Sam Peckinpah's Ride the High Country
Productions such as I Am a Fugitive on a Chain Gang (1932), Sagebrush Trail (1933) starring John Wayne, Julius Caesar (1953) starring Marlon Brando, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Have Rocket, Will Travel (1959) with the Three Stooges and, more recently, The Scorpion King (2002) and the upcoming Tremors 4 all feature scenes shot in and around these manmade caves fashioned from an early 20th-century rock quarry. Hundreds of movie and TV Western film crews have rumbled up Canyon Drive at 6 a.m. in heavy trucks hauling horses, sets and equipment to turn the urban parkland into the 19th-century American West. Perhaps the Bronson Caves' most fitting role was that of entrance to Batman's bat-cave in the 1960's television hit.
"We all know and love Bronson Canyon," says DGA member and film historian Rudy Behlmer. "Just a few blocks from residences, super A productions, B Westerns, many serials including Flash Gordon (1936–38), music videos and commercials have all been shot there. It's not just the caves but the whole canyon, like a gulch chopped out with mining equipment, that makes a great film location."
George Stevens made unique use of the canyon location for his 1939 Gunga Din. "Late in the film the Scottish bagpipers regiment is marching to save Cary Grant. They needed an open ambiance and bounce for a clean track of the singing and bagpipes," Behlmer says. So Stevens brought the singers and bagpipers to the area surrounding the Bronson Caves to record just that audio track.
"For [Ross Hunter's 1973] Lost Horizon, they blanketed the whole canyon in white to make it appear like the Himalayas," recalls Behlmer, who happened upon this scene while scouting locations for a commercial. "I can see it all now. It was like they reversed the polarity of the negative."
The canyon had been dressed in mountain white at least once before. For Sam Peckinpah's Ride the High Country (1962), soapsuds were used to create a sense of the melting snow of the High Sierras, where Peckinpah and his crew had begun shooting the Western. When the weather there turned bad, the production was relocated to the Bronson Caves area and it was turned into a makeshift Gold Rush town.
Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers
"It's clever what could be achieved so close to home," says Nick Redman, producer of the Academy Award-nominated documentary short, The Wild Bunch: An Album in Montage and producer/director of the documentary, A Turning of the Earth: John Ford, John Wayne and The Searchers. Though Peckinpah would have preferred to wait out the bad weather in the Sierras, fans of Ride the High Country readily accept the melding of the local canyon location scenes with the director's real location footage.
So do film buffs who hold John Ford's The Searchers (1956) in high esteem. Believe it or not, Ford shot the movie's climactic scenes with John Wayne and Natalie Wood at the Bronson Caves site, which bears little resemblance to the vast open spaces of the movie's main location, Monument Valley. Regardless of the dissimilar nature of the Bronson Caves' landscape, those scenes ring true to the story and the illusionary power inherent in moviemaking.
"There isn't anything you can't do in the Bronson Caves," says Cliff Bole, whose multitude of directing credits includes numerous episodes of Star Trek and MacGyver. "There are several studios within 10 minutes of the location. Where else can you go shoot in a cave and then pack the trucks, head back to the studio and shoot something else?"