Tuesday, December 28, 2010


I’ve lived in Los Angeles long enough to know that there are definite weather patterns, but (this past week’s freak rainstorm notwithstanding) the shifts are not usually very dramatic. After four years on the West Coast, one of the things I miss most about central Virginia is autumn leaves… so this November, L and I decided to take a trip north up Highway 395 into the Eastern Sierras – a popular destination for photographers. And since I hardly ever plan a vacation that doesn’t have some kind of movie tie-in, we made several stops along the way at locations immortalized in late-era Westerns.

Our first stop was the Alabama Hills in Lone Pine. Even if you don’t know anything about the awesome cinematic history of this place, it’s still hard to escape being awe-struck by the natural grandeur. The Alabama Hills sit halfway between Death Valley and Mt. Whitney, providing a picturesque buffer between the lowest basin and the highest peak in the continental United States. The region is unquestionably a testament to Mother Nature’s power, so it’s fitting that so many of the silver screen’s larger-than-life myths came to life here. The Alabama Hills was home to the western genre at its height – from early silent films starring Tom Mix to Budd Boetticher’s "Ranown cycle" with Randolph Scott in the late 1950s. By the early 1960s, contemporary westerns like THE MISFITS (1960), LONELY ARE THE BRAVE (1962) and HUD (1963) were signaling the end of an era. The genre remained commercially viable until 1972, but the general tone changed dramatically – westerns went from being righteous and celebratory to cynical and somber.

Ironically, around the same time, filmmakers moved away from the Alabama Hills. The main reason, probably, was that the hills had simply become too familiar to movie-going audiences. Even a location as inherently dramatic as the Alabama Hills can become mundane when you see it every week on black and white TV.

In the early 1960s, director Henry Hathaway (who left his mark on the Alabama Hills with BRIGHAM YOUNG in 1940 and RAWHIDE in 1951) made three westerns at the Hot Creek Geological Area off of 395. The first of the trio was NORTH TO ALASKA (1960), a surprisingly good John Wayne vehicle. Biographer Gary Willis opines that this comic western marks a turning point in The Duke’s career, because it “sees John Wayne for the first time adopt the genial bluff, hearty persona that he was to use for most of his subsequent Westerns.” Instead of pitting Wayne against a gun-slinging villain, NORTH TO ALASKA matches him against high-maintenance woman (Capucine) when the duo gets stranded in a remote fishing cabin. The bathing sequences were shot in the steamy waters of Hot Creek… Fellow blogger The Great Silence explored the area in detail. In recent years, “renewed geological activity” has forced state regulators to fence off the area. Swimming is now prohibited, due to frequent underground geyser eruptions that have raised water temperatures and arsenic levels. During our visit, we also saw some ominous signs warning that the creek is also “New Zealand mud snail positive.” We stayed out of the water.

Although the location is forbidding today, Hathaway returned twice more – for the final shootout sequence in NEVADA SMITH (featuring 36-year-old Steve McQueen as a vengeful teenage half-breed) and for a scene in TRUE GRIT (1969), where John Wayne encounters bad guys Robert Duvall and Dennis Hopper. (Again I defer to The Great Silence, who has been much more thorough in his location-hunting than I.)

Until recently, TRUE GRIT was known as the film that earned John Wayne an Oscar, for his portrayal of a fat, one-eyed bounty hunter named Rooster Cogburn. For younger generations, it is now known as the basis of the new Coen Brothers film. A few days ago, I managed to catch the Coen Brothers remake, which features Jeff Bridges in the role that Wayne made famous. 90% of the film is a scene-for-scene remake, up until the last five minutes of screen time… but, as David Denby notes in a recent New Yorker article, the tone of the film is completely different. According to Denby, the purpose of the Coen Brothers film is to illustrate “the arbitrary casualness” and the “savage moral incoherence of the West” – not unlike NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN.

In contrast, the original TRUE GRIT aimed simply to lionize John Wayne. The final scene was particularly flattering… and, much to my surprise, the Coen’s left that scene out of their remake entirely. As far as I could tell, it was the only major change in the narrative… and, in my opinion, it is the only false note in the Coen Brothers film. Sure, John Wayne’s farewell in the original TRUE GRIT was a bit maudlin… but, since I can’t shake off my own memories of the original, I can’t help feeling that Jeff Bridges earned that send-off scene in the remake. What’s a hero without a big final hero moment? The Coen Brothers, true to their own form, opted instead for a more searching finale, and Denby is probably right in suggesting that this is “as close to an emotional climax as they will ever come.” Maybe that’s all I should realistically expect from a 21st century western. We are, after all, talking about a remake of a 40-year-old film that served as a capstone on a dying genre.

In order for westerns to work for contemporary audiences, they have to emphasize the savagery of the West. Director Sam Peckinpah was already considering this possibility as early as 1961, when he made RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY – a surprisingly un-sentimental traditional western. With that film’s narrative, Peckinpah threatened to turn western icon Randolph Scott into a cold-hearted mercenary. He couldn’t quite do it, of course. Ultimately, RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY asserted that although times change, the heroes of the Old West cannot… When they do, the genre dies.

Many of the most memorable establishers in RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY were shot near Mammoth Lakes, and at least one of those key locations has succumbed to the ravages of time. Horseshoe Lake – the site of the opening sequence in the film, in which Joel McCrea rides his horse down from the high country – is now a Carbon Dioxide Hazard Area. Warning signs went up on the shores of the lake a few years ago, after a series of earthquakes opened naturally-occurring pockets of hazardous gas. Now the soil around Horseshoe Lake is saturated with the stuff, and many of the trees in the area are dead or dying. In order to get an accurate sense of what this area was like in 1961, you’d do better to drive down the road to Lake Mamie, and then zip across the street to an overlook of idyllic Twin Lakes, also featured briefly in RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY.

It’s no coincidence that both Hot Creek and Horseshoe Lake have been reinvented by recent earthquake activity. When we stopped at a ranger station in Mammoth Lakes, we learned that the entire Mammoth Lakes region was formed by extreme geological activity roughly 760,000 years ago. Though you’d never know it from the ground, the valley to the east of Mammoth Mountain is one of the largest calderas on earth. Known as Long Valley, it was formed by a volcanic eruption so massive that it blanketed most of the western United States in ash and debris. Some of the debris traveled as far away as eastern Nebraska.

One of the most distinctive byproducts of the eruption is Mono Lake, which has been called “the Dead Sea of the West.” Mono Lake isn’t dead; actually, it’s teeming with microbial life… but because of the high salinity of the water (three times that of the ocean), it spelled death for early settlers in the area. The lake probably also got a bad reputation among pioneers because of its otherworldly appearance. Mark Twain visited Mono Lake in the 1860s, and he wasn’t impressed. In his memoir “Roughing It,” he writes:

“Mono Lake lies in a lifeless, treeless, hideous desert, eight thousand feet above the level of the sea, and is guarded by mountains two thousand feet higher, whose summits are always clothed in clouds. This solemn, silent, sail-less sea -- this lonely tenant of the loneliest spot on earth -- is little graced with the picturesque. It is an unpretending expanse of grayish water, about a hundred miles in circumference, with two islands in its centre, mere upheavals of rent and scorched and blistered lava, snowed over with gray banks and drifts of pumice-stone and ashes, the winding sheet of the dead volcano, whose vast crater the lake has seized upon and occupied.”

Twain is exaggerating (he was, after all, primarily a fiction writer) – I offer the above proof that Mono Lake can be quite picturesque. I will admit, however, that the beauty of Mono Lake is haunting. All along the south shores of the lake, we stumbled across the carcasses of dozens of dead birds… which certainly suggests that the lake is not meant to support higher life forms. On the other hand, a few weeks ago, a NASA researcher claimed to have discovered an arsenic-eating form of “alien” bacteria in Mono Lake. I can’t imagine a better setting for this “discovery.”

In Hollywood’s alternate movie universe, Mono Lake stands in as the Old West’s version of Hell. It was on these the southern shores that Clint Eastwood built the infernal town of Lago – which he literally painted red – in the 1973 film HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER. That film, a horror-western hybrid, stands as proof that the passage of time pushed the western genre to increasingly savage extremes, until there was nothing left. The buildings of Lago are long gone, but you’ll forgive me if I can’t look out across the eerie waters of Mono Lake without hearing Dee Barton’s ominous score and wondering if the whole thing is a mirage.


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