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

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Sunday, May 10, 2015

Rock Island: A Viewer's Guide

"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.

"Deathsport" (1978)

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.

"Fighting Seabees" (1944)

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.

The two main rock features in the "Fighting Seabees" shot are Rock Island and Crown Rock. Also note the prop palm trees, which helped transform Iverson's dry, rocky terrain into a battlefield island in the Pacific.

The large fuel tank in the foreground is another prop built for the movie. The soldiers are advancing to the north along the old Stagecoach Road that ran through the Iverson Gorge and came to a "Y" just below Rock Island. The soldiers appear to be taking the east fork, which continues north.

Rock Island was surrounded on all sides by roads, which can be seen in this aerial photo from 1952.

Three main roads converged to form the "island" — the east and west forks of the old Stagecoach Road, seen in the "Fighting Seabees" shot higher up, and the access road that ran northeast from the movie ranch's entrance off Santa Susana Pass Road to the Iverson family residence.

The area today is part of the Cal West Townhomes, with what's left of Rock Island now relegated to a role as decorative backdrop for the swimming pool area off Redmesa Road. The route of the old access road remains in use today, although the terrain has been fully graded, leaving no traces of roadside features such as the old stone buttressing that was once in place just north of Rock Island.

"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.

The Keaton comedy focuses mainly on a single Rock Island tower — the rock at the southeast corner of the island, which I call Eraserhead. I posted an entry last year about Buster's "armory" atop Eraserhead, and 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.

With its distinctive round "mouth," Eraserhead is easy to spot in the "Manhunt of Mystery Island" sequence.

"Manhunt of Mystery Island" moves in for a closeup of Eraserhead's base, creating the effect of a cave. I don't buy that this is a real cave — I'm guessing the material along the right edge of the frame is fake.

"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.

"Eraserhead" (1977)

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 by the numbers ("Overland Stage Raiders," 1938)

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.

The fate of Eraserhead, or "RI-1," has already been documented. I found what remains of RI-1 a few years ago, and I've reported previously that as much as three-quarters of the rock has been buried. If you 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."

Even though a couple of distinctive round holes on Eraserhead remain above ground, neither of these is the large "mouth" noted in previous shots. Here I've labeled these features Hole "A" and Hole "B."

"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.

Recent pruning of the foliage in the swimming pool area has made it easier to see RI-2 than it was in the past. The rock is still only partially visible, but it's readily identifiable.

"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.

This version of the "Bonanza" shot singles out RI-2. Filming on the episode, "The Ride," would have been done in 1961, with the show premiering Jan. 21, 1962. It appears to me that a significant portion of RI-2 may have been removed, but the section noted here remains intact.

A photo of RI-2 from a recent visit reveals that, just as it did during its film and TV days, the rock maintains close quarters with its neighbors RI-1 and RI-3. These days, however, only the tip of the tower remains above ground.

The three rocks Making up Rock Island's "front line" are identified in this version of the shot.

A surprise that turned up while I was shooting these photos was a small inscription on RI-1. While I haven't yet had a chance to look into it, it's safe to say it does NOT read "RI-1." A rock detective's work is never done, sigh ... but that's why it's so much fun. I'll keep you posted on anything I'm able to find out about it.

Here's another angle on RI-2, center, and as usual, it's jammed between RI-1 on the left and RI-3 on the right.

"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 is identified in this version of the "Viking Women" shot. The full title of the movie — which is a spectacle of Iverson rocks — is "The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent."

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.

Consistent with the fates of both Eraserhead and RI-2, much of RI-3 is now buried. However, the distinctive stacked rock at the top of the tower remains in place. From this angle, readers should be able to see the similarities between the present-day rock and the rock as it appears in the "Viking Women" screen shot.

Here's a rough approximation, using the "Viking Women" shot, of the portion of RI-3 that remains above ground and how much of the rock has been buried.

Going back to the modern bird's-eye view, here's where RI-3 is situated, right next to the pool.

Almost due west of RI-3 is RI-4, positioned at the southwest corner of Rock Island and anchoring Rock Island's "back line."

This photo that I ran near the top of this post, from the TV show "Have Gun — Will Travel," unabashedly showcases the mighty RI-4. The shot comes from the season 4 opener, "The Fatalist," which aired Sept. 10, 1960.

"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.

This version of the shot points out one of the rare patches on RI-4 that is NOT currently covered by ivy.

RI-4 is in there somewhere — this wider shot of the rock's current location gives an idea of the less than satisfying view of RI-4 that is available from the sidewalk along Redmesa Road.

I'd say this is more or less where the rock would fit into the picture — if we could see it behind the foliage.

Is it my imagination, or is RI-4's high crown trying to peek out from behind this clump of ivy and other shrubbery? This photo is taken more or less from the west, from Redmesa Road.

A glimpse of rock near the top of RI-4  — probably a partial view of the crown — is possible by peering through the ivy from just the right angle, for what it's worth. Needless to say, it's a challenge to get a peek at anything on RI-4.

"Three Ages" (1923)

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.

Moving to the east side of the formation, this photo identifies what I again believe is the crown of RI-4, peeking out from the vegetation. The rocks toward the right are not a part of Rock Island, but are the ridge of Batman Corner to the west, across Redmesa Road. The building in the picture is the poolhouse.

The most prominent Rock Island feature in the bird's-eye view is RI-5. But despite its high profile from the air, RI-5 is among the most challenging of all of the formation's major players when it comes to navigating its present-day setting at ground level.

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.

The major rock features are identified on this version of the "Fugitive Valley" screen shot. Movie shots of the Rock Island area taken from this angle almost never turn up, and when they do, they can be difficult to interpret. Not that I don't have my theories.

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.

The "Fugitive Valley" shot may hold the key to why so much of Rock Island ended up being buried. The photo appears to show a substantial elevation change between Rock Island to the east and Batman Rock to the west, with a mild "ridgeline" dividing the two elevations and blocking the view of the lower portion of Rock Island.

Today the two sides of Redmesa Road are roughly equal in elevation. Fill dirt was poured by the ton when Redmesa Road and the nearby condos were built, largely erasing the ridgeline and leaving the bottom two-thirds or so of Rock Island to pick up the check.

"Khyber Patrol" (1954): Rock Island, top right

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.


Cliff said...

It makes much more sense now than it did on one of our visits to Rock Island. Your hard work pay's off again, Thanks.

Mark said...

Always interesting and informative...Thanks for your dedication and unbridled enthusiasm! Mark Sherman

Swami Nano said...

Thanks for the feedback, Cliff and Mark. And congratulations on (apparently) making it all the way to the end of the longest blog post in the history of the Iverson Movie Ranch Blog (and possibly the universe).

I have to admit this research has opened my eyes in a number of ways to the current status of Rock Island. Each time I go there now I see something I didn't notice before. On a visit the other day I spotted another part of what I think is RI-2, covered with ivy, and it seems to indicate not only that more of RI-2 has survived than I thought before, but also that RI-2 and RI-3 are more closely connected than previously thought.

I'm reminded of one of those Magic Eye pictures, where you have to relax your eyes and then you see the hidden picture within the main picture. I can look at Rock Island now and "relax my eyes" and see the suddenly really obvious shapes of the rocks beneath the ivy. It does help that they pulled back some of the ivy off RI-1. I hope they keep going ... to my eye, a bunch of naked rocks would look way cooler than a bunch of ivy.

I'm already working on a follow-up to this post. One of the things I've zeroed in on is the inscription on RI-1, which appears to be the initials RGC or RCG (or RCC or RGG). I would love to figure out whose initials they are, but I haven't had any luck yet.

Keep on rockin' ...