So many films have been filmed on the Sierra Railroad that it is known as the “Movie Railroad”.
The railroad originated as a branch line connecting the Central Valley, where the mainline is located, to the Gold Country to the east. The construction of the railroad started in 1897 at the Southern Pacific Depot at the town of Oakdale. Seven months later the line reached Jamestown, 41 miles away. In 1899, the line was extended to Sonora, the county seat, and by the turn of the century, the line ran further east to Tuolumne.
The town of Jamestown was where the Sierra Railroad established its headquarters and it’s maintenance shops. This part of the railroad now exists and is preserved as Railtown 1897 State Historic Park. The roundhouse still stands and it houses three historic steam locomotives that still are operable today. The star of the roundhouse is Sierra No. 3, a 2-6-0 Mogul type locomotive that is considered to be the most photographed locomotive in the world. She was built in 1891 in Patterson, New Jersey. This locomotive has a look that appealed to Hollywood and heyday of westerns. No. 3 appeared in over 100 films and television shows over the years including My Little Chickadee, High Noon, Bound For Glory, Little House on the Prairie, Petticoat Junction, Back to the Future III, and Unforgiven.
The Sierra Railroad and No. 3 have appeared in three movies that where nominated for Best Picture: High Noon (1952), Bound For Glory (1976), and Unforgiven (1992). Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven won Best Picture, Best Director (Eastwood), Best Supporting Actor (Gene Hackman), and Best Editing (Joel Cox).
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.