Monday, February 8, 2010

Movie Geo-Analysis: The Incredible Western Journey of Bret Maverick

If you are a teacher, you know that one of the chores of an otherwise fulfilling career is the massive pile of grading which must be done. I swear sometimes I am narcoleptic or ADD, because if I sit in a quiet room with a stack of papers needing to be reviewed, I will be asleep in minutes. I have to have a distraction. As such, there are about three dozen movies on my favorites list that I can watch over and over while grading. Since I know the plot, I don't have to devote my entire attention to the movie, and so the grading eventually gets done.

Unless a movie like Maverick comes on, the 1994 version with a pre-completely crazy Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster and James Garner. Don't get me wrong. I love the movie. But it has the most interesting geographic itinerary of almost any movie I've ever seen.

Now, most of you know that movies like the Indiana Jones series, the James Bond movies, and the Bourne trilogy are well-grounded in their geography. Spielberg puts a little red line on a map along with flying airplanes to show where his characters are. The others label the latest exotic locale on the screen. Since the Maverick story was not so rooted in the place, they didn't do anything like that, but by carefully watching the background of the movie scenes, I have been able to discern that Bret Maverick and his co-stars completed one of the most epic of western US journeys in history. I've tried to map the approximate path they followed on the GoogleEarth image above. What they did was almost superhuman, given the transportation technology of their time!

If you are not a Maverick fan, you are forgiven for not reading any further. If you are, enjoy. If you haven't seen the movie, check it out, but spoilers lie ahead.

The movie opens with a hanging scene, but it is out of chronological order, and so will be dealt with later. The main action for the first 40 minutes of the movie take place in the desert town of Crystal River, but the cliffs (Mesozoic sedimentary rocks) and the presence of a huge lake instead of a river suggests the Glen Canyon region. The lake wasn't there in the 1800's, but we could suggest that the town could have been a stand-in for the village of Hite, Utah, which was immersed in the waters of Lake Powell when the dam was built in the early 1960's. The town was established in the early 1800's as one of the few river ferry crossings on the Colorado River. Lees Ferry, a bit farther downstream, is another possibility. Indeed, the next scenes could bear this out.

The runaway stagecoach is one of the more memorable set pieces of the entire movie. Maverick does an Indiana Jones-style ride underneath the stage coach, and then a John Wayne-esque jump onto the horse team to stop the stage at the brink of a vertical cliff over a raging river. Welcome to the Vermilion Cliffs (in the background), and the Grand Canyon of the Colorado! They are at the upper end near the aforementioned Lees Ferry, where river rafting trips start down the river. As steep and deep as the canyon seems in the photo, this is the shallow part of Grand Canyon. Maverick's life was saved by the geology; if the canyon rim was composed of anything besides Kaibab Limestone, he would have plummeted down the cliff and the movie ended prematurely. The limestone weathers in the arid climate into a spiky surface that provides good handholds. Sandstone or shale would have provided no traction at all.

What follows must be one of the greatest untold stories in the annals of the American west: these three people, their stage driver dead, supplies lost, made a 400 mile journey through the hottest, driest landscape on the North American continent. It's not clear their precise pathway, but the shortest route would have taken them across the most desolate part of the Basin and Range Province, right through Death Valley, and on to the north end of the Owens Valley. What hardships they must have endured! The privation, the misery, the thirst, the starvation! And yet they arrived at their next movie scene with a complete (alive) team of horses, and hardly a hair out of place on their heads.

It was here that they met a wagon train of missionary settlers who had been robbed. The women were, like the Donners a few decades earlier, apparently stranded on the east side of the Sierra Nevada. The Sierras are an imposing barrier to east-west travel; even today there are only a few paved roads crossing the crest, and in the movie they are next to the most rugged stretch of high peaks, the Palisades Crest, at over 14,000 feet high. They're in big trouble! But our heroes set off on a journey to wreak God's vengeance upon the heathen raiders. They ride 60 miles south with no supplies, tracking the brigands, finally cornering them near Whitney Portal, at the base of the highest peak in the lower 48 states (Mt. Whitney is the high towering peak in the background). After a shootout where all the bad guys get shot in the hand, they march the prisoners 60 miles back north to the wagon train.

Then...the Indians "attack". In Bishop. In full feather headdress and war paint and all that. Maverick actually knows them, and they are dressed up for something else, so he goes with them on an epic journey across the High Sierra (the lowest pass is about 10,000 feet) to Yosemite Valley, a distance of around 100 miles at a minimum over rugged terrain. The native people of the Sierra and western Basin and Range are the Miwok and the Paiutes, neither of which used feather headdresses, and they lived in bark structures or wikiups, not tepees like the Great Plains tribes. It turns out the Indians are putting on a show for a visiting Russian dignitary traveling with a retinue and fancy wagon (wonder how they got it into Yosemite Valley in the 1880's?). The beautiful granite monolith of Half Dome can be seen in the backdrop, especially the scene where Maverick, dressed as a sick Indian, supposedly gets shot. That scene was shot from the vicinity of Washburn Point, a less crowded destination than nearby Glacier Point. Maverick gets the money his friend owes him and sets out again.

At this point, the geography gets a bit muddled. Maverick is supposedly headed north to the big poker game, but he seems lost, because he is 150 miles south, back at Whitney Portal, when he is ambushed by the bad guys. They take him to the middle of a dry lake bed which I assume is in the Mojave Desert, based on the relatively gentle terrain surrounding the lake in the distance: maybe Silver Lake, or Searles, or Bristol? In any case, what is an old oak tree doing in the middle of a dry lake in the desert? Did the bad guys haul it out there? Oh well, in any case they took him a minimum of tens, maybe a hundred miles to find the right tree to hang him from. Inefficient bad guys if you ask me.

And now the other epic western journey for the ages! Four groups and individuals (the bad guys, Coop and Annabelle, Maverick, and the Russian) all make the trek from the eastern Sierra Nevada and Mojave Desert some 700 miles north across rugged and inhospitable terrain through Oregon to the Columbia River near Portland. The Paddlewheel Steamer is floating around Beacon Rock, an eroded volcanic vent that stands 850 feet above the river. For all the paddlewheeling, the boat never seems to move more than a mile or two from Beacon Rock. Was it treading water. Who knows?

So there you have it, a real tour-de-force of movie sets across the American West. If you ever decide to follow the path I have outlined, take lots of food and water in your car! It would be a fantastic trip, truth be told, although I would start through the desert in the spring, before it gets too hot.

I would love to hear of any other movie out there that has a more complex geographic itinerary. In the meantime, I have grading I have been avoiding...


Gaelyn said...

Garry I sense you have too much time on your hands. LOL

I don't see movies very often but will have to pay more attention to the geography and geology.

Garry Hayes said...

Actually I don't have a whole lot of time, but I love to do anything but grading...