We're talking about film making on a grand scale

The Alabama Hills

By —— Bio and Archives--November 18, 2009

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No, the Alabama Hills are not in Alabama but are sprawled at the foot of the eastern Sierra Nevadas in California; large rounded boulders clustered like a spilled sack of potatoes at the foot of jagged Mt. Whitney (14,505’) and Lone Pine Peak. A perfect complement of mountain and desert landscapes, this hidden geologic wonderland begs for purple prose because the scenery will drop you to your knees and take your breath away.


imageThese are not idle words. Watch the rising sun cast a red glow against the vertical walls of towering Sierra granite, then slowly bathe the valley floor in deep orange and black shadows and bring to life the large tangled maze of boulders and you will quickly understand why the Alabama Hills have pulled Hollywood movie makers to the region for over 80 years.

We’re talking about film making on a grand scale. With over 350 movie titles to its name and counting, the 30,000 acre BLM recreation area continues to be one of the premier locations for shooting motion pictures in North America. A mere 200 miles from Los Angeles, it’s an ideal spot for suspending our disbelief. Whether standing in for northwest India and the Khyber Pass (Gunga Din, 1939), Afghanistan (Iron Man, 2008), the Alps or Pyrenees (Gladiator, 2000) or countless good old American Westerns, this was the place.

But you’d never know that today standing near cucumber-shaped Gene Autry Rock gazing down at Movie Flats in the peaceful dry desert air, or traipsing past pinnacles and blobs and slits and slots and ledges and caves and fins and sprawling stone walls and through arches. It’s hard to envision the valley floor swarming with hundreds of noisy movie extras and cast engaged in mock battle and other manner of make-believe; the lone stagecoach outrunning white men pretending to be Indians, or the Sheriff shooting blanks at nefarious cattle rustlers, or the sight of elephants stomping through sand and sage.

I recently spent seven Indian Summer days and nights camping in the Hills, and if it weren’t for winter approaching I’d still be up there. We pulled in late one evening under the white light of a full moon and spent an hour driving slowly along hard-packed sand and gravel roads. Most of the roads were built by movie crews decades ago to facilitate transporting their bulky equipment through the maze, or for keeping up with galloping cowboys as the camera rolled.

When I woke up early the first morning and stumbled around in the scenery my first thought was gratitude for buying that extra set of camera batteries because I couldn’t stop snapping. I’m drawn to the simple design of shapes, and as a photographer, where composition and light are king and queen, it was a veritable banquet of which I greedily partook. It was the extremes that enticed me, the contrast of sharp, jagged mountains juxtaposed against the round, gentle contours of wind, rain and sand-blasted boulders the texture of sandpaper.


Some visit the Alabama Hills for reasons other than its storied past as we ran across a few crazy mountain climbers and some sweaty mountain bikers. But there were also a handful of rubber-necking film-buffs (like me) driving their rentals in circles searching for that narrow slit canyon John Wayne rode down in Westward Ho! (1935) or the flat, teetering Gary Cooper Rock.

The Duke wasn’t the only movie star to swagger through these hills. A partial list of actors is a veritable who’s who of cinematic idolatry: Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, Clint Eastwood, Errol Flynn, Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Tom Mix, Susan Hayward, Humphrey Bogart, Randolph Scott, Gregory Peck, Joan Fontaine, Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas, Russell Crowe, Robert Downey Jr. ... and many, many more.

High-caliber movies were filmed here such as Gunga Din (1939), High Sierra (1941), Riders of the Purple Sage (1925), Joe Kidd (1972), Yellow Sky (1948), Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935), How the West was Won (1962), The Great Race (1965), Star Trek V (1989), Transformer II (2009), and a host of Lone Ranger episodes. It’s an extensive list.

The place really came alive for me after I picked up Dave Holland’s handy little book “On Location in Lone Pine.” Filled with anecdotes, maps and lots of photos, Mr. Holland walks you back through time and points out dozens of landmarks, the precise location of scenes and the history behind many of the shoots. His enthusiasm is infectious. But one epic in particular was deserving of his attention; Gunga Din, produced by RKO starring Cary Grant and Douglas Fairbanks Jr., was released in 1939 which is generally regarded as Hollywood’s finest year.

Even by today’s standards this was a monumental undertaking. Directed by George Stevens, it is the tale of British soldiers and a native water bearer in northwestern India who do battle with the evil Kali-worshipping Thugees whose primary goal in life is to strangle everyone with dishtowels, at least those who get in the way of their march toward world domination. Okay, I’m over-simplifying, but I don’t want to spoil it for you.

What’s so special about this movie (which basically stank compared to 1939’s Gone With the Wind) was the amount of work that went into production. An entire town was built out on Movie Flats in addition to the large golden Kali temple tucked away in a box canyon, an enormous British army garrison, and a tent city that housed over 300 support personnel. According to Stevens, the final battle involved 1,500 extras. You can still walk through the empty 8 acre sage-covered parcel where the original town of Tantrapur stood, and if you close your eyes and put your mind to it you can almost see Grant and Fairbanks lobbing dynamite at the over-acting Thugees in white diapers.

Lone Pine

If it weren’t for the small town of Lone Pine three miles east of the remote Alabama Hills, Hollywood might never have come calling. Lone Pine became as important to the industry as the famous rocks and the crew the studios hauled up from the L.A. basin. The town’s people worked as wranglers, stunt men and women, actors, caterers ... they held all sorts of jobs. They supplied livestock, food, materials and an awful lot of elbow grease. They even supplied the town itself for many scenes. By all means, spend time in Lone Pine, host to the annual Lone Pine Film Festival.

When you do, make sure to visit the Film History Museum where you can see Humphrey Bogart’s car which he raced through town and up the Whitney Portal Road before meeting his inglorious demise in High Sierra. If you’re hungry you can eat where the legends ate and sit where they sat at the Mt. Whitney Restaurant, its walls covered with movie memorabilia. Or rub your fingers across the engraved names of Gary Cooper and Errol Flynn whose signatures adorn the walls of the Lone Pine Indian Trading Post. As for lodging, the Dow Villa Motel right off the highway seems to have been the primary haunt for the likes of John Wayne who passed out in room 20 now and then, I’m told.


Long after the elaborate sets are torn down and carted off, and the long studio caravans have rumbled back to L.A. and the grips and gaffers and best boys have packed up their tool bags and gone home and a peace settles over the valley floor you’re left to contemplate what should draw people here in the first place; stark raving beauty.

That’s what motivated me to first visit the Alabama Hills a few years ago oblivious to its Hollywood past. I came for the simple things; big jagged mountains, a million round rocks and free camping. So the next time you’re driving north from L.A. on U.S 395 to Mammoth Lakes or Reno, take a left at the only stop light in Lone Pine, drive three miles west and hang a right on Movie Road. It will be worth the short detour.

And bring your camera.


More information can be found here:

Lone Pine Film History Museum

Lone Pine Film Festival

Lone Pine Chamber of Commerce

Dow Villa Motel

More Photos


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John Treadwell Dunbar -- Bio and Archives | Comments

John Treadwell Dunbar is a freelance writer

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