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Sunday, October 25, 2015

Incident at Overlook Point: A disaster on the set mars production of the Gary Cooper movie "The Adventures of Marco Polo"

French poster for "The Adventures of Marco Polo" (1938)

The 1938 Gary Cooper movie "The Adventures of Marco Polo" illustrates a more aggressive, even reckless, approach to filmmaking that was prevalent in Hollywood's Golden Era. A key scene in the movie was filmed on the Iverson Movie Ranch, and it appears that during the shoot, an ill-conceived horse stunt went disastrously wrong.

Promotional still for "The Adventures of Marco Polo"

The scene is depicted in this promotional still for the Samuel Goldwyn production, taken at Overlook Point on the Lower Iverson. The photo is part of the movie still collection of location historian Jerry England.

Nobody would try to rear up a horse in that position right at the edge of a cliff, so what's really going on here? My initial impression was that the photo must have been faked, with the horse and rider shot elsewhere and then superimposed onto the scene. But as is often the case, my initial impression was wrong.

Zoomed-in version of the promo shot

I noticed that the horse appears to be "floating on air." It's clearly some form of movie magic, but how did they get the shot? It wasn't until Iverson expert Ben Burtt joined the discussion that I got pointed in the right direction.

Portion of the promo shot with the contrast amped up

Ben sent me this version of the photo with the contrast ratcheted up to reveal safety wires, suggesting a crane was used to hoist the horse. The scene, in which Marco Polo's horse is driven off the cliff by Chinese warriors, is pivotal to the film's plot, and the filmmakers went to a lot of trouble in what turned out to be a failed attempt to get it right.

I believe the wires were in place partly as a safety measure, but were also used to encourage the horse to raise up its front end. I'm not clear on how the filmmakers intended to create the illusion of the horse falling off the cliff, but as it turned out, they didn't have to. A cynic might say the crew "got lucky," because the horse did in fact fall off the cliff, and footage of the animal's nasty fall was used in the movie.

Screen shot from "Adventures of Marco Polo": the disaster begins

Readers who might be disturbed by scenes of an animal in serious trouble are advised to stop reading here. Footage taken by a camera positioned below the edge of the cliff provides a filmed record of the disaster on the set, and the shots that found their way into the movie make it clear that the horse fell off the cliff.

The camera captures a moment when the horse is struggling to find its footing. A wire can be seen near the top of the frame that appears to be lifting the stunt rider off the horse.

However, a number of safety lines can be seen breaking during this part of the stunt.

The stunt rider is thrown off the side of the horse, which was probably the best possible outcome for the rider.

As the rider disappears from view, the horse's struggle kicks up a cloud of dust.

A moment later, the horse has completely lost its footing, and as its left hind leg slips against a curved rock at the edge of the cliff, the animal falls.

This screen shot contains a number of important pieces of evidence, starting with the section of curved rock where the horse's leg comes in contact with the edge of the cliff.

Overlook Point, seen from below, on a recent visit

I recently explored the area beneath the cliff, and can report that it is treacherous and filled with jagged rocks. It's a difficult area to navigate, but I believe the curved rock I've noted here, situated at the cliff's edge, marks the spot where the horse's leg collided with the rocky cliff — and where the horse went down.

The movie shot also captures a glimpse of another safety wire, which has become disconnected and is now flailing uselessly above the struggling horse.

One of those jagged rocks I mentioned turns up in the movie, although it's not easy to discern. If you're able to see it, the shape of this rock is pretty distinctive — and it's a perfect match for a rock found at the site today.

I believe this shot from my recent visit to the site captures the same jagged rock, along with the curved rock that helped trigger the horse's fall.

Moments later, the horse has begun to plummet over the side of the cliff.

Once again, at least one safety wire can be seen. It appears that at this point some wires are still attached.

In the next shot the falling horse becomes a blur, but the shot provides what is probably the sequence's clearest view of the safety wires.

The shot reveals that a number of wires do remain attached. But by now the horse's fall has gained momentum and the wires won't be able to hold.

Now the horse is well on its way down the side of the cliff. It's likely that all of the safety lines have broken off at this point.

It's not easy to be sure what's what, given the blurry picture and slightly scored print, but I believe we can again see at least one wire flailing about near the top of the frame, similar to previous photos in the sequence.


The entire disaster plays out in a couple of seconds. The short video clip above contains the Overlook Point scene in its entirety, as it appears in the movie. Watch for the horse getting in trouble around the 18-second mark.

"Adventures of Marco Polo": Steep gorge created using matte painting

It should be noted that the steep gorge adjoining Overlook Point in wider shots in "Marco Polo" is not real, but is created using a matte background painted on glass. Overlook Point does rise above a gorge in the real world, but it's not nearly as sheer, nor as deep, as the fake one created for the movie.

In this markup of the matte shot seen in the movie, the yellow line marks the approximate dividing line between the matte painting on the left and the actual location shoot at Overlook Point, on the right. I've been unable to find the large rock seen at the far right of the frame, but my guess is it's real.

Trapped at the edge of the cliff, the horse rears up

One brief glimpse of the horse rearing up is the only shot in the movie that looks anything like the promotional still. This also appears to be the only "successful" shot in the movie to come out of the elaborate crane stunt — unless one considers dropping a horse off the side of a cliff to be a success.

Trapped at the edge of the cliff, Marco Polo — with the stunt rider taking Gary Cooper's place — turns his horse around to face his pursuers, and we see the moment when the horse begins to lose its footing. At that exact moment the horse rears up — not the reaction one would expect from an animal struggling to plant its hind leg.

Presumably it's the crane that causes the horse to rear up, and on close examination, wires can again be seen in some of the shots. It's an awkward, poorly edited sequence, including shots like this one in which all of the action is restricted to one small corner of the frame and Marco Polo's head is cut off.

One reason for the odd framing is that the shot is another composite, with the action in the top right corner filmed on location at Overlook Point while the sky and the features in the bottom third of the frame are painted in. The yellow line I've drawn here is only a rough approximation of the division between the two main elements.


I've posted the video clip again here. The brief shot in which the horse rears up — blink and you'll miss it — starts at the 17-second mark, just before the horse falls off the cliff. The unusual framing of the shot may also have to do with the need to keep the crane out of view of the camera.

Re-examining the original promo shot, a few additional clues can be found. First, even with normal contrast, you might now be able to spot the safety wires, knowing where to look. If not, try clicking on the photo to see a larger version. If you're still not having any luck, see the zoomed-in photo below.

In addition to the wires, we can see that the horse was fitted with a special harness, and presumably the rider was too — either that or his shoulders are abnormally large. But ... is it just me, or do those wires look a little thin to lift a struggling 1,100-pound animal with a 200-pound man sitting on it? Of course, as they say, hindsight is 20:20.

One thing that becomes clear in the high-contrast version of the photo is that the wires are not perfectly vertical, which hints that the load is unbalanced and as the crane begins to lift the weight of horse and rider, they begin to swing out over the edge of the cliff.

At this point the rider should already be aware — probably before anyone else — that something has gone wrong. His body language appears to show him tensing up in anticipation of trouble, although, admittedly, the massive harness he's wearing makes him difficult to read.

The stunt rider may also be showing the early signs of panic in his face, although it's hard to separate that observation from my awareness that he has reason to panic at this point. At any rate, he's about to get one of his biggest surprises of the whole regrettable shoot ...

This stunning photo, which ran in Look magazine back in April 1938, appears to be taken moments after the promo still. With the horse and rider now dangling above the gorge — clearly not the shot the filmmakers were trying to get — the rider appears uncertain about what to do and seems to be trying to climb off the horse.

Some of the Chinese warriors appear to be reacting to the incident. In the magazine spread the picture carried a caption reassuring readers that everything went smoothly (you can read it below), but to me the photo is another piece of the substantial body of evidence of the stunt's failure.

One problem is that the harness on the horse, which appears to be designed mainly to lift the front of the animal, doesn't do much to help his rear end, which dangles below the horse, throwing off its center of gravity.

When the photo of the incident appeared in Look magazine back in 1938, it was presented as a puff piece crowing about safety on the set — and implying that the stunt came off "without injury to horse or rider." In case you're unable to read the caption, I've transcribed it below.

Caption for the 1938 Look photo

How many other things — besides the whole tenor of it — are wrong with this caption? Let's see ... it's not Gary Cooper, it's a stuntman. The horse appears to be flying, not falling down a precipice. It's not a scene from the movie — the shot is an "outtake" in the truest sense of the word ... and the list goes on.

Item in Variety, Aug. 9, 1937

Ben Burtt, who found the Look photo, also found the above item, which appeared in Variety around the time of production on "Marco Polo." It's possible, albeit unlikely, that the Variety notice is a reference to some other horse accident during production on the movie. But I have a feeling "thrown from his horse," as it is used here, is code for "disastrous crane stunt."

Rocks below Overlook Point, as they appear today

Here's another look at the area below Overlook Point from a recent visit. This photo includes a number of features that can also be seen in the movie and in the promo still.

One handy identifier is the missing slab of rock surface material noted here.

The same missing slab of rock can be seen in the promotional photo, and provides a good starting point for lining up other features.

Also visible in the promo shot is what I believe to be the same jagged rock noted previously. This shot and some of the movie shots appear to have been taken from a special camera platform positioned off to the side of the cliff, making it impossible to duplicate these angles today.

The missing rock slab and jagged rock, in combination with other clues, point to the shadowy "chute" indicated here as the most likely point where the horse went down the side of the cliff.

This photo depicts the "chute" area in recent times. I've noted what I believe would have been the approximate trajectory of the horse.

The area noted previously that's missing a slab of rock facing material fills up much of the center of this shot.

It appears the horse would have missed the jagged rocks toward the right of the shot — a group that I believe includes the "jagged rock" I've pointed out in a number of photos above. Still, it wouldn't have been a smooth ride for the horse — and it's a long way down.

Overlook Point, from the top — where the horse went down

This is what the "chute" area looks like from above, from the top of Overlook Point. The jagged rocks below the edge of the cliff turn up again here, in the center of the frame. Viewed from this angle the horse would have probably fallen just in front of them.

Another angle on the terrain below Overlook Point adds some insight into the area where the horse fell, underscoring that it's a long way down.

The rough section of rock near where the horse began its fall is visible in the shot. From this angle, the jagged rocks below are out of view.

Redmesa Road and Santa Susana Pass Road also appear in the photo, well below Overlook Point.

Something I spotted while researching the "Marco Polo" disaster was what appears to be the remains of an old catch fence, still in place below Overlook Point.

The fencing material is located some distance north of the "chute" area and was probably unrelated to "The Adventures of Marco Polo" — the same area was heavily filmed for decades, going back to the silent era. My presumption is that the rusted wire mesh was once part of a safety fence used on some other production.

I found no similar remnants below the "chute" area, but this old fence is a reminder that other productions also staged risky stunts at the site — and that filmmakers typically took whatever precautions they could.

I'd like to thank Ben Burtt for unearthing much of the evidence found in this post — and for helping me keep some of my wild theories in check. I'd also like to point out that my screen shots for "The Adventures of Marco Polo" come from a pretty nice "MGM Movie Legends" DVD version of the movie sold on Amazon.

Two different DVDs are available on Amazon that are probably both pretty good. A Warner Bros. Archives DVD has been released, and that series is always outstanding. I'll include links below to both versions, but I want to mention that other than the Overlook Point sequence, almost nothing in the movie is filmed on the Iverson Ranch.


2 comments:

Mark said...

I guess we will never know if the horse survived the fall or sustained any injuries. Very good post my fiend.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post, an excellent detailed description and analysis.