"Overland Stage Raiders" (1938) — Rock Island
A personal favorite of mine among the many distinctive rock formations on the former Iverson Movie Ranch in Chatsworth, Calif., is a community of large sandstone columns known as Rock Island.
The formation ultimately met what most movie fans and film historians would consider a sad fate, which I will get into below. But talk about a long and distinguished Hollywood career — the two shots above are taken 40 years apart, while other appearances by Rock Island in the movies go back to the silent era.
"They Died With Their Boots On" (1941)
I would argue that the poor treatment Rock Island received when development came to the Iverson Gorge in the late 1980s gives us that much more reason to celebrate the contribution these picturesque rocks made to the evolution of movies and TV, to our cultural heritage, and even to our image as a nation.
"Have Gun — Will Travel" (1960): Rock Island's southwest corner
Rock Island, along with other features of the Iverson Movie Ranch and other important outdoor filming locations, helped create the mystique of the American West, elevating the global stature of the U.S. film industry and helping to solidify the country's position as a top player on the world stage.
In John Wayne's World War II movie "Fighting Seabees," the massive scale of Rock Island becomes clear, with the rock towers, seen here in the top right corner, juxtaposed against a group of soldiers who look like toy army men as they approach the sandstone behemoths.
"Three Ages" (1923) — silent comedy feature starring Buster Keaton ... and Rock Island, right
Rock Island was a part of the prehistoric storyline in Buster Keaton's silent comedy "Three Ages," in which Keaton's caveman character defends an "armory" built atop one of the island's rock towers. The large rock butte at the left is the back of Batman Rock.
you can read that post by clicking here. I've recently updated the post with some new material.
"Three Ages": Making good use of Rock Island
This shot combines Keaton's armory atop Eraserhead with the unusual rock feature seen behind Keaton, which was a separate Rock Island tower located a short distance away, at the formation's southwest corner. The use of a telephoto lens makes the two rock features appear closer together than they were.
"Manhunt of Mystery Island" (1945) — into the depths of Eraserhead
Other productions have also made use of selected parts of Eraserhead, with at least one production, the Republic sci-fi serial "Manhunt of Mystery Island," going in for a rare closeup of the base of the rock.
"Ride 'em Cowboy" (1942)
Here's another angle on Eraserhead, from the Abbott and Costello movie "Ride 'em Cowboy," with the rock's "mouth" highlighted again.
The rock's name comes from the David Lynch movie "Eraserhead" — a staple on lists of the weirdest movies ever made. Some readers may see the resemblance.
Rock Island consisted of about five main rocks, and up until recently I resisted the temptation to index them numerically — maybe because it seems to "dehumanize" them. But I get that it can be useful to number them — especially when tracking what happened to the individual rocks. So I've implemented a numbering system that starts with the group's most prominent member, Eraserhead — or RI-1 — and goes left to right, front to back.
Modern-day Rock Island (Bing bird's-eye view)
Determining the fates of the individual rocks is not as easy as it might sound, given that Rock Island's location within the modern layout of the Cal West Townhomes complex is known. One problem is that the entire formation has been partially buried. Major rock features are hidden behind dense foliage, and key pieces have been removed. However, as difficult as it may be to see Rock Island today, for the most part, it has survived.
click here you'll find details about Eraserhead's current status, including a diagram of the rock's "dirt line."
Eraserhead today — locked inside "Rock Island Prison"
Compounding RI-1's predicament, it finds itself today locked behind something resembling prison bars. The bars are part of the fencing surrounding the pool area for the condo complex, but I think of it as "Rock Island Prison."
"Overland Stage Raiders": Eraserhead's identifying holes
Holes "A" and "B" can be seen again in the shot from "Overland Stage Raiders." Also note the position of the "mouth," which is much larger than Holes A and B. Today the mouth is buried in dirt.
"Bonanza": "The Ride" — Rock Island
This shot from the TV series "Bonanza" offers a view of RI-2 from an angle similar to the photo above this, although it's a bit of a challenge here to distinguish RI-2 from its neighbor RI-3.
"The Saga of the Viking Women" (1957): RI-3
Speaking of RI-3, a good entry point is this shot from the Roger Corman cult classic "The Saga of the Viking Women." The rock is a little hard to spot here, but it rises above the dust about halfway between the riders and the top left corner. The angle is a near-perfect match for RI-3's best viewing angle in its modern poolside setting.
RI-3 as it appears today
This is RI-3 today — the top part of it, anyway — bringing as much ambiance as it can to the "cement pond." The rock has been a little more hidden behind foliage at times over the years, but today it is easily recognizable as the tallest of the towers making up the three-boulder "front line" of Rock Island — RI-1, RI-2 and RI-3.
"Zane Grey Theatre": Barbara Stanwyck and John Archer with RI-4.
RI-4 appears in the background of this shot from the "Zane Grey Theatre" episode "The Freighter," guest-starring Barbara Stanwyck.
"Zane Grey Theatre" — "The Freighter"
Another shot from "The Freighter" again features RI-4, at top left, along with the "mouth" of Eraserhead, or RI-1, at top right. The "Zane Grey" episode premiered Jan. 17, 1958, and would have been shot in 1957.
RI-4 today: covered with ivy
Today RI-4 is one of the most difficult of the Rock Island "majors" to see, with the single biggest obstacle being that the rock is now almost completely encased in ivy.
Here's the Buster Keaton "armory" shot again, as a reminder of what RI-4's crown looked like more than 90 years ago — when it was out in the open and available for filming.
RI-5 today, near top left
In one corner of the swimming pool patio area, the main chunk of RI-5 visible in the aerial can also be seen at ground level. This chunk provides one key piece of the RI-5 puzzle, but other pieces remain elusive.
"Overland Stage Raiders" (1938)
Back in the filming days RI-5 looked like this — at least from the south, which was a popular angle for shooting Rock Island. You may be able to spot similar shapes and markings on the rock in the two above photos — including an upside-down L-shaped fissure in the bottom left corner of the rock, visible in both shots.
"Ride 'em Cowboy"
It could be hard to get a good look at RI-5 in the movies. In the shot from Abbott and Costello's "Ride 'em Cowboy," we see just a tiny portion of the rock sticking out from behind RI-4.
In the "Bonanza" shot we get a glimpse of some of the westernmost extremities of RI-5, which was made up of multiple rocks and was really a rock "clump" rather than a single boulder.
"Fugitive Valley" (1941) — rare view of the Ri-5 corner of Rock Island from the west
Here's where my analysis of RI-5 takes a leap from "at least pretty sure" to "it kinda looks like it." This shot from the Range Busters movie "Fugitive Valley" appears to me to include a rare view of RI-5 from the west, and a number of known rock features are also seen, which tend to support that interpretation.
Promo still for "Harum Scarum" (1965): Elvis Presley and Mary Ann Mobley
If you've been following this blog, you may have already put together that the rock clump I blogged about in a recent post about Elvis Presley promo shots for "Harum Scarum" is in fact RI-5. You can click here for more details in that post, about Rock Island and the Elvis shoot at Iverson in 1965.
RI-5's northern slope today
What remains of the northern slope of RI-5 today is shrouded in ivy. If we could pull back the foliage covering this group of rocks, we would probably find something beneath it that resembles the Elvis promo shot.
I believe there's more work to be done before the story of Rock Island is fully known. I continue to explore the area hoping to dig up new clues, and will report any new information here on the blog. For now, I find it satisfying just to know a little bit more about this mysterious, complicated and magnificent rock feature than I did even a few short months ago. And I continue to get a kick out of it each time I spot Rock Island in a movie or TV show.