Let’s take a trip back to Bronson Caverns, but with new and better photos! Once you visit this hiding-in-plain-sight Hollywood location, you’ll start seeing it every time you tune into an old movie.
The most frequent ‘unknown’ 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 locally, 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 a special place is torn down. The art deco Pan-Pacific Auditorium was one such example. It featured prominently in the King Bros. movie Suspense (1946) and can be glimpsed briefly in the opening of Steve De Jarnatt’s Miracle Mile (1989), which was filmed just before it burned down in 1989. Before Paramount gobbled up a neighboring block and buried its famous Bronson Gate 80 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 to Fred Clark in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950). Every time Savant sees that scene, it’s like walking into the past.
The location in question can be famous, like the Bradbury Building, which found its way into Rudolph Maté’s D.O.A (1949) and the Joseph Losey remake of ‘M’ (1951), and later the Outer Limits episode, ‘Demon with a Glass Hand’ (1964). It still exists as a preserved architectural treasure (right).
The hillside bungalow apartment building where Elliot Gould lived in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) is just off Camrose near the Hollywood Bowl. Less well known but easier to see is the pink hi-rise apartment building at Wilshire and Beverly Glen that served as Mike Hammer’s home address — the one with the ‘X’s — in Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955) (left). (The Point Dume ‘Malibu atomic house’ from KMD was apparently taken down sometime in the 1970s.)
You can drive all over Los Angeles looking for these sites — I recommend the early morning hours — or you can take a picnic-like stroll into Griffith Park, and see fifty location sites, all in one place. Strangely enough, Savant drove past Bronson street for ten years before finally taking the winding road Northward in search of Bronson Canyon. It was obviously there somewhere; movie stills from Charles Jarrott’s remake of Lost Horizon (1973) 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 Gene Fowler Jr.’s I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958). 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 the outer space monster) gets turned back by an alien roadblock.
To go beyond the concrete bridge, one must hike on foot up the dirt road. The area has never ceased being a filming site, and it is not unusual to visit expecting to see the Canyon, only to be turned back by security guards for an ongoing production. Savant once had this happen after riding his bicycle 3.2 miles uphill, with a heavy three 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, the movie history associations begin to kick in. 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 and below is a ditch where crooked cops Howard Duff and Steve Brodie gathered the spilled banknotes from a car crash in Don Siegel’s Private Hell 36 (1954). Off to the left, a cleft in the rocks is recognizable to addicts of Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), 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.”
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. The Canyon itself apparently started life as a rock Quarry — on Los Angeles maps it is called out as Bronson Quarry.
This East end of the tunnel (at the right of the picture just above) looks big enough for a small truck. The photo is a somewhat distorted panorama showing the path taken by Kevin McCarthy when he runs away from Becky — he runs right-to-left out of the tunnel and disappears over the backside of the same cleft depression in the hill on the far left.
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 bona fide classic scene — the cave entrance at the conclusion of John Ford’s The Searchers (1956). 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, an impressive stunt indeed. Natalie Wood’s stunt double runs down the same incline, falls out of sight into a cloud of dust, and Wood herself pops up to finish the shot at the cave entrance.
I was at UCLA in the early 1970s when The Searchers underwent a major rediscovery (especially at USC, where, I was told, some eager student destroyed Warners’ one precious IB Technicolor print by running it through a Moviola.) John Ford’s obsessive use of scenery never seemed more anarchic than when he match-cut from an Indian camp on a vast featureless prairie, to the completely unrelated topography of this Quarry and cave. We theorized that the radical discontinuity was part of Ford’s plan to deconstruct The West, just as he melted down realism by making every setting from Mexico to Canada somehow be Monument Valley. After seeing Bronson Caverns it becomes clear that the schizo- locations at the end of The Searchers is more likely due to the availability of the star Natalie Wood — she may have gone to the distant Arizona location for only a few days.
At the Quarry’s West end, the tunnel path splits into three short tunnel outlets, each with its own distinctive exit. The extra ‘Y’ tunnels may have been added later; in Felix Feist’s Deluge (1933) we see only one entrance, piled high with dirt. A matte painting in that film places the Quarry at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean.
At the tunnel fork is a perfect view of all four distinctly different exits, perfect for any kind of filming involving a cave or mineshaft setting. Standing at the fork, we realize this is where fearless Beverly Garland confronted the dreaded Cucumber monster in Roger Corman’s It Conquered the World. Where John Agar first met the floating alien noggin in Nathan Juran’s Brain from Planet Arous (1958).
These are the tunnels of Corman’s Attack of the Crab Monsters (1956), the caves from Bert I. Gordon’s The Cyclops (1957) and Kenneth Crane’s Monster from Green Hell (1957) and the much later Dinosaur Island (1994). Add a wooden door to the entrance and it becomes the mineshaft from Paul Landres’ The Return of Dracula (1958). With some beams on the ceiling, planks on the floor and a hole dug in the center, it’s where McCarthy and Dana Wynter hid from the pod people in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
The Quarry itself is really not very large. Yet in photos it 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 Albert Pyun’s The Sword and the Sorcerer (1982) was present when the stuntman Jack Tyree leaped to his death in a botched high-fall stunt. In Wim Wenders’ The End of Violence, (1997), an actress dangled from a cable right here, with the Hollywood Sign visible through that cleft in the hillside.
Just outside the middle cave exit, one can stand at the very spot where the ape-with-a-diving-helmet Ro-Man set up his communications table and Automatic Billion Bubble Machine by N.A. Fisher Chemical Products, for Phil Tucker’s 3-D Robot Monster (1953). I did note that the tunnel ‘floor’ at this point is higher now than it had been for Ro-Man. Every monster fan visitor should stand right where the Bubble Machine once stood, and recite Ro-Man’s immortal lines: “How do you calculate that? At what point on the graph do ‘must’ and ‘cannot’ meet? Yet I must – but I cannot!”
Here as well is where the ‘It’ from It Conquered the World exited its tunnel hiding place, only to be blowtorched to a chocolate-syrup demise by Lee Van Cleef. 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 Robert Aldrich’s The Choirboys (1977). Television’s Batman (1966) used one of the tunnel entrances for the Batcave entrance, where the under-cranked Batmobile is seen exiting into the daylight.
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 Edward L. Cahn’s Invisible Invaders (1959), with its doddering alien zombies, seem to have been shot here. Why, you san see the exact hill down which the zombies stalked, a piece of film then repeated about six times in the movie. Almost all of Anthony Mann’s ending battle for Men in War (1957) took place here, as did the conclusion in the Commie ammo dump in Sam Fuller’s China Gate (1957).
Also much of William Dieterle’s Omar Khayyam (1957), both the Quarry and the caves. Ditto Ted Tetzlaff’s Son of Sinbad (1955). Double-ditto the bulk of Roger Corman’s plain-wrap epic Teenage Caveman (1958), just above with Darah Marshall. Corman uses every square foot of the Quarry without adding so much as a prop palm tree. The not-so-spectacular conclusion of David Bradley’s Madmen of Mandoras, aka They Saved Hitler’s Brain (1963) takes place entirely in the Quarry. Tony Richardson’s The Loved One (1965) shows Robert Morse climbing a cliff trail, giving us an unusual bird’s-eye downward view of much of the Quarry.
Perhaps the most impressive use of Bronson Canyon is in Sam Peckinpah’s wonderful Ride the High Country (1962). When bad weather forced his film unit 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 procession with the Hammond Brothers leads down the middle of the Canyon to Kate’s Place, the brothel at the far end. The entire Quarry can’t be as long as a football field, but with the right lenses it looks enormous.
Until a few years ago there remained a flattened area where Kate’s Place once stood; a tree grows there now. Back at the entrance to the Quarry, under the hillside cleft seen in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, is where the Hammond claim itself was filmed — the family of miners led by James Drury. In the morning light, with soapsuds for melting snow, the Quarry matches perfectly with Peckinpah’s real High Sierra locations. Good show.
To the right of Kate’s Place in the South corner of the Quarry is where the spherical alien ship hovers in Allied Artists’ The Cosmic Man (1959). It was a practical effect; they apparently hung a big prop ball without having to worry about it being blown around by the wind. As the Quarry is almost entirely closed off, there’s not much of a breeze inside. The effect is actually quite good.
No breeze, no gawkers, protection from traffic noise — Bronson Caverns is an ideal spot to film ‘generic rugged desert locations.’ The road up to the site is good and there’s ample parking out front. We even saw fire hydrants on the way up — if they’re functional there might even be a water supply. The Quarry has no bad angles spoiled by power lines or radio antennas. I’m convinced that the concluding firefight in Men in War arranged for an extra-long filming day by shooting the West side of the Quarry in the morning, and after the sun shifted the shadows in the afternoon, switching to the East side.
On the afternoon photographer Allan Peach and I last visited (Labor Day 2018, actually) some visitors had created a circular rock pattern in the center of the Quarry floor, pretty much exactly where Roger Corman placed his ‘three wise men’ in Teenage Caveman. It may just have been an isolated expression of creativity, or perhaps it was left over from somebody’s movie? It’s hard to say.
Obviously, Savant’s memory of films shot at Bronson Canyon is overloaded with his own personal taste. Various lists of titles that made use of the location are online; the late Bill Warren often talked about compiling a master list. The beloved monsters prowling here just outside the main tunnel exit, are (just above) Bernard Kowalski’s Night of the Blood Beast (1958) and (just below) Bruno veSota’s Invasion of the Star Creatures (1962), with its alien monsters sewn together from potato sacks.
Once one has seen the Quarry it 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 describe Bronson Canyon as a must-see for the average tourist, but for something a little more arcane, it’s just the ticket, Hollywood-wise.
It’s Visual Aid time.
The photo below is a wide-angle Panorama taken from halfway up the hill opposite the center cave, from about the spot where Natalie Wood’s stunt double began running down-slope in the famous shot from The Searchers. The camera view looks West. Although it doesn’t look it the path down is very steep. Note: the full image is almost twice as large, if you can display it separately.
From left to right,
(1) is the approximate location of Kate’s place in Ride the High Country. The Wedding Ride went the full length of the Quarry, from right to left.
(2) is the ‘corner’ where the spherical space ship was located in The Cosmic Man. I say this because in some shots, panning to the right (where John Carradine’s alien is killed) brings us to…
(3) The smallest cavern exit. I was once able to walk through it hunched-over but as it is presently half-filled with sand, at this point I’d have to crawl. I’d guess that Attack of the Crab Monsters uses every corner and nook in the 3-exit end of the caverns; one ‘set’ serving for multiple locations.
(4) The center cavern exit is the largest and most often seen. It has a straight shot through to the other end, as is evident in a couple of photos above. One could set up a straight run for an ore car, for a movie about miners.
(5) This third cavern exit looks small enough to be overlooked; it has a nice shape and interesting rocks around its rim.
(6) It’s not all that visible, but this is the cleft in the hill that Kevin McCarthy runs over in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in the panoramic shot from near the top of the article. The cleft frames shots from inside the Quarry of the…
(7) Hollywood Sign, which only seems so small and far away because of the panoramic wide angle. If tourists don’t need to get really close to the sign (the locals are not friendly on that score), the Bronson Caverns Quarry is an excellent observation point.
Final sample: the battle between the female ’40 Thieves’ and the Tartars in RKO’s Son of Sinbad (1955). The entire Quarry is seen, positioning stunt women atop the rocks as archers. The third tunnel entrance (#5 on the diagram) is used as an ‘open sesame’ door to a secret lair. The copy shown on TCM is properly formatted flat, but RKO originally released it in SuperScope — which would have ruined a lot of compositions.
Article by Glenn Erickson
With help from photographer Allan Peach.
September 5, 2018
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson