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

For an introduction to this blog and to the obsession a growing number of vintage film and TV fans have with the Iverson Movie Ranch — the most widely filmed outdoor location in movie and TV history — please read the site's introductory post, found here.
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• To find specific rock features or look up movie titles, TV shows, actors and production people, see the "LABELS" section — the long alphabetical listing on the right side of the page, below.
• To join the MAILING LIST, send me an email at and let me know you'd like to sign up.
• I've also begun a YouTube channel for Iverson Movie Ranch clips and other movie location videos, which you can get to by clicking here.
• Here's a link to Garden of the Gods, the best-known section of the Iverson Movie Ranch (featured in the movie "Stagecoach," the "Lone Ranger" TV show and hundreds of other productions).
• To go right to the great Iverson cinematographers, click here.
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Saturday, February 14, 2015

How Elvis solved the "Escort West" mystery

"Escort West" (1959): the fake bridge

The location of the fake bridge in the Victor Mature movie "Escort West" managed to elude Western movie historians for decades. But thanks to Elvis Presley — and some collaborative sleuthing by determined location researchers — the site has been found.

The first Elvis movie: Neville Brand, left, and Elvis Presley in "Love Me Tender" (1956)

It took two location experts on opposite coasts, with two different research focuses, putting our heads together to unlock the mystery. One of them was Bill Bram, East Coast-based author of "Elvis: Frame by Frame," a highly regarded reference work on Elvis movie locations.

Promo still for "Harum Scarum" (1965): Elvis Presley at Iverson

Bill and I got together over a different Elvis movie, "Harum Scarum," in which Elvis scampered among the rocks of the Iverson Movie Ranch. I posted a blog entry back in October about the Elvis shoot at Iverson for "Harum Scarum" — but I have to admit, I knew less then about Elvis locations than I do now, thanks to working will Bill.

"Love Me Tender" (1956): Elvis Presley, Debra Paget and a fake cave

During our discussion of the remaining location mysteries in "Harum Scarum," the topic came up of "Love Me Tender," the 1956 Western in which Elvis made his acting debut. Bill mentioned that he had hit a dead end trying to find a particular filming location for the movie, and he sent me a few screen shots. When I got them I'm sure I let out an audible gasp: I was looking at the fake bridge from "Escort West."

"Escort West" — fake bridge sequence shot at Bell Ranch

It turned out Bill and I had been looking for the same spot. Neither "Escort West" nor "Love Me Tender," taken individually, provided sufficient clues to solve the location mystery, but when we put together shots from both movies, we had what we needed.

Site of the former Bell Location Ranch — Lower Plateau (2015)

It has been generally accepted among film historians that the fake bridge — or fake cave, as it appears in the Elvis movie — was located somewhere on the former Bell Location Ranch, west of the San Fernando Valley in Southern California. The question was always: OK, but where, exactly?

"Love Me Tender": Elvis on "the Rocky Hill"

The movie prop was filmed on a mystery hillside that Bill calls "the Rocky Hill." It was on the Rocky Hill that Clint Reno, the character played by Elvis in "Love Me Tender," met a violent fate in the movie's climactic sequence. Indeed, in a purely cinematic sense, we were looking for the place where Elvis died.

Debra Paget in "Love Me Tender"

It was all about a girl, of course — Cathy, played by Debra Paget, who also put in time on the Rocky Hill.

The Rocky Hill — shooting site for "Love Me Tender" and "Escort West"

Within a couple of months of our first examining the "Love Me Tender"/"Escort West" connection, Bill and I, along with location researcher Cliff Roberts, mounted an expedition to the former site of the Bell Location Ranch in search of the elusive hill. We found the Rocky Hill with relative ease — but climbing to the site of the fake bridge took some effort.

Much of the filming took place near the top of the Rocky Hill. Even with the area more cleared-out then than it is today, it would have been a logistical challenge to haul movie gear up to the spot. I've been exploring the theory that they came down from the top, but it does not appear that it would have been any easier.

The exact location where the fake bridge stood

Needless to say, we did make it up that hill. The above photo shows the site where the mythic movie prop once rested, and where Elvis, in a jealous rage, orchestrated a violent standoff at the end of "Love Me Tender."

Poison oak protects the spot today

The area today is overgrown with dense brush and riddled with poison oak, but almost nothing will stop a location researcher closing in on an important filming site.

Here's a side-by-side comparison of the location then and now. On the left is "Escort West," an early 1959 release that would have been filmed in 1958. The shot on the right is from the recent Bell Ranch excursion.

"Love Me Tender": wide view of the fake cave area

A wide shot from "Love Me Tender" shows the full span of the fake cave, along with some of the surrounding features. Both "Love Me Tender" and "Escort West" were originally released in CinemaScope, with its ultra-wide 2.35:1 aspect ratio.

It should be noted that a portion of the material supporting the main beam was also fake.

Where the fake beam would be today

This shot approximates where the movie prop would be positioned if it were still in place.

Dimple Rock in "Love Me Tender"

The rock behind which Elvis and Neville Brand take cover in "Love Me Tender" is referred to as "Dimple Rock" here, because of the indented area near Presley's hand. Also note that the fake cave is visible behind Elvis.

Dimple Rock remains in place directly in front of the area where the fake cave was positioned.

Dimple Rock today

The dimple remains evident today, making it easy to get a positive ID on Dimple Rock.

An intriguing footnote to the location discovery is the presence of two large "intruder rocks" in the midst of the setting. These rocks were not present when "Love Me Tender" and "Escort West" were filmed in the 1950s.

Another look at the "Escort West" shot confirms that the intruder rocks were nowhere to be seen in 1958. The rocks would have been right in the way of the bridge structure, blocking the area where the actors are standing.

The best explanation for the intruder rocks is that they rolled down the hill from above, possibly during one of the two major earthquakes to hit Southern California in the decades since the movies were filmed — the Sylmar/San Fernando shaker back in 1971 or the Northridge quake of '94.

Intruder rocks — bird's-eye view

The view from just above the intruders provides evidence for the earthquake theory, with a large crack running through the rock in the back. It makes sense that after the first rock came to a stop, the second rock would have broken into two pieces when it crashed into the first rock.

Note that the intruders would have had an ideal "chute" to roll down, at top right, before coming to a stop in exactly the spot where the movie prop once rested.

Bell Location Ranch: Well off the beaten path

The picturesque Bell Ranch pretty much defines "off the beaten path" when it comes to location ranches. With a film history said to date back to the silent era, the site remains largely undocumented. But in recent years it has begrudgingly begun to yield clues to its many filming location mysteries.

"Star Trek" TV series: "A Private Little War" (1968) — shot on Bell Ranch

I've been lucky enough to be a part now of two successful Bell Ranch location hunts — the Elvis/"Escort West" expedition earlier this month, and a "Star Trek" search two years ago. I blogged about the "Star Trek" expedition at the time, and you can see that post by clicking here.

"Bonanza": Dan Blocker at Bell Ranch in "The Rattlesnake Brigade"

Another Bell Location Ranch shoot that may be of interest to readers of this blog is featured in the "Bonanza" episode "The Rattlesnake Brigade," from 1971. That shoot, which you can read about by clicking here, took place right at the base of the Rocky Hill.

Off the Beaten Path is a series of posts that are not specifically focused on the usual subject matter of this blog, which is the Iverson Movie Ranch. Past subjects have included Pioneertown, Corriganville, Oak Park and other old filming locations. You can go directly to the Off the Beaten Path posts by looking up the term "Off the Beaten Path" in the long index of labels at the right of the page, or by clicking here.


Mark said...

Really cool post. Great work on this.

cliff said...

Great post as always, thanks for the ride along.

Swami Nano said...

Thanks for the feedback, Mark and Cliff. Great to have you along, Cliff, on the expedition. I hope you've recovered. I'm still not back to 100% just yet.


PGU said...

As an Elvis fan and Trekkie (original series) I am gobsmacked reading this page. I love visiting Elvis movie locations and now I can add these details to my wish list. I only had the Malibu area in my notes. Thank you!

Swami Nano said...

I'm glad to be able to add to your travel itinerary, PGU.

Some good research is being done by people who are passionate about Elvis and Star Trek. Two of my favorite collaborations as a film researcher have been with Elvis expert Bill Bram and Star Trek expert Larry Herdman. Both of those collaborations led to key discoveries at Bell Ranch. And I continue to find Elvis sites at Iverson, thanks in large part to working with Bill.

Bill's book "Elvis: Frame by Frame" is a heck of a reference on Elvis filming locations.

Have fun with your discoveries ...


Anonymous said...

I watched "Love Me Tender" for the first time tonight and did an online search for more information about it. The 'Rocky Hill' was mentioned in Wikipedia and the note that it had been located after 60 years. Another search, and here I am! I am so impressed with the research and photographs done here! Like finding buried treasure! Thank you so much for sharing all this with us!