A Historiographic Approach to Old Tucson

Josh Gleich examines the value and limitations of historical records that will inform his cross-disciplinary study of Old Tucson Studios.

Clearly archival film history is not a new trend, but it has achieved a growing importance in the analysis of cinematic geography. Work by Mark Shiel on Hollywood and Los Angeles’ intertwining development, Daniel Steinhart on runaway production in Europe, and Ross Melnick on Hollywood’s global exhibition business, all draw attention to the industrial decision making processes that drive the American film industry’s spatial practices.1Mark Shiel, Hollywood Cinema and the Real Los Angeles. London: Reaction Books, 2012; Daniel Steinhart, Runaway Hollywood: Internationalizing Postwar Production and Location Shooting. Berkeley: U. of California Press, 2019 (forthcoming). Ross Melnick, “Salisbury Stakes: Twentieth Century-Fox, Segregated Cinemas, and the Making of an International Crisis in Colonial Zimbabwe, 1959-1961.” Cinema Journal. Vol. 55, No. 3, Spring 2016, pp. 90-116. I take a similar historiographical approach to an ancillary studio, Old Tucson, a site that offers controlled conditions to efficiently shoot a specific genre, the Western. Old Tucson effectively hybridized studio and location production. Akin to a Hollywood backlot, it housed Western streetscapes (and later a soundstage) along with production equipment and wardrobe; yet situated in the Tucson mountains, it offered a natural, dramatic background, surrounded by a diverse landscape of Western locations that could be conveniently exploited by visiting crews.

Old Tucson letterhead circa 1971

Old Tucson has kept valuable production records, maintained its architectural footprint, and preserved many of its Western building fronts and interior sets to support its program as a tourist attraction, a production space, and a historical landmark for filmmaking. Cross-referenced with other archives, my research will add any number of points to maps and other visualizations, but it further promises to illustrate what geography alone cannot: namely, how filmmakers pre-visualized and rationalized the Southern Arizona landscape to make it conducive to cinematic production and to efficiently exploit its Western iconography.

Chris Lukinbeal’s description of building as a seemingly concrete map inferentially assembled from an incomplete data set is quite similar to the process of writing an archival history of film production. Production records for a given film depend widely on its release date, its studio, the creative personnel who worked on the film, and the nature of the archive. For instance, Old Tucson’s internal archive is far more extensive in terms of more recent films, whereas the opposite is true for major Hollywood archives like the Margaret Herrick Library. Choosing Old Tucson as our subject provides a discrete set of films and limits our geographical range, but we have nowhere else to turn when key productions leave limited documentary evidence behind. Trade journals, oral histories, and the films themselves can partially make up for the lack of a paper trail, each with familiar caveats.

Instead of focusing on these common historiographical issues, I would like to describe the range of documents typically found in production records that offer the most reliable evidence of key phases in the process of choosing, using, and assessing studio and location sets beyond the Hollywood backlots. Each document type has inherent strengths and weaknesses, but taken together, even across different productions, they can support a compelling case for studio- and industry-level methods and their impact on the cinematic landscape as it appears onscreen. Hombre serves as an illustrative example.

Location surveys offer some of the most compelling evidence for how and why a given site was considered for filming during the preproduction phase. In the case of Hombre, both Tucson and Tombstone, two hours southeast of Tucson, were considered. These surveys can be informal documents, ranging from a list of locations needed and the scenes involved or an extensive summary of a scouting trip and decisions and suggestions made by key personnel. But even minor details suggest varying levels of geographical precision in location scouting. For certain scenes in Hombre, specific vegetation, like Joshua trees and Yuccas, and actual sites, like the White Mountains, are explicitly cited. Yet for much of the film, “Hilly Country” was the only descriptive, allowing filmmakers greater flexibility within a generic subcategory of Western scenery.2Location Survey. Nov. 1, 1965. Hombre—Breakdown 1965. 13.f-133. Martin Ritt Papers. Margaret Herrick Library. Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Production budgets, particularly detailed ones, can document a range of location expenses, including transportation, lodging, and site rentals. These can be productively compared to similar films (i.e. star-driven westerns) and related expenses, like set construction, in order to discern patterns or cost differentials that made Tucson relatively advantageous or disadvantageous for production. As is often the case in filmmaking, it can be difficult to surmise where aesthetic choices end and economic ones begin, absent the rare memo that outlines this form of decision making. Furthermore, these are planning documents which may not anticipate difficulties once filming begins.

Shooting schedules, which often straddle the pre-production and post-production phases, provide some of the greatest detail on how productions sought to efficiently balance shooting on location, at offsite studios like Old Tucson, with shooting on Los Angeles soundstages and back lots. These records not only help identify the specific geography of a given scene, but also suggest what types of scenes favored locations over professional facilities. They identify points of emphasis and potentially difficult scenes through the number of days spent at a given site and the number of script pages to be shot. Shooting schedules are often updated due to delays or script changes during production. As the primary production site for Hombre, Old Tucson’s archive held a later version of the schedule than that found in the Martin Ritt Papers at the Herrick Library.3Revised Shooting Schedule. March 7 1966. Hombre Folder. Old Tucson Studios Files; Shooting Schedule. December 27, 1965. Hombre—Production 1965-1967. 13.f-138. However, like budgets, shooting schedules often record best-laid plans later derailed by bad weather, equipment problems, slow progress, and in the case of Hombre, an illness that spread among the cast.4Harry Caplan. Hombre: Recapitulation of Loss in Time. Und. Hombre—Production 1965-1967.

Daily production reports, typically completed by the assistant director, reveal the actual speed of production and denote, albeit briefly, any extraordinary delays. When a production goes over schedule and in turn, over budget, these reports indicate where time was lost and in turn, which locations proved particularly difficult. Indeed, troubled productions offer the best documentation of how filmmakers balance aesthetic goals for locations and economic imperatives, and they often leave behind a wider trail of documents. Hombre fell 35 days behind schedule and crept at least $1 million dollars over budget, prompting a plaintive memo from Twentieth-Century Fox producer Richard Zanuck to director Martin Ritt and in turn, a detailed accounting of every day lost due primarily to overcast weather and secondarily, to an illness effecting three cast members for multiple days, including the lead, Paul Newman.5Telegram from Richard Zanuck to Martin Ritt. Und. Hombre—Production 1965-1967; Harry Caplan. Hombre: Recapitulation of Loss in Time. While poor planning by Ritt and company may have been to blame, Old Tucson apparently suffered the consequences. Fox waited almost a decade to shoot another feature at the studio.

In conclusion, I would like to share a set of cartographic questions that Chris Lukinbeal developed during the writing of his post and suggest the questions associated with each that govern my own approach as a film industry historian sifting through production records.

  • Cartography: What made this landscape become a Western film production site?
  • Industry History: Why did Hollywood frequently choose this location over others?


  • Cartography: Was a film site used only once or re-used through routinized production practices by a location scout?
  • Industry History: Why was a site frequently or infrequently used? What was the cost/benefit of certain locations over others?


  • Cartography: What are the cultural and physical landscape characteristics found at different production sites?
  • Industry History: What are the production values and production efficiencies associated with given sites?


  • Cartography: Are iconographic cultural and physical Sonoran landscape features found at specific location production sites or are their generic features found amongst many sites?
  • Industry History: How do generic and specific backdrops popularly used in the Western genre inform the choice of locations?

In short, an archivally based, industrial history of production at and around Old Tucson Studios seeks to uncover a larger paradigm for decision making that led to a given pattern of location use and in turn, a typical iconography. In many ways, this moves in the opposite direction of a cartographic approach, which assesses the overall pattern of site use and scenography to discover trends in location shooting. Ideally, these cross-directional approaches will help fill in the gaps in our data and the limitations of each disciplinary method. Inevitably, they will also create contradictions, opposing interpretations, and some methodological ambiguity, topics that we plan to discuss in the next issue of Mediapolis.

The authors wish to thank Old Tucson Studios for graciously providing regular access to their archive and facilities, as well as generous assistance. You can see Chris Lukinbeal’s contribution and the overview of their project elsewhere in this issue.


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