One of the little things about the movies that bothers me is the fact that Hollywood seems to believe that virtually every noteworthy event that took place in the 19th century American West happened either in the deserts of the Southwest, or in the shadow of the highest peaks of the Rockies and Sierras. I thought of this recently after the release of the new version of “True Grit.” For the two or three people in America who don’t know the story, “True Grit” is about a retired marshal in Fort Smith, Arkansas, who is hired by a young girl to find her father’s killer. The killer is with a gang of outlaws in the Indian Territory of what is now Oklahoma.
Here is a picture taken from the original “True Grit” starring John Wayne:
And here’s one from the remake starring Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon:
Nice mountains in the background, but is that Oklahoma?
I challenge anyone to find a place in Oklahoma that looks like either of these pictures. For the record, the filmmakers could have found some very lovely locales in Oklahoma, even a few with nearly mountainous scenery. Alas, they did not try.
Southwest Oklahoma's Wichita Mountains
It’s always been that way. Consider the great John Ford classic, “The Searchers”, in which John Wayne engages in a quest to retrieve his kidnapped niece from the Comanche Indians. Readers of my blog will know that I am a bit of an amateur historian when it comes to the study of the Comanche. Their 19th century domicile extended from southeastern Colorado to central Texas. In “The Searchers”, John Wayne looks for his niece in country that looks an awful lot like Utah’s Monument Valley:
Ain’t no place in Texas that looks like that.
How about another classic western? One of the most entertaining movies of all time is surely “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”. It’s certainly one of my favorites. You may recall the character played by Katherine Ross. Her name is Etta, and she is based on an historical figure named Etta Place. She was possibly a part-time school teacher, and almost certainly a part-time prostitute, although the exact location where she sold her wares is uncertain. She lived in several different cities throughout the west. By 1900, after she had taken up with Butch Cassidy's Hole in the Wall Gang, she was living in Texas, although her exact location is in dispute, with some saying San Antonio and others Fort Worth.
Etta Place and Harry Longabaugh, a.k.a. the Sundance Kid, in a photo taken shortly before their departure for South America in 1901. Her remarkable physical beauty is in sharp contrast to the vast majority of unfortunate women who worked as prostitutes in the Old West.
Here is a still shot of Etta Place’s home (on the right) from the movie:
Here is a photo of Fort Worth taken around 1900, when the story of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” takes place:
The building in the left foreground is a women's "boarding house" located in what was then known as Hell's Half Acre. "Boarding house" is a euphamism intended to make less obvious the carnal commerce that took place within its walls. Etta Place would likely have lived in a building very similar to the one pictured here. The small row houses next to the boarding house are "cribs", where older, sickly, or less attractive young women who were denied residence in the boarding houses were forced to live and ply their trade for as little as 25 cents per customer visit.
Next is a post card of turn of the 20th century San Antonio, another potential home of Etta Place at the time of the events from "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid":
I don’t know about you, dear readers, but to me, Fort Worth and San Antonio bear very little resemblance Grafton, Utah, where the still shot from the film was taken.
I’m not suggesting that all movies that take place in a specific location must be filmed in that location. However, I do think the movie-viewing experience is enriched when the scenery on the screen appears similar to what one would see if one were actually standing in the place where the film’s action is supposed to be taking place.
Here is a case in point: Terrence Malick’s beautiful film from 1978, “Days of Heaven”, is set primarily in the Texas panhandle. Most of the action of the film was actually shot in Alberta, Canada, some 1500 miles away. Nevertheless, the Great Plains scenery in Alberta could realistically substitute for the Great Plains scenery of the Texas panhandle.
It's not Texas, but it could be...
(Of course, one would have been hard pressed to find a ranch house in the early 20th century Texas panhandle that looked like the house in the film. That is a post for another time…)
It’s not just films set in the West, or films taking place a hundred years or more in the past that are guilty of a geographic disconnect. Remember “The Fugitive”, starring Tommy Lee Jones and Harrison Ford? Do you remember the scene in which Ford, as the fugitive, avoids near capture by making a death-defying jump off of this huge dam?
Here is Ford's character in mid jump:
Ford, of course, played Dr. Richard Kimble, a prominent physician in Chicago. The entire film is set in Chicago and nearby locales in Illinois. The dam scene, however, was filmed in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina. There is virtually no resemblance between the landscapes of Illinois and the landscape of North Carolina’s mountains. That’s not to say the movie makers could not have found a scenic spot or two in Illinois for Harrison Ford to make his great leap to freedom. Perhaps he could have escaped among the hidden canyons of Mathiessen State Park, about 100 miles from downtown Chicago.
Another possibility would have been any of the scenic bluffs overlooking the Upper Mississippi River, such as this one at Mississippi Palisades, on the Illinois-Iowa border. Perhaps Dr. Kimble could have taken a desperate leap off the bluff onto a passing train car below.
OK, that jump might not be quite as jaw-dropping as the leap off of the dam. I also admit the scenery of John Ford’s Monument Valley is a little more camera-ready than that of the Texas or Oklahoma Panhandle. I'm sure it would be extremely difficult to re-create Butch Cassidy's Fort Worth or San Antonio of 1900, and even if you did it perfectly, the end product would be pretty gritty and grim on the big screen. Maybe the “True Grit” movies, whether we’re discussing the 1969 version or the 2010 version, would never have been the great hits that they are if the films had been shot in Oklahoma instead of California and Colorado. But you never know until you try it. And you just might win the respect of history and geography nerds like me.