Wednesday, May 9, 2012

William Holden and Richard Widmark

In 1965 Columbia Pictures came to Baton Rouge equiped and ready to make an epic post-Civil War film entitled ALVAREZ KELLY to be directed by Edward Dmytryk and starring William Holden and Richard Widmark. I was instructed to recruit about 300 grissly, lean and mean extras who could ride horses. They would be post-war renegades. Coming from the red-neck country of the Felicianas this would not be a problem. Production was to begin in about 4 weeks. Because the main location setting was to be in the Norwood area, I wasted no time getting word out in Clinton and St. Francisville and communities near by that ALL adult males who might want to appear in this film should immediately stop shaving.

About 4 weeks later Dmytryk and crew returned. I put all the grisslies on display in the Laurel street American Legion Hall. When Dmytryk saw this motley bunch he marvelled and said “We’ll take them all.”

All but one passed muster. On one particular day of the shoot, the scene for the day called for Richard Widmark to assemble his mounted agents atop a hill. At the base of the hill was a large pond. The mounted grisslies were told that their horses could not be permitted to drink any water because the scene that followed involved considerable running. One of the extras who had insisted that he could ride a horse (some wranglers and I had doubted his claim) was having some difficulty controlling his steed. The horse kept insisting on trotting downhill to the awaiting pond forcing Dmytryk to yell “Cut!.” On the 3rd take this extra’s horse began side-stepping down the hill, completely resisting his rider's efforts to restrain him. The horse got to the pond and was able to lap up several quarts of water. He and his rider were taken out of the scene. The horse was retained for future scenes; the rider was not.

Besides casting I was also asked to aide in providing crew, specifically someone who could construct a wooden bridge. My friend Bob Carter got the bridge contract. The script called for an ancient wooden bridge to cross over Thompson's Creek. It had to be strong enough to support stampeding cattle. Then after the last stampede, the bridge would be blown up (reminiscent of ”Bridge on the River Kwai”).

The detonation had to be perfect and perfectly timed since only one attempt could be made. The day before the detonation, the pyrotechnic crew began tediously weakening the bridge by sawing through key timbers and placing dynamite charges strategically throughout the structure. A cable was connected to a key support timber on the bridge and the other end was tethered to a large bulldozer on the shore which would, within the countdown, yank that key support to assure a clean collapse. The scene involved Alvarez Kelly (William Holden) running to the center of the bridge after the final stampede, then, upon signaling the blast plunger, would dive from the bridge. A stunt double would substitute for Holden and dive at the moment of detonation. From the top of the bridge to the water was about 15 feet. The stunt double was told that at the moment of detonation he would need to be in mid-air, otherwise, if still on the bridge, he would probably be killed and if in the water, the blast concussion would crack his skull. His dive was also to occur during a specific point within the countdown. The stunt went flawlessly even though poor Bob Carter, much like Alec Guinness’ Colonel Nicholson in Kwai, all but broke down and cried at witnessing the loss of his “masterpiece.”

A few weeks later Carter would be recruited to build prison compounds over the Amite River for Paramount’s “Nevada Smith” Starring Steve McQueen. More on this saga in a later post.


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