Monday, March 31, 2014

The Mountain Road

March 24, 2014 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

The Apache Trail has been the site for many motion pictures over the years. The vast, rugged isolation has made it a prime location for the movie industry beginning early in the 1920s. Stars such as Tim Holt, Tom Mix and others made some of their early films in the area.

The film industry returned to Arizona in the summer of 1959 to film Mountain Road starring James Stewart, Lisa Lu, and Glenn Corbett. Most of the filming was done along the Salt River Project’s Horse Mesa Dam road. Filming began on June 12, 1959, when temperatures often reached 110º F in the afternoon.

The Mountain Road’ starred James Stewart and Lisa Lu, shown here in a scene filmed in the Superstition Mountains. The film also starred Glenn Corbett and Harry Morgan (later of television’s M.A.S.H. fame).

The film company’s advance work crews had come in to build a full size Chinese village, temple, shrine, and several other sets that were used in the month-long scheduled filming. Much of the filming was done along the rugged and beautiful Apache Trail. This was possible in June because there was very little traffic on the road at that time of the year. The users of the "Trail" in those days were only die-hard fisherman, cattlemen, and adventurers.

William Goetz was the producer of the film. He liked working with James Stewart. In this particular film he introduced a beautiful Chinese actress by the name of Lisa Lu to American motion pictures. The movie also starred Harry Morgan, who later achieved fame portraying Colonel Henry Potter on televison’s M.A.S.H.

Goetz was the producer of several outstanding motion pictures such as Song Of Bernadette, The Glenn Miller Story, Winchester ‘73, Magnificent Obsession and many other great films.

The director of The Mountain Road was Daniel Mann, who had directed such hits as Come Back Little Sheba, The Rose Tattoo, I’ll Cry Tomorrow, and Teahouse of the August Moon. Mann was known for assembling the best production technicians in the movie business for his films. The group use Phoenix as their headquarters and traveled back and forth to the film location by automobiles and helicopter.

James Stewart starred as Major Baldwin who was the head of an eight-man demolition team charged with destroying bridges, roads and villages in the path of the oncoming Japanese army as it marched from Liuchow to Kweiyang in 1944 during World War II. William Goetz had worked with James Stewart on several previous motion pictures that were blockbusters such as Winchester ‘73 and the Glenn Miller Story.

The preparation of the filming site required a very large construction crew and several pieces of heavy equipment. More than a hundred men worked at the site with a fleet of bulldozers and earth moving equipment. The building of the Chinese village was an enormous construction project. The crew had to remodel bridges to look like old Chinese wooden bridges, which had to be destroyed in the film and rebuilt. More than $10,000 was spent revamping private roads belonging to Salt River Project to build turnarounds that would accommodate the movie company’s heavy rolling stock. A big part of the building project was blasting a 1,000-foot strip of road through solid rock where the Chinese village was located.

The film’s technical advisors included Brig. Gen. Frank Dorn, U.S. Army, retired, who served for twelve years with the American and Chinese armies during the Eastern Theater of World War II. The Chinese advisor was Wan Fau Hsuch. The demolition and explosive expert was Sgt. David Lamb, U.S. Army, assigned to the film project by the U.S. Army.

The completion of this film under such isolated and severe summer weather conditions was quite an accomplishment for Hollywood. The stars, production people, technicians, and workers were not accustomed to the extreme temperatures of the Sonoran Desert.

I recall the production of this film very well. We had just completed the roundup at the Quarter Circle U Ranch, and I was driving over to the Tortilla Ranch to help out Floyd Stone with his roundup. Barkley often helped Stone with his spring roundup and vice-versa. It was a hot day as I drove along the road toward the Tortilla Ranch turnoff. Near Stone’s shipping corrals on the Apache Trail I ran in to the film company setting up for a shoot. I told them I was headed into the Tortilla Ranch and would be there for a few days. This was my exposure to the film Mountain Road. No, I didn’t get to meet James Stewart or any of the stars of the movie.