his final ones.

One or two months ago, Fernando Martín Peña (the one who unearthed the complete METROPOLIS) resurrected a print of Sturges' THE VALDEZ HORSES (CHINO). Technically, the film is a Spaghetti western filmed in Europe, a Spanish-French-Italian coproduction... in English. But the results are no Spaghetti and it has a feeling of the old times.

It is a masterpiece, but avoid the American version. Instead, opt for the European/International version with the original title... and in a quality presentation.

9:20 PM  
Blogger Mark Mayerson said...

I've been to Monument Valley, due to my love of Ford. I'm going back again this summer. It is breathtaking in person and it does affect how you see the films after you've been on the location. Goulding's Lodge also has many bits of Ford memorabilia to see. The building that was Wayne's quarters in Yellow Ribbon is still standing.

This year I'll be spending one night at a new hotel built by the Navajos on the edge of the valley. So, John, if you want to see the valley from the comfort of an air conditioned room, you can do it. All the hotel's rooms face the valley.

9:00 PM  
Blogger Juanita's Journal said...

I'm a major fan of "ESCAPE FROM FORT BRAVO". Good action mixed with first-rate characterizations.

4:19 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

A very enjoyable post! We pass through Lone Pine most summers on our way to camp in the Sierras. (I've done a couple photo posts on Lone Pine.) There's a movie museum there, and there are plenty of brochures and books with maps to help find your way around the "Movie Rocks." We were able to use stills to match up rock formations and find the one-time sets from RAWHIDE and YELLOW SKY. It's both really neat and, as you say, a bit melancholy.

I have a real fondness for AMBUSH, which isn't quite as prettified as many MGM films (well, other than Arlene Dahl!). But the MGM Taylor Western I really love is a non-cavalry picture, WESTWARD THE WOMEN, filmed in Kanab, Utah. It's a tough, gritty movie with superb location work. Highly recommended.

Best wishes,

3:57 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Thanks for your comment, Laura. I'm waiting for Warner Archive to put out "Westward The Women." Didn't I read somewhere that Frank Capra was involved at one time with this project?

4:47 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Yes, you're absolutely right, WESTWARD THE WOMEN was based on an original story by Frank Capra, though it was directed by William Wellman (who was much for suited for the tough outdoorsy material). It's a really substantive, meaty film -- at the time I saw it I felt like it was a really good book and I didn't want to turn the last page!

It would have been nice to have WESTWARD THE WOMEN -- and indeed, AMBUSH -- released in a Westerns boxed set, as some other Taylor Westerns were a few years ago, but in the current environment I expect it will have to be from the Warner Archive. Hopefully before too long!

Best wishes,

3:03 AM  
Blogger film_maven said...

Thank you so much for updating your format!! While always wonderful, the blog was so much easier to read (i'm getting old)....both font and photos came up beautifully!!

As always, a most enjoyable topic!

1:53 PM  

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