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Tracking Down an Iconic Shot: Warnerville

There is one shot that is used to create tension in the seminal western High Noon (1952).

The iconic shot looks down the rails towards low hills in what is supposed to be Hadleyville, New Mexico. This shot is used seven times at slightly different heights but is shot from the same position, looking west down the rails. Below is an example from the film:

A still from High Noon looking west down the rails of the Sierra Railroad.

In reality the scene was shot on the Sierra Railroad at Milepost 16 in Warnerville, California. It was here that film crew built the Hardleyville Depot set, which is now gone. There was once a water tower which was featured in the film and this is maybe why they chose this location for the set. The water tower, which was a mainstay in the era of steam, is now gone but the concrete foundation and a small building still remain from the time High Noon was filmed here in September of 1951.

The concrete foundation is all that is left of the water tower at Warnerville. The small red building in the background still stands after 70 years. This shot is looking northeast.
Warnerville looking west toward where the noontime train would be arriving. In the foreground, to the right of the rails, was the location of the Hadleyville Train Depot set. The little red building on the left of the tracks still exists.

Warnerville is not really a town. It consists of a few farms and houses, a grade crossing, and a railroad siding. While it would be great if there was an interpretive sign pointing out the cinematic significance of this location but alas, there is none.

This still from High Noon shows the approaching noontime train, in this case the Screen Queen Sierra No. 3. The water tower and the small building that still exists are to the left of the line. The low hills in the background looks very much the same.
A still from High Noon of Sierra No. 3 pulling into the Hadeyville Depot set at Warnerville.

In the film Nigh Noon, three rough looking gunman arrive at the train station to await the arrival of the noontime train (hence the name High Noon). They are waiting for Frank Miller, who recently has been released from prison. He is coming back to exact revenge on the marshal (Gary Cooper) who put him away.

Among the three gunman, who gaze down the track expecting the noon train, is an actor making his screen debut. He does not speak a single word in High Noon, although he blows a few bars on the harmonica. This actor is Lee Van Cleef. He is best known as the “Bad” in Sergio Leone’s “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” (1968).

I arrived at the intersection of Warnerville and Crabtree Road at the Sierra Railroad grade crossing. It was 70 years ago that this location was used in High Noon. The area is a bit different from that time but it is very much the same in other ways. The line of hills had not changed much, except for an almond grove creeping up one of the hillsides (I chose not to add it to my featured sketch, sketcher’s license after all.)

I stood in between the two rails and sketched the approximate position of cinematographer Floyd Crosby’s camera. The rails looked a bit rusted enough so I was not expecting a westbound freight anytime soon. But I still checked my back from time to time because the Sierra Railroad is still an active branch line.

My only companion was a black cow grazing on grass across the road. She raised her head in between foraging and peered, without judgment, at Corvidsketcher.

Well how do you really judge the judgement of a cow after all?

A shoutout goes out to Jeff and Sarah of History Hunters for letting me know about this forgotten filming location. Thank you! Their youtube channel can be found at: http://www.youtube.com/jbenziggy

Here is a photo of my sketching position. If you compare the movie sill from the top of the post, you will notice that the distant hills look very much the same today.
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High Noon (1952)

High Noon often finds itself on the list of the Top Ten Westerns ever made.

The American Film Institute ranks High Noon as 33rd on it’s list of the 100 Greatest American Films of All Time. This is the highest western ranked on the list.

Everything came together with this film: story, direction, casting, acting, pacing, music, cinematography, and it’s allegorical meaning to it’s contemporary time.

What also made High Noon a great film are it’s filming locations. High Noon was not a western of vast vistas, filmed in the photogenic Monument Valley. The skies are not filled with dramatic cumulus clouds but rather clear, formless skies. This is a stark and gritty looking western thanks to the film’s cinematographer Floyd Crosby (father of musician David Crosby).

Most of the film was filmed on the backlot western set of Movie Ranch in Burbank, California that filled in for the fictional New Mexico town of Hadleyville. What I was most interested in was the real California locations used for the film. Most of these locations are in the Gold Country near the town of Sonora.

Sonora was to be my base camp as I explore some of the High Noon filming locations in the area, such as Warnerville, Columbia and Tuolumne City. I would be staying in the historic Sonora Inn, the preferred hotel for the many film crews and actors while filming westerns in the area. During the heyday of Hollywood westerns, the Sonora Inn had a dark room in the basement so the day’s filming could be developed. The Sonora Inn is also Clint Eastwood’s choice of lodging when filming in the area while making films such as Pale Rider (1985) and Unforgiven (1992).

Before I headed east to the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, also known as the Gold Country, I watched High Noon again and I took photos stills from the movie. I then did sketches from a few of the scenes that featured the locations around the town of Sonora. The railroad and the impending noontime train play a major part in the film. High Noon was shot and edited in real time, meaning that the time taking place in the story is synced with the real time of the film.

One shot looks down the rails towards a line of low hills (featured sketch). This shot, or ones very similar to it, appear in the film several times as a reminder of what the noon time train is bringing to the town of Hadleyville. The what is Frank Miller, a pardoned criminal that Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) sent to the jail and he is coming to exact his revenge on the town’s Marshal and the town of Hadleyville.

Kane tries to round up a posse of townspeople to help him defend the town. His request for help falls on deaf ears. In one scene, he walks to the church to get help from the congregation. The real church is St. Joseph’s Church in Tuolumne City, about 15 minutes east of Sonora.

Like the requests to other townsfolk, he finds no help from the church’s congregation. Kane will have to defend the town, which turned it’s back on it’s Marshal, all by himself.

The subtext of this film was very contemporary indeed. High Noon was written as an allegory about the blacklist in Hollywood and those who stood by and just let it happen. The writer, Carl Foreman, was eventually blacklisted because he would not name names to the House Un-American Activities Committee as the red scare enveloped Hollywood and the nation.

Nigh Noon went on to win four Academy Awards including Best Editing and Best Actor for Gary Cooper.