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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.