“North by Northwest” Starring…Mount Rushmore?

Today’s post is written by Cody White, Archivist at the National Archives at Denver

“This is only one more step in our national disintegration, a loss of respect for things sacred to our history. This guardianship has been entrusted to you and it’s high time you did something about it.”

It was August 1959 and an issue which the National Park Service thought it had resolved 11 months earlier erupted once again as angry citizens across the country were under the impression that the final scene in North by Northwest had actually been filmed on Mount Rushmore. Even though 2014 marks the 55th anniversary of the film’s premiere, this saga can still be seen in the series General Correspondence, 1941-1972 (National Archives Identifier 651765) for the Mount Rushmore National Monument within our Record Group 79: National Park Service (NPS) holdings here at the National Archives at Denver. Entitled “A-9027 Motion Picture North by Northwest,” the folder includes correspondence from NPS officials, MGM studio officials, politicians, and the general public that all comes together to detail an interesting bit of Hollywood history right here in our region.

As with any good Hollywood drama the story begins earlier, in this case the summer of 1958. Charles Coleman, the North by Northwest location manager, wrote the NPS inquiring about permits to film on Mount Rushmore. He lobbies hard in the letter, adding near the end that in regards to the plot of the film, “we sincerely believe it will be symbolically and dramatically satisfying to the people of the United States that this great National Memorial, standing there in all its granite glory, becomes the very stumbling block of those who would undermine our country.” Inquiries were made to the NPS Region 5 Director for his experiences when Alfred Hitchcock filmed at the Statue of Liberty (for the film Saboteur, 1942) and the reply was positive, leading the Region 2 Assistant Director to opine that “we think we can take Mr. Coleman at his word when he says he will treat the memorial with the utmost respect.” Russell Apple, park historian, was not so sure. Noting that a similar filming proposal at the Lincoln Memorial caused several cabinet members and congressmen to “raise hell,” he worried that “similar foolishness at MR [Mount Rushmore] would bring a storm of criticism on NPS heads.” There were going to have to be conditions.

Filming Proposal from MGM, 1958

Before filming on location in September 1958 an agreement was struck between the NPS and MGM. The intent was clear. No scenes of violence were to be shown on the sculpture or the talus slope, the area below the sculpture, or with those areas in the background regardless if done on location or a studio mockup. Within days of filming, however, concerned citizens alerted by newspaper articles began writing the NPS regarding the use of Mount Rushmore in the film. “Just who does the English director Alfred Hitchcock think he is that he can send another Englishman running up and down Lincoln’s face?” “Are you going to allow these crazy Hollywood producers to desecrate our National Park?” The NPS patiently replied to these letters with the details of the studio agreement and sought to assure the citizens that the film would treat the monument tastefully. In October 1958 Charles Humberger, the former superintendent of Mount Rushmore, and Don Spalding, the acting superintendent, flew to Los Angeles to meet with Hitchcock and his staff to further discuss these concerns. MGM pressed for use of the monument as a background in the violence scenes but were flatly denied. MGM then proposed to use the monument as a background but out of focus. Once again the request was shot down with Spalding and Coleman reiterating the NPS position that the filming and ultimate editing could not lead viewers to “believe that violence occurred on or near the sculpture, talus slope, or public use area.” They pointed out that a mockup of the area could be used as long as the characters only move through and no violence occurs. The studio apparently relented and agreed as Humberger and Spalding returned to South Dakota reporting that they “held the line very well indeed.” Four months later MGM wrote to Leon Evans, the new superintendent of Mount Rushmore, to confirm how the NPS wanted the credits acknowledgement to read. Everything seemed to be on track, until that is the agency screened the finished film.

Despite the agreement, scenes of violence were indeed filmed on Mount Rushmore mockups and further violent scenes used Mount Rushmore as the background. Stating that there was no intention to stop MGM from showing the film, on July 9 the NPS pressed to “make the record clear on what the agreement provided and who failed to live up to it.” On July 28, the film’s official release date, a formal protest was lodged by the Acting Secretary of the Interior requesting that the NPS acknowledgment in the film credits be removed. There was little else the NPS could do as yet another wave of angry correspondence arrived to the agency. Reflecting on the whole affair, NPS Assistant Director Hillory Tolson wrote in August 1959, “The crass violation of its permit by the company was enlightening, as well as distasteful, and will be useful in guiding us in future negotiations over motion picture permits.”

The most prescient voice in the file is that of F.C. Christopherson, editor of the Sioux Falls Argus Leader. As the sole letter in favor of the film, Christopherson argued that he saw nothing derogatory toward the monument and even went on to add that “obviously this picture is worth its weight in gold to Rushmore from a publicity viewpoint.” Fifty-five years later, as North by Northwest has slipped into the canon of classic film, the only outrage left over the inclusion of Mount Rushmore in it seems to be in this lone correspondence file in our collection.

Letter from South Dakota Senator Mundt to NPS Director Wirth, offering to enter the North by Northwest correspondence into the Congressional Record

All documents referenced and quotes come from Record Group 79, Records of the National Park Service, Accession NRG-079-99-174, “General Correspondence, Mixed, Mount Rushmore National Monument A-7619 to C-34,” NAID 651765

One thought on ““North by Northwest” Starring…Mount Rushmore?

  1. One of my favorite movies! I traveled to Rapid City S.D. from Ct. many years ago to visit the locations in the film, including Mt. Rushmore and the hotel in Rapid City.

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