Monday, February 23, 2009

Remembering How the West Was Won

Featuring amazing Western scenery and a large herd of buffalo, Custer State Park in southwestern South Dakota has starred in several movies over the years. Two weeks before his 90th birthday, former Custer State Park buffalo hunter and game warden Harvey Lancaster sat down to talk with me about his part in several movies filmed in the park.

Lancaster mainly assisted in moving buffalo for "Return of a Man Called Horse" and "War Bonnet." He had much bigger roles in "How the West Was Won" and "The Last Hunt."

The 1962 epic "How the West Was Won" brought huge Cinerama cameras and a gigantic crew to Custer State Park for scenes involving the 1880 Train and two temporary "towns." The movie is the most well-known of the Cinerama pictures, which were projected onto three screens in a curved theater. Cinerama was one of the fore-runners of today's IMAX and OMNIMAX theaters.

According to Lancaster, the train scenes and a small set of buildings were filmed where the Game Lodge sewage lagoons are now near the northeast end of the Wildlife Loop Road. George Peppard and Richard Widmark figured prominently in these scenes.

"We moved trees around and planted them where they wanted," Lancaster recalled.

"How the West Was Won" included many very memorable scenes that have become classics in movie fans' memories. One of the most widely-acclaimed is a group of Indians stampeding a buffalo herd through the center of a tent village, killing people, tearing down tents and knocking over trees. "My oldest boy was one of the 'Indians' that done that," Lancaster laughed. "They had real Indians do it the first time. Well, about halfway down the hill the buffalo turned around and chased the Indians back up. So they had my boy and others dress up as Indians and do it."

During the buffalo stampede, a small wooden watertower is knocked over. I've seen still pictures of it falling and read that people remember seeing it in the movie, but curiously my DVD copy only shows the tower beginning to tip. Harvey Lancaster was doing the tipping.

"That was me on a D8 Cat (bulldozer)," he explained. "They had cardboard boxes laid out there for the stuntman on top to fall on. I told them you don't have them far enough out there, but they wouldn't listen to me. Well, I pushed it over and he missed the boxes and broke his leg."

The buffalo stampede scene, Henry Fonda hunting buffalo, and several scenes with Native Americans were filmed in a valley in Custer State Park that has become known as "Movie Draw." Just southwest of the park's buffalo corrals, the draw is bordered by red rock cliffs and marked with a highway sign listing the films made there. A small cave high up on a ridge is an easily identifiable feature that shows up in the scenes mentioned above and became a main location in the 1956 movie "The Last Hunt."

I'll post Lancaster's memories of "The Last Hunt" next.

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