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Bronson Canyon: The Hidden Hollywood Location

The most recognizable location in film history?

Part of what was cool about moving to Los Angeles in 1970 was realizing that, since the majority of Hollywood movies were filmed here, just about every interesting sight in the city has been used as a movie location. You don't have to be ga-ga about movie stars to see the 'historicity' in famous locations, or feel saddened when one is torn down. The art deco Pan-Pacific Auditorium was one such example. It featured prominently in the movie Suspense and can be glimpsed briefly in the opening of Miracle Mile, filmed just before it burned down in 1989. Before Paramount gobbled up a neighboring block and buried its famous Bronson Gate 100 yards inside the studio, there was a bar only a few feet from the entrance. This is where William Holden parked his car in an alley, turned a corner, and walked onto the lot to pitch a Baseball story in Sunset Boulevard. Every time Savant sees that scene, it's like walking into the past. The location can be famous, like the Bradbury Building, which found its way into D.O.A and the Losey remake of M, and later the Outer Limits episode, Demon with a Glass Hand. It still exists as a preserved architectural treasure. Or a location can be totally obscure, like the apartment building at Wilshire and Beverly Glen with the 'X's, that served as Mike Hammer's home address in Kiss Me Deadly. Or the hillside bungalow apartment building just off Camrose near the Hollywood Bowl, where Elliot Gould lived in Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye.

Strangely enough, Savant drove past Bronson street for ten years before finally taking the winding road up into Griffith Park in search of Bronson Canyon. It was obviously there somewhere; movie stills from the remake of Lost Horizon showed a fake snowy landscape with the Hollywood Sign in the background!

The road snaking up out of the city and into the park is a common filming sight. Sharp viewers will recognize it as 'the road' in almost every scene of I Married a Monster from Outer Space. Where the pavement ends is a cul-de-sac parking lot, and a little concrete bridge over a creek that doubles back to the south. It is here where Gloria Talbott (she who married that outer space monster) gets turned back by an alien roadblock.

To go beyond the concrete bridge, you have to hike on foot up the dirt road. Only production vehicles with permits are allowed. The area has never ceased being a filming site, and it is not unusual to come expecting to see the Canyon, only to be turned back by set guards. Savant once had this happen after riding his bicycle four miles uphill, with a heavy 3-year-old in the kiddie seat. When Savant was younger, of course. Sometimes the guards are nice, as when my whole family got to tour an ice cave set constructed for Star Trek V: The Undiscovered Country, waiting for filming the following Monday.

Walking up this dirt road is when the associations begin to hit. The road itself figures in several Bert I. Gordon monster flicks, especially Earth vs. The Spider. Who can forget the spider chasing a car down the hill, its legs cutting ridiculous matte lines into and under the hillside? Well, actually, a lot of people could forget . . . Off to the right is a ditch where crooked cops Howard Duff and Steve Brodie gathered the spilled banknotes from a car crash in Private Hell 36. Off to the left, a cleft in the rocks is recognizable to Invasion of the Body Snatchers addicts as the place where Kevin McCarthy runs desperately over the hill, saying in voiceover,"I never knew the meaning of fear until I kissed Becky."

Kevin McCarthy ran down the hill and right up to camera, thinking
about the horror of kissing Becky . . .

Turning the corner into the Canyon proper, it suddenly becomes clear that you have arrived. A railroad tunnel-like hole is carved directly into the side of a hill, going straight through about fifty yards of rock. The man-made tunnel is quite pointless, because the quarry itself loops around to the other end. Legend has it the tunnel was dug out for the 1922 film Robin Hood, with Douglas Fairbanks. Perhaps the entire Canyon was as well.

It's a short stroll through the dark but spacious tunnel. You are almost at the other end when you realize you are looking at a scene from The Searchers. It's the ending where John Wayne pursues niece Natalie Wood to the mouth of a cave, and instead of killing her, raises her into his arms. The opposite wall of the Quarry outside the cave is the hill down which Wayne rides his horse at top speed. Wood's stunt double falls into a cloud of dust, and Wood herself pops up to finish the shot at the cave entrance. Having been an early 70s film student, The Searchers was sort of a holy grail. The obsessive use of scenery in that film never seemed more anarchic, and 'auteurish', than when John Ford match-cut from an Indian camp on a vast prairie, to the completely unrelated topography of this cave. We all assumed it was the Ford plan, to deconstruct 'The West' by jarring the continuity, just as he melted down realism by making every setting from Mexico to Canada somehow be Monument Valley. After seeing Bronson Canyon, it's obvious that the real reason the end of The Searchers was so location-schizo is because Ms. Wood was too expensive to take to Monument Valley for more than a day or two!

The angle (or close to it) for Ethan Edwards' recovery of 'Little Debbie.'

At the quarry end, the tunnel path splits into three short tunnel outlets, each with its own distinctive exit. At their fork is a perfect view of four distinctly different tunnel exits, perfect for any kind of filming involving a mineshaft or cave setting. Standing at the fork, you realize this is where fearless Beverly Garland faced off the dreaded Cucumber monster in It Conquered the World. Where John Agar first met the floating alien monster in Brain from Planet Arous. These are the tunnels of Attack of the Crab Monsters, the caves from Cyclops and Monster from Green Hell and Dinosaur Island. Add a wooden door, and it becomes the mineshaft from The Return of Dracula. With some beams and a hole dug in the floor, it's where McCarthy and Dana Wynter hid from the pods in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Video Watchdog writer Darrren Gross in the Garden of Many Forking Tunnels.

Just outside the middle cave exit, Savant himself stood at the very spot that the ape-with-a-diving-helmet Ro-Man set up his communications bubble machine in Robot Monster. (Jealous, huh?) Here as well is where Lee Van Cleef blowtorched the It from It Conquered the World to its chocolate-syrup demise. Here (with unconvincing fake snow) was the plane crash site from the remake of Lost Horizon, and (with an added pool) the Vietnam prologue from The Choirboys. Savant is less sure, but television's Batman may have used one of the tunnel entrances for the Batcave entrance.

Yes, the very spot where Ro-Man declared his existential dilemma:
"I cannot, but I must!"

The quarry itself is actually not very large, but, like many film sets, looks gigantic, with towering walls of crumbling rock. Climbing is not recommended as the walls are very unstable. An art-director acquaintance of Savant working on The Sword and the Sorcerer once watched as a young stuntman wannabe leaped to his death on that film in a botched high-fall stunt. In Wim Wenders' unfortunate The End of Violence, the stunt woman dangled from a cable right here, with, if Savant remembers correctly, the Hollywood sign visible through that cleft in the hillside.

A high view showing two cave entrances.

Roger Corman may have filmed here most frequently, but Bronson Canyon was in use so constantly in the fifties as to make Corman seem just a drop in the bucket. All the exteriors of Invisible Invaders seem to have been shot here. Why, you san see the exact hill down which stalked the alien zombies, a shot then repeated about six times in the movie. Almost all of Anthony Mann's Men in War, and the conclusion of Sam Fuller's China Gate (the Commie ammo dump in the caves!) were shot here against the rock walls. Also much of Omar Khayyam, both the quarry and the caves. Ditto the bulk of Teenage Caveman, which uses every square foot of the quarry, without adding so much as a prop palm tree. In The Loved One, Roddy McDowall is seen climbing a cliff trail in an unusual angle that gives a bird's eye view of much of the quarry as well.

Perhaps the most clever use of Bronson Canyon was in Sam Peckinpah's wonderful Ride the High Country. When his unit was forced down from the real Sierra Nevadas after only a few days, Peckinpah's crafty art director turned the whole of the quarry, minus the caves themselves, into the gold rush tent-town of Coarse Gold. Mariette Hartley's Wedding Ride with the Hammond brothers goes right down the middle of the Canyon to Kate's Place, the brothel at the far end. There is still a flattened area where Kate's Place once stood. Just a few feet around the curve that leads out of the quarry is the backside of the hillside cleft seen in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Here, only about fifty feet from the Coarse Gold set, is where the Hammond claim itself stood - the family of miners led by James Drury. In the morning light, with soapsuds for melting snow, the quarry matched perfectly with Peckinpah's real mountain locations. Good show.

Looking lengthwise down the quarry from 'Kate's Place.'

Obviously, Savant's memory of films shot at Bronson Canyon is overloaded with his own personal taste. Once you recognize it, however, the Canyon location pops up everywhere, in movies from all studios. Both the big boys and the independent pennypinchers knew how to save a buck, and having this all-purpose generic location in their own backyard was just too convenient a bargain to pass up. It is literally a grocery-store drive from downtown Hollywood. Nowadays, unless one happens to hit a day when filming is in progress, one is more likely to run into hikers, joggers and dog-walkers than a film crew. Savant wouldn't recommend Bronson Canyon as a must-see for the average tourist, but for something a little more arcane, it's just the ticket, Hollywood-wise.

Note: Go ahead, please send in titles and scenes of movies shot in Bronson Canyon. Savant'll start a tabulation right here on this page, for posterity's sake. Ah, the joys of truly important film research!

Text © Copyright 1999 Glenn Erickson.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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