The Good Lord really made this place [Lone Pine] for movies. There’s everything there. There’s sand, there’s rivers, it’s made for motion pictures. What I would do that other directors did not do, I knew every inch of Lone Pine on horseback cause I went where people never went.
– Budd Boetticher1
Budd Boetticher directed 31 feature films, not counting documentaries such as Arruza (1972) and uncredited work on early Columbia films such as Submarine Raider (Lew Landers, 1942) and U-Boat Prisoner (Lew Landers, 1944). Most of them are competent genre films such as The Missing Juror (1944), an intriguing mystery made on a miniscule budget for Columbia with an excellent performance by George Macready. Or westerns such as Horizons West (1952) starring Robert Ryan and Rock Hudson and The Man From the Alamo (1953) starring Glenn Ford. Three of his films, Bullfighter and the Lady (1951), The Magnificent Matador (1955) and Arruza (1972), the documentary that nearly killed him, were productions that drew upon Boetticher’s fascination with bullfighting. Others, such as Decision at Sundown (1957) and Buchanan Rides Alone (1958), are better than average westerns that take on an extra fascination because they were directed by Boetticher and because they starred Randolph Scott. Both films are representative of the strong cycle of Fifties westerns that focused on a protagonist alienated from a corrupt and/or weak western town, a cycle initiated by the surprising success of High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952). Decision at Sundown and Buchanan Rides Alone have, for different reasons weaknesses not found in Boetticher’s other films starring Randolph Scott. They are also matched in quality by similarly themed westerns such as A Lawless Street (1955), directed by Joseph H. Lewis and starring Randolph Scott.
Boetticher, however, directed four great films. Seven Men From Now (1956) for John Wayne’s Batjac Productions released by Warner Bros., The Tall T (1957) for the Randolph Scott-Harry Joe Brown production company under the banner of their Producers-Actors Corporation and released by Columbia, Ride Lonesome (1959) and Comanche Station (1960), both for the Scott-Brown company Ranown and also released by Columbia. The common elements on these films were Boetticher, Scott and screenwriter Burt Kennedy. And Lone Pine. Producer Harry Joe Brown worked three of the four films although Boetticher claimed he had little creative input.
A comment sometimes made with regard to Boetticher’s use of Lone Pine is that this location was as important to him as Monument Valley was to John Ford. Ford, however, made great films in many locations. Boetticher did not. Lone Pine, Kennedy’ scripts and Randolph Scott brought the best out of Boetticher. For a maverick, often difficult director who eschewed studio politics and hated studio interference, the area was sufficiently remote from Hollywood without requiring distant, and costly, travel arrangements. The entire unit could be housed in the township of Lone Pine only minutes from the Alabama Hills and Boetticher could ride to the location on horseback.
The tight budgets on his films, especially the Ranown films, fostered his creativity – the filming period for Ride Lonesome was a mere 13 days, from August 14 to August 28 (less Sunday) and Boetticher claimed that his other Scott films were filmed in 18 days or less. Given the small budgets it is surprising that producer Harry Joe Brown allowed Boetticher the extra expense to travel the 215 miles from Los Angeles with his small unit. Most low budget westerns in the 1940s and 1950s were filmed at the Iverson Ranch or the Corriganville Movie Ranch, locations less than an hour drive from the studio. The Iverson Ranch, however, a 600-acre area close to Hollywood situated above the northwest San Fernando Valley suburb of Chatsworth, lacked the physical and scenic advantages of the Alabama Hills.
One cannot imagine Seven Men From Now, The Tall T, Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station at the Iverson Ranch or the studio backlot. To provide a rough estimate, and if you have a masochistic streak, check out Tall Man Riding (Lesley Selander, 1955), a revenge western starring Randolph Scott filmed on the Iverson Ranch or Shoot-Out at Medicine Bend (Richard L. Bare, 1957), another revenge western starring Randolph Scott filmed at Corriganville, to gauge the importance of Lone Pine. In my recent book, Encyclopedia of American Film Serials, I point to the importance of Lone Pine for the few serials that could afford to travel beyond the Iverson Ranch. Daredevils of the West (1943), one of Republic’s most action based serials, illustrates this as it was filmed in the Alabama Hills by director John English and cinematographer Bud Thackery. The expansive valleys and extensive network of flat areas within the Hills gave directors and cinematographers the opportunity to film spectacular action sequences with the use of fast moving camera trucks able to travel along a network of dusty roads, such as Movie Road, to film riders, wagons and stagecoaches moving at breakneck speed. Plateaus in the Hills permitted a second unit to provide long shots that were subsequently edited into the frenetic medium shots and close-ups of the wagons and riders.
Chapter One of Daredevils of the West consists almost entirely of unrelenting action and the high point is a wagon chased by a band of Indians through the Alabama Hills. It is filmed by the camera truck travelling parallel to the wagon and the Indians that, in one startling movement, pulls ahead of the wagon and suddenly cuts across in front of it to show the horses, at full tilt, heading towards the camera. This sequence, which would not have been physically possible at the Iverson Ranch, is filmed with the Alabama Hills in the foreground framed by the snow-capped Sierra Nevada Mountains in the background.
The distinctive contoured Alabama Hills consists of two types of rocks –weathered 150-million-year-old volcanic rock and the 85-million-year-old elongated, sometimes described as potato shaped (Biotite Monzogranite), boulders. Normally directors would film, as in Daredevils of the West, with the Alabama Hills in the foreground and the Sierra Nevada Mountains, often showing Mount Whitney, the highest summit in the contiguous United States, in the background. Occasionally, however, directors would reverse the angle and film towards the bleak Inyo Mountains as director Ida Lupino and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca did to emphasise the harsh world of their film noir, The Hitch-Hiker (1953).
Boetticher, for the most part, resisted the temptation of dwelling on the scenic beauty of the Sierra Nevada Mountains – except for a brief scene in Seven Men From Now which will be addressed later. For the most part he preferred to place Scott within the boulders and deep crevices of the Alabama Hills, most notably in the opening moment of Ride Lonesome. The bleak, austere topography complemented Scott’s grim, weathered visage. While his dialogue exchanges with an assortment of colourful villains were abrupt on his part, his subtle facial gestures readily conveyed his (low) opinion of them. Boetticher’s protagonist was not interested in community – only revenge – and he moves easily in this bleak wasteland.
After Confederate sympathizers during the Civil War named their mining claims after the sloop CSS Alabama, following victories against the North, the hills became known as the Alabama Hills, or the “Alabams”. Later Lone Pine became a popular movie location as the area offered a wide variety of locations – desert, sand dunes, hills, forested areas, prairies and grassland, rivers and river basins. The first movie to film in the Alabama Hills/Lone Pine may have been the comedy western The Roundup (George Melford) starring Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Since then many genres situated their units in Lone Pine including Gunga Din (George Stevens, 1939), High Sierra (Raoul Walsh, 1941), Tremors (Ron Underwood, 1990) and Iron Man (Jon Favreau, 2008). It was also a popular location for the Paramount series of Hopalong Cassidy films starring William Boyd and RKO’s post-war Tim Holt films. More recently Clint Eastwood and Quentin Tarantino (Django Unchained, 2012) have filmed in the Alabama Hills.
Boetticher first travelled to Lone Pine in 1949 to direct a low budget film (Black Midnight) for independent producer Lindsay Parson who was trying to exploit what was left of Roddy McDowall’s box office appeal in a series of six low budget films (released by Monogram). Boetticher directed two of these films, Black Midnight and Killer Shark (1950). Twenty-year-old McDowall co-produced the films in an attempt to make the difficult transition from child star, often associated with animal films such as My Friend Flicka (Harold Schuster 1943), Lassie Come Home (Fred M. Wilcox, 1943) and Thunderhead – Son of Flicka (Louis King, 1945), to more mature roles.
In Black Midnight McDowall plays the gangly Scott Jordan who lives on a struggling ranch with his uncle, Bill Jordan (Damian O’Flynn). Both men are excited by the return to the district of widow Martha Baxter (Fay Baker) and her daughter Cindy (Lyn Thomas) and the film focuses on Scott’s awkward courtship of Cindy, a relationship that is threatened by the return of Bill Jordan’s long lost son Daniel (Rand Brooks) and his crooked partner Roy (Gordon Jones). Daniel and Roy return home with stolen horses, including a wild stallion, Black Midnight. Scott purchases the horse after Daniel is unable to tame him. However, when Roy mistreats the stallion Black Midnight kills him forcing Scott to hide the horse in the Alabama Hills from the local sheriff (Kirby Grant).
The climax of the film involves a prolonged fight between Scott and Daniel in the living room of Bill Jordan’s ranch. After knocking Scott down Daniel rides into the Alabama Hills to kill Sheriff Gilbert who is coming to arrest him. In the film’s best sequence Scott follows Daniel into the Hills, thereby providing the motivation for Boetticher and cinematographer William Sickner to board a camera truck and film Daniel riding swiftly through the Hills with the snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountains in the background. A Monogram film has never looked better.
Black Midnight is a pleasant family melodrama and, for the most part, it is life affirming although Boetticher never allows the film to wallow in the sentimentality inherent in the script by Erna Lazarus and Clint Johnston. However, at this stage Boetticher did not have a script by Kennedy, Randolph Scott nor a cinematographer such as Charles Lawton Jr.2 who exploited the austere setting of the Alabama Hills and, in the Ranown films, used cinemascope to great advantage. As Martin Scorsese points out, the use of cinemascope created an even greater “negative Space” rendering the terrain hostile, bleak and barren. A perfect setting for Scott’s character in these films.
These qualities are epitomized in the opening moments of Ride Lonesome. After the credits, which appear over brown, lifeless rocks, the camera tilts down to show a rider (Scott’s Ben Brigade) dwarfed in the huge boulders as he moves slowly through a narrow passage. Within the one take the camera pans to a young fugitive, Billy John (James Best), sitting on the ground drinking coffee with his horse nearby. He tells the horse that “I hear him” as Brigade appears, handcuffs attached to his belt.
Billy John: “I don’t know how much they are paying you to bring me in, but it ain’t enough. Not near enough.”
Brigade: I’d hunt you [for] free.
The landscape, the dialogue exchange (“I’d hunt you for free”), and Scott’s comfortable demeanor in this landscape, along with the handcuffs, provides a wealth of information that underpins the entire film. Immediately we know a lot about this man (Ben Brigade) – the only mystery is what motivates him. This is explained late in the film when Brigade tells Mrs. Lane (Karen Steele), as they stand next to the imposing Hang Tree, that this is the spot where his wife was murdered, hung on the crucifix-like limbs of the tree, by Billy John’s brother, Frank (Lee Van Cleef).
The film ends with the most satisfying, logical and bleak resolution in the Boetticher canon. After killing Frank, Brigade sets fire to the tree and watches it burn while the remnants of his small party, Sam Boone (Pernell Roberts), Whit (James Coburn), Mrs. Lane and Billy John, head towards civilization. The last image shows the black smoke from the tree drifting slowly towards the sky.
While it possible to interpret this action, following Brigade’s decision not to kill Boone, as a form of regeneration for Brigade, Boetticher has no such intention. The final shot of Scott watching the tree burn, combined with his refusal to accompany Boone and the others back to civilization, clearly conveys Brigade’s desire to remain in his desert “prison.” This powerful ending is matched only by John Ford’s celebrated final image in The Searchers (1956) when Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) returns to the desert to “wander forever between the winds.”
The endings of the earlier Boetticher/Lone Pine films are more conventional, more optimistic. In The Tall T Pat Brennan (Randolph Scott), after killing Frank Usher (Richard Boone), puts his arm around the recently widowed Doretta Mims (Maureen O’Sullivan) and tells her that “C’mon now, its gunna be a nice day” before heading back to the town of Contention. The ending of Seven Men From Now is a little more ambivalent although Annie Greer’s (Gail Russell) last minute decision not to remove her belongings from a departing coach and remain in town after Ben Stride (Randolph Scott) tells her that he is going to take a lawman’s job in a nearby town, indicates a positive future for the couple.
Boetticher claimed the he knew every inch of the Alabama Hills as he travelled it on horseback. Yet he often returned to the same area within the Hills. Jefferson Cody’s (Randolph Scott) climactic shootout with Ben Lane (Claude Atkins) in Comanches Station is geographically very close to the shootout between Ben Stride (Randolph Scott) and Bill Masters (Lee Marvin) at the end of Seven Men From Now. Similarly, the Hang Tree that featured so prominently at the end of Ride Lonesome can be clearly seen, surrounded by water, when Cody and his small group attempt to evade the Comanches in Comanche Station.
What Boetticher did do was select the appropriate location to match the mood of a scene. The most romantic/lyrical moment in Boetticher’s Lone Pine films is a brief scene between Annie Greer, the wife of John Greer (Walter Reed) and Stride as he assists Annie in hanging clothes on a makeshift clothesline. This lyrical scene of domesticity is full of colour and the pastoral setting captures the wind swept prairie framed by the snow-capped Sierra Mountains. Also, Annie’s red kerchief around her neck cleverly matches the colour of the clothes hanging on the makeshift line. The purpose of the scene is to depict Annie’s growing attraction to the distant, emotionally repressed Stride. Initially he responds but as they grow closer his demons finally erupt to restore the emotional wall he places between himself and everybody else. The tone of this scene, with its subtle suggestion of longing and regret, contain tinges of a moment in The Searchers when the Reverend Captain Samuel Johnston Clayton (Ward Bond) notices Martha Edwards (Dorothy Jordan) gently caressing the army uniform of her husband’s brother, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne). This tender moment concludes when Clayton quickly averts his eyes.
Boetticher and Kennedy, on the other hand, are more direct and earthy and they follow the clothesline scene with Boetticher’s favourite moment from his films when villain Bill Masters (Lee Marvin) articulates, in lascivious detail, the nature of the relationship between Annie, her husband and Brigade. Boetticher confirms Masters assessment in the very next scene as Annie and Brigade tenderly address each other at night. Boetticher leaves little to the imagination with his composition showing Stride directly beneath Annie, separated only by a wagon floor.
Boetticher’s use of Lone Pine differed over the four films. Seven Men from Now and The Tall T begin in relatively lush settings before moving to the desert. Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station reverse this movement. Yet the terrain, whatever its qualities, was never benign and characters perished both within the Alabama Hills and without. While Boetticher utilized the rivers and river basins, the timbered areas as well as the sand dunes at nearby Olancha (the Indian attack in Seven Men from Now), it was the Alabama Hills that dominated geography and texture of his films. Armed with Randolph Scott, Burt Kennedy’s precise scripts, a colorful assortment of supporting actors including Lee Marvin, Richard Boone, Pernell Roberts, Craig Stevens, James Best and Claude Atkins, Boetticher reworked the same story, the same action and the same dialogue. To fully realize these films, he needed the Alabama Hills. Each film effectively addresses the question raised by Brigade when he asks Sam Boone in Ride Lonesome: “A man needs a reason to ride this country. You got a reason?” Boetticher certainly had a reason.