Chris Langley to present a film history of the Eastern Sierra at Mono Basin Historical Society meeting
Inyo County Film Commissioner Chris Langley first came to the Eastern Sierra almost 40 years ago to take a job as a teacher in a now-nonexistent mining town called New Idria. A Long Islander and graduate of Dartmouth College, Langley fell in love with desert landscapes while serving in the Peace Corps in Iran.
When the mercury mine at New Idria closed three years after he arrived, Langley found himself driving through Lone Pine with his wife. She said, “This looks like a John Wayne backdrop.” Always a fan of film, Langley learned that, in fact, it was the backdrop for no less than 12 John Wayne movies, in addition to the 400 or so other films that have been shot in Lone Pine.
Langley runs the Lone Pine Film Festival, and is the Executive Director of the Lone Pine Western Film History Museum. He’s served as the Inyo County Film Commissioner for the last eight years, and he’s seen most, if not all, of the films that have been shot around Lone Pine that are still in existence. Langley is currently in the process of writing a trilogy about film history in Death Valley, Eastern California (Big Pine to Coleville), and Lone Pine.
Langley has identified and catalogued many of these films by studying stills, or shots preserved and extracted from film reels. Some are so old that the films themselves do not exist anymore. The earliest known feature-length film shot in Inyo County is called “Children of the Banishment,” produced in 1919.
“I look at film in terms of landscapes,” said Langley. “That’s why [filmmakers] came here, and so my studies have been about how landscapes shape people’s lives, how people shape landscapes, and in turn how those landscapes shape the films that people make.”
Langley said that films made in different regions of the Eastern Sierra reflect the unique cultures that exist there. “In Death Valley, which is an extraordinarily unique landscape, almost all of the films feature themes of abandonment, doom, and destruction. There’s a real sense of ‘me against the desert.’ In contrast, films shot in Lone Pine often feature wide shots of landscapes, in contrast with intimate scenes among the rocks of the Valley.” Langley said that films shot in Mono county tend to focus on characters’ relationships with the harsh climate.
Some highlights from Langley’s studies include “Out of the Past” (1947), a film noir shot in Bridgeport with Jane Greer and Kirk Douglas. Charlie Chaplin’s most famous film, “The Gold Rush,” was shot on location at Donner Summit. Langley researched that film after discovering that Inyo County Supervisor Dan Totheroh, who represents Lone Pine, had a grandfather who was the photography director for the project. The palace from “The Scorpion King” (2002), starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was staged in the parking lot of either June Mountain or Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, as were portions of “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (1984).