"The Lives of a Bengal Lancer" (Paramount, 1935)
Back in the 1930s Hollywood became obsessed with big productions about the British occupation of India. Gary Cooper helped get the ball rolling with "The Lives of a Bengal Lancer," filmed largely on the Iverson Ranch.
The "Mogala" set, built atop the Iverson Gorge in 1934 for "The Lives of a Bengal Lancer"
(promo still from the Jerry England collection)
The movie was filmed in 1934 and released on Jan. 11, 1935. A sprawling set was built at the north end of the Iverson Gorge to depict "Mogala," the mountain stronghold of rebel leader Mohammed Khan.
Gary Cooper mans the big gun at "Mogala" — really the Iverson Gorge in Chatsworth, Calif.
The Mogala set was the focal point for much of the action in the movie, with Cooper, Franchot Tone, Richard Cromwell, Colin Tapley and the film's other key players seeing action in Chatsworth during the shoot.
"The Lives of a Bengal Lancer": On location in Lone Pine, Calif.
Even though the Mogala set stood on the Iverson Ranch in Chatsworth, some of the outdoor footage in "The Lives of a Bengal Lancer" was filmed about 200 miles to the north, in Lone Pine, Calif.
Matte painting representing Mogala, set in Lone Pine
A fake version of Mogala, anchored by the familiar tall white tower — similar to the "real" Mogala in the Iverson Gorge, but not an exact duplicate — is seen against a backdrop of Lone Pine landmarks.
The "Mogala" location in Lone Pine, in 2018
Lone Pine location expert Don Kelsen was able to find the exact location that was used for the Lone Pine "Mogala" shot. Until I saw Don's photo, I assumed that at least the rocks at the bottom of the movie frame were painted — they're almost too good a match for the rocks that frame the actual Mogala set at Iverson.
The gate to the Mogala set in the Iverson Gorge
Here's a look at the gate to Mogala — the "real" gate, built in the Iverson Gorge, spanning a channel between two rock walls that bear a resemblance to the rocks seen in the foreground of the Lone Pine photo.
Zoomed-in view of the fake gate in the matte painting
Even though the gate in the matte painting is darker, it appears to be an attempt to replicate the Iverson gate: The designs on the doors are similar, and both gates span the gap between two rock walls.
Similar set built two years later for "Wee Willie Winkie" (20th Century-Fox, 1937)
Adding to the intrigue, the Mogala set looks a lot like another mountain stronghold — the set built in 1937 for "Wee Willie Winkie," director John Ford's contribution to Hollywood's Colonial India mania of the Thirties.
"Wee Willie Winkie": Cesar Romero and Shirley Temple talk peace in the Iverson Gorge
The "Wee Willie Winkie" set in the Iverson Gorge — one of two major sets built on the Iverson Ranch for the movie — is where Shirley Temple tried to convince Cesar Romero's Khoda Khan that peace is better than war.
Khoda Khan's mountain stronghold in "Wee Willie Winkie"
The mountain stronghold sets for "Wee Willie Winkie" and "Lives of a Bengal Lancer" have plenty of similarities: They were built in almost exactly the same place, both sets feature tapered cylindrical towers ... and both served as home base to rebel leaders named "Khan."
"The Charge of the Light Brigade" (Warner Bros., 1936)
The same flurry of Colonial India movies from the major studios that produced "The Lives of a Bengal Lancer" and "Wee Willie Winkie" also yielded Errol Flynn's "Charge of the Light Brigade."
"The Charge of the Light Brigade": Three Ages Rock in the Iverson Gorge
(Promo still from the Jerry England collection)
Like "The Lives of a Bengal Lancer" before it, and "Wee Willie Winkie" after it, "The Charge of the Light Brigade" also filmed in the Iverson Gorge. However, no major set was built at the site for the movie.
Promo still for "The Charge of the Light Brigade": Fort built on Lasky Mesa
Instead, "The Charge of the Light Brigade" featured an impressive fort built a few miles to the south of Iverson, on Lasky Mesa. This important filming area has been preserved as public land and is accessible at the west end of Victory Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley.
A fun sidenote to the Colonial India movies of the 1930s involves the camels that began showing up on the Iverson Movie Ranch in connection with the often desert-themed productions.
Sometime after the first camels began arriving for "Bengal Lancer," the adventurous Joe Iverson — the man who ran the movie ranch for more than 50 years — seized on the opportunity to take one out for a spin.
Joe and his dog on the set of "The Lives of a Bengal Lancer" in 1934
Joe also tried out some of the accommodations of "Bengal Lancer's" impressive Mogala set. The set's construction helped usher in a fruitful period for the Iverson Ranch that would see important productions including "Wee Willie Winkie," "Stagecoach" and "Fighting Seabees" build major sets on the ranch during the next decade.
Recent Google aerial showing the same rocks in their current environment
This Google bird's-eye view indicates where those rocks are situated today. If you plan to visit the site, keep in mind that the condos are in a private residential area.
"The Lives of a Bengal Lancer": Mogala's main tower
A screen shot from the movie provides a good look at the Mogala set's main tower. One of the best ways to tell apart the sets for "Bengal Lancer" and "Wee Willie Winkie" is simply that the "Lancer" buildings are much whiter.
Wide shot of the Mogala set looking south, from the movie
SPOILER ALERT!! In case you're planning to watch "The Lives of a Bengal Lancer" sometime soon, you may want to stop reading here because I'm about to give away an important plot point.
Promo still showing battle scene from "Bengal Lancer," with Mogala partially destroyed
That beautiful white tower we've been seeing from "Lives of a Bengal Lancer" ends up getting blown up in the movie. I want to believe they blew it up in real life and filmed it for the movie, even though I know it's not true.
It's OK — it's just a model
Here's what it looks like when they blow up the tower. They "kind of" re-created the look of the background rocks, but they can't fool location aficionados from the future who have harnessed the power of freeze-frame.
"Wee Willie Winkie": The mountain stronghold in the Iverson Gorge
The "Wee Willie Winkie" mountain stronghold deserves its own deep dive, which is coming up soon. I've been putting the finishing touches on a post about it, and am hoping it blows everyone's minds as much as it has mine.
The links above will take you to DVD versions of the movies discussed above, which can be ordered from Amazon.com. All of the Colonial India movies contain Iverson Movie Ranch footage. There's also a link to a Gary Cooper set that includes both "Bengal Lancer" and "Peter Ibbetson," another movie filmed on the Iverson Ranch.