“In Motion Pictures We Do Not Actually Dynamite the Sheep,” A Brief Look at Hollywood’s Filming History with the National Park Service

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

The United States National Park system, its scope and breadth unrivaled in the world, boasts hundreds of parks, monuments, sites, recreation areas, and even the White House within its purview. Saved from development and also federally managed, the most notable geological features within the United States have been preserved and in doing so has also created prime filming locations for Hollywood when unspoiled, natural scenes are required. Accorded its own category in the National Park Services’ (NPS) alphanumerical correspondence filing system, here are three examples of motion pictures filmed on park property that can be found in the National Archives at Denver holdings.

In September of 1949 a battle raged in No Thoroughfare Canyon at the Colorado National Monument; a battle, however, in which there were no casualties as it was a scene for the film Devil’s Doorway, released in 1950. In this first image we see the cast receiving instructions for the mock battle which took place ¼ mile inside the monument boundary. In the second image we see the filming commencing. According to the filming proposal, all scenes requiring structures such as a sheep farm were set up on leased land adjacent to the park.

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These filming requests typically contain the same documentation. There is an introductory letter in which the producer or location manager explains what will be done in the park. That is then followed up with the formal contract and deposit for damages. After the filming there is a letter from the park superintendent verifying everything was cleaned up and then oftentimes letters go back and forth clarifying the proper National Park Service byline in the film credits. In this letter from MGM Studios detailing the Devil’s Doorway filming, the producer takes the possibly unnecessary step to assuage the NPS that no sheep will actually be blown up in the park.

Letter from MGM Studios to Robert Rose, Administrative Records (NAID 602229), RG 79

Today Harrison Ford can be regarded as one of the leading actors of his generation, playing everything from the President of the United States to a swashbuckling space smuggler, yet in 1967 he was still just a struggling young actor when he received his first screen credit in Columbia Pictures A Time for Killing, originally entitled “The Long Ride Home.” Several scenes were filmed within Zion National Park, such as a covered wagon ambush on the second switchback below the Zion-Mt Carmel Tunnel as well as various scenes along the Virgin River near the Great White Throne parking lot. From the Zion National Park correspondence files (General Correspondence Files, 1950-1967, NAID 1048636) comes this stub for the $1,000 deposit check issued to the National Park Service to cover any damage. According to further correspondence the sites were cleaned up to the superintendent’s satisfaction so the original check was returned to Columbia Pictures.

Check stub for $1000 deposit, General Correspondence Files (NAID 1048636), RG 79

There have been many motion pictures with scenes filmed at the Carlsbad Caverns National Park, the park standing in for everything from a cave in Africa in King Solomon’s Mines to a cave in the old west in Cave of the Outlaws. It appears that in the 1940s and 1950s the Carlsbad Caverns were the go-to cave set location for filmmakers, including director Terry Morse of the low budget science fiction film Unknown World.

Among the film permit correspondence files within the park records (General Correspondence, 1930-1969, NAID 939395) is this script excerpt, the part of which was filmed at the cavern and possibly sent along with the request to demonstrate what was being proposed. If you secure a copy of Unknown World this scene can be viewed at the 26 minute mark.

Excerpt from Script of Unknown World, Correspondence Regarding Carlsbad National Park, 1930-53, RG 79
Excerpt from Script of Unknown World, General Correspondence Files (NAID 939395), RG 79

In all three of these cases the records seem to indicate the experience was a good one for both the National Park Service and the film studio but this wasn’t always the case; for an example of when things don’t go according to the agreed upon filming proposal be sure to check out my previous Text Message entry “’North by Northwest’ Starring…Mount Rushmore?”