CEDAR CITY — ​The late afternoon sun set the red hill east of town ablaze as the train from Los Angeles pulled into the Cedar City train depot in September 1949.

Audie Murphy as Ring, Wanda Hendix as Riley, and Dean Jagger as Jeff scramble on the rim of Cedar Breaks, Utah, date unspecified | Photo courtesy Wikipedia, St. George News

The movie cast and crew who had left Hollywood that morning were glad to get settled into their rooms in the El Escalante Hotel across the street from the depot. Families having dinner at the hotel restaurant tried not to embarrass themselves as they gawked at the movie stars enjoying their evening meal.

Following breakfast early the next morning actors and crew headed up Cedar Canyon to begin filming a new western at Duck Creek Ranch and Cedar Breaks.

​The stars of the film included Dean Jagger as a cowboy named Jeff Hassard on the lam for a murder he didn’t commit and Audie Murphy as his brooding son, Ring. They were hiding out in the mountains of Southern Utah breaking horses while staying out of reach of a gang seeking revenge for the killing.

Burl Ives played a supporting role as a roustabout called Lonesome who befriends the pair. And there was the rancher’s beautiful daughter Riley, played by Wanda Hendrix, who fell under the charms of the young buckeroo, Ring.

The movie was “Sierra” based on a 1937 novel “The Mountains Are My Kingdom.” It featured all the conventions of westerns of the time: a handsome cowboy, a local maiden who falls for the cowboy, good guys and bad guys, a colorful sidekick who plays the guitar, a chase, and a shootout.

A promotional poster for the 1949 movie “Sierra.” The film was shot in Iron and Kane Counties and starred Audie Murphy, Wanda Hendrix, Burl Ives, and Dean Jagger | Image courtesy Wikipedia, St. George News

What made “Sierra” unique at the time, however, was the setting of Cedar Break’s pink amphitheater and the aspen and pine of Cedar Mountain. The movie wasn’t a big hit and is largely forgotten today, but there are interesting back-stories to the production.

The first is that two unknown actors trying to get a foothold in the film business had minor roles in the movie. Their names: Tony Curtis and James Arness.

Curtis, whose real name was Bernard Schwartz, grew up in East Harlem and after serving in the Navy in World War II he pursued an acting career. His bit part in “Sierra” was one of his early roles. But it wasn’t long before he went on to fame with starring roles in films including “Some Like it Hot” with Marilyn Monroe, “Spartacus” with Kirk Douglas, and “Operation Petticoat” with Cary Grant.

Like Curtis, Arness was a World War II vet, having served as an infantryman in Europe where he was wounded at the Battle of Anzio. After a series of small roles in films like “The Thing from Another World” (in which he played the monster), he went on to fame as Marshal Matt Dillon in “Gunsmoke.”

The latter role, which lasted for 20 years on CBS, resulted in his spending lots of time in Southern Utah, as much of the TV series was filmed on location in Johnson Canyon near Kanab.

But in 1949 Curtis and Arness were nobodies, just two handsome guys trying to catch a break. Folks in Cedar City overlooked them and focused on the real stars of the film: Audie Murphy and Wanda Hendrix. Murphy was a Medal of Honor recipient and among the most decorated combat soldiers of World War II.

Audie Murphy was celebrated on the cover of Life magazine in 1945 as the most decorated soldier” in World War II | Photo courtesy Wikipedia, St. George News

A soft-spoken son of a Texas sharecropper, he had to lie about his age to get into the Army. His exploits landed him on the cover of “Life” magazine and made him the poster boy for the GI’s who fought in World War II. But Murphy suffered from what we today call post-traumatic stress disorder.

He was plagued with insomnia and bouts of depression, dependent on sedatives, and slept with a loaded pistol under his pillow. His fame opened the door to a film career, which he hoped “Sierra” would advance.

His co-star, Wanda Hendrix, was an emerging talent who had fallen in love with Murphy and married him earlier that year. It was thanks to Hendrix that Murphy got his lead role in “Sierra.” But during that fall of 1949, in addition to the drama playing out in front of the cameras, there was drama playing out behind the scenes, as Hendrix’ and Murphy’s marriage was in trouble, not least because of Murphy’s combat flashbacks which terrified her.

Another emerging star of the movie was Burl Ives. By 1949 he was already a popular singer of folk songs on the CBS Radio Network, but his movie career was just getting started. He had attended college for a couple of years, where he played lineman for the football team, but during the Great Depression he knocked around the country as an itinerant singer, playing the banjo and doing odd jobs to stay afloat.

Despite his charisma and silky-smooth voice he occasionally got himself into trouble, including the time he was jailed in Mona, Utah for vagrancy and for singing a “bawdy ballad”.

Burl Ives played the sidekick character role of Lonesome in ‘Sierra.’ He shot other movies on Cedar Mountain and went on to national fame as both a singer and movie actor | Photo courtesy Wikipedia, St. George News

(The song, “Foggy Dew,” is an old English folk tune that employs double-entendre to tell the tale of a servant maid who forfeits her virtue to a wandering troubadour.)

But the local extras on Cedar Mountain didn’t hold that against him, and some of the wranglers were happy to share whiskey shots with Ives as compensation for his singing around the campfire when the day’s work was done.

After spending four days shooting scenes on Cedar Mountain, the cast and crew moved on to Kane County, where they spent the next two weeks shooting scenes in Kanab Canyon before returning to Hollywood to finish the film. “Sierra” was distributed by Universal Pictures and played to mixed reviews. Audie Murphy’s star power brought audiences to theaters but it was otherwise a forgettable film.

The drama behind the scenes between Murphy and his co-star/wife Wanda Hendrix continued to fester until the couple divorced two years later. Hendrix hoped to hit the big time but after a series of B movies, she went on to play supporting roles on television shows like “My Three Sons” and “Bewitched” as her name slowly faded from Hollywood’s bright lights.

In the coming years, Burl Ives’ star rose. His recordings of “Lavender Blue,” “Blue Tail Fly,” and “A Little Bitty Tear” were huge hits. And his film career took off with increasingly prominent movie roles in “East of Eden,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” and “Ensign Pulver,” for which he won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Two of his vocal performances remain popular to this day.

His rendition of “A Holly Jolly Christmas” and his narration as “Sam the Snowman” in the stop-motion Christmas special “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” play in broadcasts every holiday season since 1964.

James Arness, who went on to fame as Marshall Matt Dillon, also had a bit part in ‘Sierra,’ filmed in Southern Utah | Photo courtesy Wikipedia, St. George News

Audie Murphy went on to a successful movie career, including the widely praised film “To Hell and Back” based on Murphy’s book of the same name in which he wrote of his experiences during the war. He continued to battle his demons and to his credit, later in life spoke candidly about his own struggles with post-traumatic stress to draw attention to the problems of veterans returning from the Korean and Vietnam Wars.

Tragically, he died in 1971 at age 46 in a plane crash in Virginia. He was buried with honors at Arlington National Cemetery where his grave is to this day among the most visited.

During the time the cast and crew of “Sierra” were in Kanab, Utah secretary of state Heber Bennion visited the set and presided over a ceremony celebrating the silver anniversary of filmmaking in Utah. Serendipitously, Utah’s film industry had begun in Cedar City 25 years earlier.

It had all begun in 1924 when the biggest cowboy star of the 1920s, Tom Mix, arrived in town with his “Wonder Horse Tony” and his “best gal” Doris May to film “Deadwood Coach.” A crowd of Cedar City kids (including my father) and their parents cheered as Mix stepped from his train coach at the Cedar City depot. One can’t help but wonder if the irony of real cowboys cheering a pretend cowboy was lost on either Tom Mix or the good people of Iron County.

Tom Mix was the first movie star cowboy, seen here with his trusty Wonder Horse Tony. He came to Cedar City in 1924 to film ‘Deadwood,’ the first movie shot in Southern Utah. It was filmed at Cedar Breaks, Bryce Canyon and Zion Canyon | Photo courtesy Wikipedia, St. George News

“Deadwood Coach” was filmed at Cedar Breaks, Bryce Canyon, and Zion Canyon. The film was a hit and millions of people around the country were introduced to the beautiful scenery of Southern Utah. “Sierra” was just one of dozens of films shot in the area in the years to come.

While it was John Ford who introduced the world to the scenic canyons of southeastern Utah, other directors put Southern Utah’s Color Country on the world stage in countless westerns and movies as varied as “Planet of the Apes,” “The Conqueror,” and “The Flintstones.” Who knows what the next century of filmmaking in Southern Utah will bring.

Editor’s note: Sources for this article include “When Hollywood Came to Town: A History of Moviemaking in Utah” by James D’Arc (2010), the archives of the Iron County Record, and biographical information found on the actors and movie on Wikipedia.

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