We spent our last day in Arizona at the Old Tucson movie studio, an awe-inspiring destination for any western fan. The studio was originally constructed for the 1940 film ARIZONA, starring Jean Arthur and William Holden, and has been used in dozens of films and TV shows since then. Over the years, the look of the place has changed quite a bit. Film productions are generally allowed to make any visual changes that suit their needs, and a massive fire in 1995 destroyed nearly half of the original structures.
Visitors today, however, can still see the foundations of the very first buildings, used in ARIZONA. According to historian Paul J. Lawton, our tour guide and author of two books on the history of the Old Tucson studio, no expense was spared to make this place look as dingy and dangerous as the real Tucson was in the late 1860s. For the sake of comparison, read the following historical narrative by J. Ross Brown and then take a look at the opening scenes of ARIZONA:
“If the world were searched over I suppose there could not be found so degraded a set of villains as then formed the principal society of Tucson. Every man went armed to the teeth, and street-fights and bloody affrays were of daily occurrence. Since the coming of the California Volunteers, two years ago, the state of things in this delightful metropolis has materially changed. The citizens who are permitted to live here at all still live very much in the Greaser style – the tenantable houses having been taken away from them for the use of the officers and soldiers who are protecting their property from the Apaches. But then, they have claims for rent, which they can probably sell for something when any body comes along disposed to deal in that sort of paper. Formerly they were troubled a good deal about the care of their cattle and sheep: now they have no trouble at all; the cattle and sheep have fallen into the hands of the Apaches, who have become unusually bold in their depredations; and the pigs which formerly roamed unmolested about the streets during the day, and were deemed secure in the back-yards of nights, have become a military necessity. Eggs are scarce, because the hens that used to lay them cackle no more in the hen form. Drunkenness has been effectually prohibited by written order limiting the sale of spirituous liquors to three specific establishments, the owners of which pay a license for hospital purposes, the fund whereof goes to the benefit of the sick and disabled who have fallen a sacrifice to their zeal in the pursuit of hostile Indians. Gambling is also much discountenanced; and nobody gambles when he is out of money, or can’t borrow from other sources. The public regulations are excellent. Volunteer soldiers are station all over the town – at the mescal-shops, the monte-tables, and houses of ill-fame – for the preservation of public order, or go their of their own accord for that purpose, which amounts to the same thing.” – Adventures in the Apache Country (1869)
This is Randolph Scott’s first view of Agry Town in Budd Boetticher’s BUCHANAN RIDES ALONE (1958). On the right side of the street is the mercantile building from Sam Peckinpah’s feature film debut THE DEADLY COMPANIONS (1961). To the left are two buildings featured in YOUNG GUNS 2 (1991). A shootout was staged on this same street when Charles Bronson visits Tucson in DEATH WISH (1973). These are the oldest intact structures in the studio.
Here are a couple of panoramic shots of the town square, rebuilt in the 1990s. The mountain peak behind the town hall (first used in the Gary Busey western GHOST ROCK in 2003) is one of the most photographed mountains in film history. The only original building on the square is the two-story white Spanish structure. It was first used in Anthony Mann’s WINCHESTER ’73 (1950), then remodeled for THE LAST OUTPOST (1951) starring Ronald Reagan. The current look is from THREE AMIGOS! (1986).
This mock-up of the mission built for ARIZONA was featured in THREE AMIGOS! and in the introductory wedding sequence of the 1993 film TOMBSTONE. (The rest of TOMBSTONE was shot at a smaller set in nearby Mescal. None of the film, it turns out, was actually shot in Tombstone.) Note the mountain in the background… look familiar?
Just for kicks, here’s another photo of the mountain, taken from a different angle and featuring a completely different set and landscape – from the TV series “High Chaparral.”
And one more (the beauty of Old Tucson is that there are no bad camera angles), featuring the “most photographed train in movie history,” used in Cecil B. DeMille’s UNION PACIFIC (1939), Clint Eastwood’s JOE KIDD (1972) and the Will Smith debacle THE WILD WILD WEST (1999).
At the far northern end of Front Street is a little white church with an adjoining cemetery. This reminded me of the highest point in Calico ghost town. In my imagination, it could also belong to a Clint Eastwood movie. JOE KIDD (1972) was actually shot at Old Tucson, but most of the buildings used in that film no longer exist, due to the fire. It turns out that this little white church is a fairly new addition. It was a barn until 2000, when the outer frame was enclosed and painted. Now it’s just waiting for a worthy western to come along.
Here’s the mercantile building I mentioned earlier, named in honor of the John Wayne / Maureen O’Hara film MCLINTOCK! (1963).
To further illustrate my point that there are no bad camera angles in Old Tucson, the next photo features the same building from the back side.
The photo below is a panoramic shot of the same building, as well as the ruins of a structure that was built for ARIZONA. The mercantile building and the ruins were used for the climactic shootout in Howard Hawks’s RIO BRAVO (1958) – perhaps the most famous film shot at Old Tucson.
Directly behind the mercantile building is a very small canal, which doubled as the titular river in Hawks’s film RIO LOBO (1971).
This scene wasn't shot at Old Tucson... but it makes me laugh.