Wednesday, September 26, 2012

DESERT 2.0: Sedona


My wife and I rounded out our trip to the desert with two days and nights in Sedona, Arizona.  My wife was thrilled because as soon as we got on highway 89A south of Flagstaff, the weather and the scenery changed completely -- from high desert to, in her mind, “summer in central Maine.”  I was enthusiastic because Sedona boasted the richest movie-making history of any destination on our trip…. but I quickly learned that, if you want the movie history, you really have to know what you’re looking for.  

For like-minded movie tourists, let me just say that the best place to start is NOT at the “Movie History Museum” in Uptown Sedona.  This “museum” is really just a shameless front for a timeshare company.  (This type of scam is not uncommon in Sedona… You’ll also get sucked into timeshare pitches if you visit any of the “Tourist Information” booths.  Steer toward the Chamber of Commerce instead.)  There is a real movie history museum in progress, based on a very impressive book called Arizona’s Little Hollywood by Joe McNeil. Seriously, if you’re interested in Sedona’s history on film -- or movie history in general -- you really need to own this book.   Over the past few years, I’ve read a lot of books and blogs by location hunters.  This is easily one of the most impressive -- well-written, well-organized, thoroughly researched and filled with beautiful photos.  The book collects several years worth of Sedona Monthly articles that recount the town’s history with Hollywood, one film at a time, beginning with the Zane Grey adaptation CALL OF THE CANYON in 1923 and concluding with HARRY & TONTO in 1973.

Sometime after 1973, apparently, the new agers flooded into Sedona and now it’s much easier to learn about magic crystals and vortices than the western films that put the town on the map.  We took two separate Jeep tours with the Bradshaw company, run by the descendants of photographer Bob Bradshaw (Hollywood’s point man in Sedona), and even our tour guides didn’t seem to know much about the movies.  On a drive up Schnebly Hill, one tour guide pointed out a waterfall rock and claimed that “Kate Capshaw took a shower there in a 1980s movie called THE QUICK AND THE DEAD.”  (If you’re at all familiar with THE QUICK AND THE DEAD, I don’t have to explain what’s wrong with this theory.)  Hell, even the historical markers have got some of the details wrong.  Another Bradshaw tour dead-ends at the Van Deren Cabin out near Boynton Canyon.  Next to the cabin, there is a plaque claiming that it was featured in the films RIDERS OF THE PURPLE SAGE (1925) and BLOOD ON THE MOON (1948).   It was indeed Robert Preston’s home in BLOOD ON THE MOON, but Joe McNeil claims in his book that the cabin does not appear in RIDERS.

near Boynton Canyon
Van Deren Cabin

The only thing that’s missing in McNeil’s book is a good map of the town, identifying the filming locations.  It’s not difficult to find a free map of Sedona, but we found that few of them are drawn to scale and many of them seem to contradict each other about the names of the iconic rock formations that appeared in so many movies.  If I could draw worth a damn, I’d create a map for the like-minded tourist… but I can’t, so you’ll have to settle for a narrative.

If you enter Sedona from the north, like we did, your first stop should be Slide Rock State Park.  Richard Widmark fans will recognize the natural water slide section that gave the park its name.  It was featured in an early scene in THE LAST WAGON (1956), where the Quaker kids sneak away in the middle of the night to go skinny-dipping.  In my opinion, THE LAST WAGON makes better use of the Sedona landscape than almost any other film.  (It’s also a pretty good western -- so good that it was essentially remade in 2000 as PITCH BLACK with Vin Diesel.)  McNeil notes that 80% of the film was shot on Sedona landscapes shortly before the town was commercially developed.  For that reason, the author calls THE LAST WAGON “the beginning of the end of Sedona’s Golden Age as a Hollywood location.”  Just down the road from Slide Rock is Indian Gardens, where the golden age began with the memorable John Wayne western ANGEL & THE BADMAN (1947).  After that, Sedona practically became synonymous with gritty post-war (noir) westerns.

Following 89A South, we arrived in Uptown Sedona -- a tourist trap set against breathtaking vistas.  On this main drag, you can see the tavern building featured in ANGEL & THE BADMAN and THE LAST WAGON, practically next door to Bob Bradshaw’s old photography studio.  (It’s still a photography studio, but you’ll have to go across the street to A Day in the West if you want to learn anything about Bradshaw.)  Opposite the tavern and the studio is the first famous rock formation, known as Camel Head Rock.  It was at the base of this rock that filmmakers established an Indian camp for the seminal 1950 western BROKEN ARROW, starring Jimmy Stewart.   (There’s a “Broken Arrow Trail” nearby, but I have no idea if it leads to the camp.)  Right next to Camel Head is “Snoopy Rock.”  There’s a persistent rumor in Sedona that Charles Schultz based several of his Peanuts characters on the local rock formations.  I don’t buy it, but one of our tour guides did point out a pretty good natural facsimile of Lucy in silhouette.

the old Oak Creek Tavern
looking at Camel Head Rock (and Snoopy on the right)
 At the Chamber of Commerce, the town splits off in two directions.  If you continue straight on 89A, you’ll be in the Sedona West suburb.  If you turn left / south on highway 179, you’ll be following Oak Creek toward the Village of Oak Creek.  Hollywood’s main base of operations, the Sedona Lodge, once sat on highway 179, where the King’s Ransom Inn is today.  Just above that site is Schnebly Hill at Merry Go Round Rock -- the best overlook in town, featured in dozens of movies (VIRGINIA CITY with Errol Flynn, BILLY THE KID with Robert Taylor, LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN with Gene Tierney, GUNFIGHTERS and ALBUQUERQUE with Randolph Scott, STATIONS WEST with Dick Powell, etc).  Schnebly Hill is a pretty steep and rustic road, not suitable for 2-wheel drive.  If you don’t believe me, rent the John Wayne movie TALL IN THE SADDLE (1944).  An early scene revolves around a runaway stagecoach on that wild stretch of road.  If you still don’t believe me, talk to my tour guide, who pointed out an abandoned car at the bottom of a long rock slide -- a semi-permanent reminder of a fateful night when two drunken tourists decided to tackle the hill alone.   

halfway up Schnebly Hill
Merry Go Round Rock (note the thin layer of limestone)
Schnebly Vista
Further south on 179 are Courthouse Butte and Bell Rock, both featured prominently in many westerns.

Courthouse Butte
Bell Rock
Angel & the Badman, with Courthouse Butte and Bell Rock in the background (photo by Bob Bradshaw)
The other side of town, Sedona West, reminds me a bit of Iverson Ranch in the San Fernando Valley -- the way the houses are built right into old movie locations.  Even the street names (Last Wagon Drive, Stations West Drive, Flaming Arrow Way, etc.) reflect the movie history.  Joe McNeil says that this subdivision was once the site of the western town set, until it was razed in 1957 (after the making of JOHNNY GUITAR and 3:10 TO YUMA)… so don’t listen if the local tour guide tells you that the western town was located on the site of the current high school.  We went for an early morning hike to one of the most famous formations in the neighborhood, Coffeepot Rock (see in ANGEL & THE BADMAN, STATIONS WEST, DRUM BEAT, 3:10 TO YUMA, THE LAST WAGON…).  From there, we got a good view of nearby Chimney Rock and Thunder Mountain.

Coffeepot Rock
Chimney Rock
We continued further west and turned left at the high school, onto Upper Red Rock Loop Road.  There are several turnoffs here with breathtaking views of Cathedral Rock, perhaps the most recognizable rock formation in the Sedona area.  Further down the road, we visited RedRock State Park on the shady banks of Oak Creek.  This is one of the most beautiful (and eco-friendly) neighborhood parks I’ve ever been to in my life, and it boasts a view of Cathedral Rock that anyone who grew up on westerns will remember from BROKEN ARROW, BLOOD ON THE MOON and THE LAST WAGON.  The view is well worth the trip, regardless of its film history context… but I still wish that a town with such an incredibly rich film history (a town made famous, and consequently developed, because of this film history) would embrace its legacy as “little Hollywood” a little more enthusiastically.  

Cathedral Rock
Oak Creek

1 comment:

  1. Fantastic info,. I was a there a couple of weeks ago and wondered where the location was where Richard widmark shot someone at beginning of last wagon