TNB Night Owl – A Classic Movie Location

This narrow valley in the Alabama Hills doubled as the Khyber Pass in the 1939 epic Gunga Din.
This narrow valley in the Alabama Hills doubled as the Khyber Pass in the 1939 epic Gunga Din. Photo by Bobak Ha'Eri.

Are you a fan of classic movies? How about westerns? Or sci-fi movies? Hundreds of films representing all these genres and more have been shot on location for over a century at a place many people have never heard of: Alabama Hills, in California.

Officially, it was known as the Alabama Hills Recreation Area, and has been managed for years by the Bureau of Land Management. In 2019 congress changed it’s designation to Alabama Hills National Scenic Area. You can sightsee, hike, camp, and boondock there. The area sits in the Owens Valley, west of the wistfully-named town of Lone Pine, and just east of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Los Angeles gets one third of its water from the Owens Valley, causing the region to be extremely arid. What makes the location special for filmmakers and audiences is the unique, sometimes extraterrestrial-looking rocky landscape. Movies have also been filmed in Lone Pine itself, as well as around nearby Whitney Portal and on Mount Whitney, the state’s highest peak.

The first movies to be shot here starred Will Rogers, and were filmed in 1919 but released in early 1920. They were the silent movies Cupid, the Cowpuncher and Water, Water Everywhere. No known copies of either film exist. But The Round-Up starring Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle (with a cameo by Buster Keaton), which was filmed in early 1920 and released later that year, does still exist. Westerns were extremely popular with the American public from the twenties through the fifties, and many were shot in this wilderness.

The biggest cowboy stars all spent time here working their craft. Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, William Boyd, Tom Mix, Gary Cooper, Gregory Peck, John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, and many more all made movies here. Bill Boyd is said to have lived in a cabin in the Alabama Hills while filming Hopalong Cassidy movies.

Movie making in the Alabama Hills is not limited to westerns. Humphrey Bogart and Ida Lupino starred in the classic film noir High Sierra (1941), shot in part on the slopes of Mount Whitney. More recently, the historical drama Gladiator (2000) made good use of the rugged landscape. A few examples of the sci-fi variety include Iron Man (2008), Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989), and Star Trek Generations (1994). You might want to peruse a list of movies filmed in and around the area to see if any of your favorite movies were made there. (No guarantee that the list is comprehensive, however).

You can learn more about the movies made in the Alabama Hills at The Museum of Western Film History, which is physically located in Lone Pine, California.

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About Richard Doud 206 Articles
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