Driving east toward St. George, Utah, I first passed through the Virgin River Gorge. For roughly ten minutes, the desert vistas were completely obscured by towering red sandstone walls. This was my gateway into the Four Corners region. My plan was to spend the next two weeks making a giant loop through Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona... and of course I had more than a few filming locations on my agenda.
I stopped in St. George mainly to see Snow Canyon, one of the main filming locations for THE CONQUEROR, a notorious 1956 Hollywood epic featuring John Wayne as Genghis Khan. This film was a low point in Wayne’s career. His portrayal of the Mongol warrior is even more embarrassing than his turn as a Swedish sailor (with a passion for “yinyer beer”) in John Ford’s THE LONG JOURNEY HOME. THE CONQUEROR probably would have slipped into obscurity long ago if the production hadn’t been plagued by legendary misfortune.
According to some sources, this is the film that killed John Wayne, along with director Dick Powell, actresses Susan Hayward and Agnes Moorehead, actor Pedro Armendariz and a few dozen other cast and crew members. As of 1981, a total of 91 production team members were suffering or dead from some form of cancer. Some of them got involved in a class action lawsuit against the U.S. government -- which had detonated an atomic bomb in nearby Yucca Flats just a few years before THE CONQUEROR was made. The lawsuit noted that St. George was downwind of the nuclear test site. Of course, not everyone blames the bomb for the high number of cancer victims (since many of those who were affected just happened to be heavy smokers), but the government did eventually shell out money to the alleged victims.... making a bad film even more notorious.
Hollywood returned a few years later, for the making of Samuel Fuller's RUN OF THE ARROW (1957), a film that some historians cite as the inspiration for Kevin Costner's DANCES WITH WOLVES (1990), and for the making of Gary Cooper's final film, THEY CAME TO CORDURA (1959). Cooper was already suffering from cancer by the time he starred in the film, so we can't blame the government for that one.
In spite of its off-putting history, Snow Canyon State Park is a beautiful (fallout-free) site and it isn’t hard for me to understand why a locations manager would fall in love with it. There’s no question that the park has a peaceful quality about it. There’s a natural fluidity in nature’s designs here, and sunset brings out the smooth textures even more.
The most scenic section of the park is composed of bright red sandstone formations, which is to say that the place is basically a petrified desert. If you look closely at what were once wind-swept dunes, you can see the individual grains of sand in every rock. A friendly local photographer pointed me toward a ridge where the smallest fragments are “Moqui marbles.” Named for a local tribe (Moqui is an older designation for the Hopi Indians), these dark stones have been rolling around the hills of Snow Canyon for roughly 190 million years! No one seems to know exactly how they were formed, but some say that they have natural healing properties, and native shamans use them in religious ceremonies.
St. George seemed like an idyllic town, but I was eager to move on to a place where John Wayne had a bit more luck. My base of operations for my first full day was the town of Kanab, affectionately dubbed “Little Hollywood.” There’s a wealth of information about the movie history of this town in James V. D’Arc’s new book When Hollywood Came to Town (published in 2010). Kanab began drawing filmmakers as early as 1924, when Tom Mix went there to film the western DEADWOOD COACH. A few years later, brothers Whit, Gronway and Chauncey Parry built a lodge to accommodate the cast and crews of future film productions. After a handful of minor westerns were filmed in town, the residents of Kanab banded together to make a deal with Hollywood. Nearly everyone in town would chip in on future productions, which included Fritz Lang’s WESTERN UNION (1941), IN OLD OKLAHOMA (1943) with John Wayne, THE DESPERADOES (1943) with Randolph Scott, and BUFFALO BILL (1944) with Joel McCrea.
Much of the filming was done in Kanab Canyon, just north of town. Today, Kanab Canyon is known as Angel Canyon. I assume it was renamed by the people behind Kanab’s biggest current employer, the Best Friends Animal Society. Their brochure notes that “Hollywood producers regarded Angel Canyon and its surroundings as the most authentic site for Western movies anywhere,” and they are happy to give visitors a tour of the canyon. (Of course, the focus is on the animal sheler rather than the movie history.)
Just down the road is the Moqui Cave, an ancient Anasazi Indian dwelling transformed into an occasional filming location and then turned into an eclectic museum. Here you can find a large collection of Native American relics, naturally fluorescent rocks from all around the world, carefully preserved dinosaur tracks (recovered from the innermost reaches of the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument) and a secret bar from the days of Prohibition (!). Not bad for a roadside curiosity.
On the eastern side of town, there are a few scattered buildings from the glory days of “Little Hollywood.” About 8 miles up Johnson Canyon, at a bend in the road, there is an old western town set. It sits on private property and is in pretty bad shape, but imaginative tourists will recognize it from WESTWARD THE WOMEN (1952), a noteworthy western conceived by Frank Capra, in which Robert Taylor leads a group of tough women to California to help civilize the Wild West. Locals know it as the “GUNSMOKE set,” but locations expert Tinsley Yarbrough notes in his book Those Great Western Movie Locations that it was used only intermittently in that series, and never as Dodge City.
Yarbrough’s book also pointed me toward a rock formation known as Eagle Gate Arch. The author was obviously taken with this particular site, which he says was used as a backdrop in several western serials. He even used it on the cover of his book. “From a distance,” the author says, it “looks small and insignificant. But up close, it is a majestic site.” Since the arch sits on private property at a pretty fair distance from Johnson Canyon Road (I almost missed it entirely... and I was really looking), I’ll have to take his word for it.
Further to the east, near Paria Canyon, there are signs for another western town set that was built for the Rat Pack western SERGEANTS THREE (1962), and later used in DUEL AT DIABLO (1966) with James Garner and Sidney Portier, RIDE THE WHIRLWIND (1965) and THE SHOOTING (1966) starring a young Jack Nicholson, and Clint Eastwood’s THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES (1976). Unfortunately, the set burned down a few years ago. Only one of the buildings -- Eastwood’s adobe shed -- was saved, and transplanted into a small set behind Kanab’s Movie Museum.
The river wash and tall narrows of Paria Canyon itself were used in IN OLD OKLAHOMA and WESTWARD THE WOMEN, among others. I hiked from the Paria Contact Station to the opening of the narrows... but on high ground. By the end of the trail, storm clouds were starting to roll in and I was glad to be safely above flash flood territory as I headed back.
I returned to Kanab in time for western night at the Crescent Moon movie theater, where I met a very hospitable group of local movie enthusiasts who told me about Kanab’s annual celebration of all things western. The night’s feature was ALLEGHENY UPRISING, a mostly forgettable RKO quickie that re-teamed John Wayne and Claire Trevor after the success of John Ford’s STAGECOACH. With Wayne leading a group of colonial Pennsylvania farmers against British redcoats, it’s more of an “Eastern” than a Western... but at least it’s better than THE CONQUEROR.