Here's what the Iverson Movie Ranch obsession is all about ...

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Thursday, August 28, 2014

Buster Keaton's "armory" in the towers of Rock Island

Buster Keaton's 1923 silent comedy "Three Ages" is one of the earliest known feature films to shoot extensively on the Iverson Movie Ranch, with virtually all of the footage for the movie's caveman sequences — about one-third of the movie — filmed on the Lower Iverson.

The bulk of the Iverson shoot for "Three Ages" is well-documented, thanks mainly to John Bengtson's indispensible film location book "Silent Echoes: Discovering Early Hollywood Through the Films of Buster Keaton." Readers will find a link to the book at the bottom of this post.

"Three Ages" (1923) — high atop Rock Island

I recently began examining a scene in "Three Ages" that I haven't seen discussed anywhere else. The above shot features what I call an "armory," consisting of a pile of rocks ready to be thrown, that Buster Keaton's caveman character has stashed in a high rock perch. I was able to determine where this is because of the distinctive shape of the rock tower in the top right corner.

"Stagecoach" (1939)

The location for Buster's tower armory can be seen in this shot from the John Ford Western "Stagecoach." Rock Island is is the dominant rock feature in the foreground, consisting from this angle mainly of three large boulders.

Here's the "Stagecoach" screen shot again, with Rock Island identified. The site for Buster's armory is at the top of the boulder on the left among the three in the foreground. The distinctive tower, which appears here as though it is on top of the middle boulder, is in reality positioned atop a boulder located a short distance behind the front three.

This version of the shot of the armory in "Three Ages" points out the tower — the same one seen in the "Stagecoach" shot. Although this tower appears to be adjacent to the armory, it's in reality part of a separate tower positioned some distance to the west.

Another version of the "Stagecoach" shot highlights the portion of the tower near the top of Rock Island that looms prominently behind Buster Keaton's "armory" in the "Three Ages" rock-throwing sequence.

Buster and the object of his affection, played by Margaret Leahy, appear at the top of Rock Island, in the "armory." The wall Buster is leaning on would have been constructed specifically for the movie. It resembles concrete, but it's likely that a lighter material was used — especially given the logistics of building a set high above the ground, on top of a round boulder, while also trying not to damage the boulder.

"They Died With Their Boots On" (1941)

This shot from the Errol Flynn movie "They Died With Their Boots On" gives a sense of the massive scale of Rock Island, with a detachment of mounted Cavalrymen dwarfed by the formation as they ride below it.

Here's the same shot from "They Died With Their Boots On" with Rock Island highlighted.

In this version of the shot from "They Died With Their Boots On" the location of Buster's armory in "Three Ages" is identified. Note how high above the Cavalry detachment the armory would be positioned.

In "Three Ages" a battle inevitably breaks out, and the fake movie rocks fly.

The movie provides just one alternate angle on the armory, shown here. As in the other shots, the camera is aimed roughly toward the west. Buster appears at top right in the armory, engaged in a spirited rock fight with the cavemen below. This angle is the "smoking gun" that locks in the exact position of the armory.

The shot leaves no doubt that the armory is built right on top of the boulder located at the southeast corner of Rock Island — a rock I've blogged about before, which I call Eraserhead. Please click here to read more about Eraserhead and Rock Island. Also, I have since done a more exhaustive examination of Rock Island, which you can find here.

The shot also provides one of the best views I've seen of a rarely filmed area just west of Rock Island that includes the back of Batman Rock. I call this area Batman Corner.

"Have Gun — Will Travel" (1960): "The Fatalist"

A view of Rock Island that again features the site of the armory can be found in "The Fatalist," the first episode of season four of the TV Western "Have Gun — Will Travel." The episode premiered Sept. 10, 1960, on CBS. One of the most interesting details in this shot is hiding in the background, above Rock Island.

A portion of Saddlehorn Relay Station is visible in the background, as pointed out in this shot.

This photo identifies a group of trees near Saddlehorn Relay Station, which may be the same trees seen at a much earlier stage in 1923, in "Three Ages."

Here's another look at the armory from 1923, along with what appears to be a line of recently planted trees. I have a feeling these trees grew up to be the same ones later seen near Saddlehorn Relay Station, as noted above.

Below you will find links to John Bengtson's incredible film location books on silent movie stars Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. The Keaton book is pertinent to Iverson, where Keaton filmed parts of his feature "Three Ages" as well as the silent shorts "The Balloonatic" and "The Paleface." But all three books contain rock-solid location research and are strongly recommended:

Here are some links to the productions mentioned in this post:


Mark said...

Wow! Great Post. I suppose the contract specified that the production company had to dismantle any construction. If they used concrete, that would almost be impossible to tear down without leaving some trace.

Swami Nano said...

Good point, Mark. No way they would have used concrete. They just needed something strong enough for Buster to lean on — it's probably just some good sturdy movie foam.

I don't think that part of the rock today shows traces of building material. It's not easy to access — it's in Rock Island Prison (see index at right). But it would be worth another look.