The summer is upon us. And I mean the actual summer -- the solstice occurs this Sunday, public school is letting out, etc. -- rather than the summer movie season, which has been in effect for more than a month. This means a lot of us are planning vacations, and some of us film nerds are picking destinations we've seen in the movies. Or, maybe the cheap cinephiles are picking films with which to pretend they're traveling to some unreachable location.

Either way, maybe your aim is as broad as tracing a cross-continental trip made by the Griswolds, whether through America or Europe. Maybe you want something more specific, like a trip to Vegas. Perhaps so precise as a stay at the Klondike Hotel & Casino, where you hope to gamble on your skill for games like War and Rock-paper-scissors (unfortunately the Klondike is gone, and they didn't really have those ridiculous games anyway).

Every year I contemplate heading up to Mount Rushmore, due to my love of Hitchcock's North by Northwest. I never make it up there, and I doubt I'll do it anytime soon, because it's a fairly isolated place. If I had the money and time and was obsessed enough, maybe I'd follow Roger Thornhill's entire trip from New York to South Dakota. But I can't imagine flying up there just to see the monument, which might only take about two minutes to appreciate in person.
Besides, who needs to actually visit a location when you can experience it virtually through cinema? After so many viewings of North by Northwest, I almost feel like I've actually been to Mount Rushmore. All I need is to Photoshop myself and my family into a shot of the landmark for physical "proof" and to fool ourselves into a false memory, a la the terrific gag in The Truman Show ("It looks so small..." "Things always do when you look back.").

Well, there is something special about standing right where Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint and James Mason stood. Even if you can't legally go atop the presidential sculptures -- and even if none of the cast really went up there either.

Establishing Shot

Let's start out with a little bit about both the location and its depiction in the film. Despite what you may have learned from National Treasure: Book of Secrets, the giant relief sculpture of Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln was not established in order to hide a nearby city of gold. It was carved into the mountain -- named rather casually in 1885 after New York lawyer Charles E. Rushmore, who was doing business in the Black Hills area -- apparently just to promote tourism in South Dakota. The project began in 1925, was taken over by the U.S. National Park Service in 1933 and was completed (though not finished, according to original plans to include the men's torsos) in 1941.

Seventeen years later, Mount Rushmore received its breakout role in North by Northwest, figuring prominently and iconically in the film's climax. First it appears in the background of multiple scenes taking place at the base, including in the monument's cafeteria. Shortly thereafter it is completely the setting and backdrop for a thrilling escape by Grant and Saint from the villain's mountainside home down through -- and often clinging from -- the sculpted faces. During the chase two bad guys fall from Rushmore to their deaths.


During a meeting between Hitchcock and screenwriter Ernest Lehman, who'd been hired by MGM to adapt The Wreck of the Mary Deare for the director, Lehman admitted he didn't know how to write it. So, Hitchcock scrapped his plan to make the picture (Michael Anderson did it instead) and told the writer to script something based around a chase sequence across the faces of Mount Rushmore. From that, North by Northwest was born -- or so the legend goes, at least:

At first, though, that sequence wasn't to be the climax, which instead would be set in Alaska. However, there was always the idea that the film's title might reference Rushmore. Imagine the classic being called "The Man in Lincoln's Nose," or some variation of this, had there really been a scene, devised by Hitchcock, featuring Cary Grant accidentally giving away his hiding place by sneezing in a cave located inside Honest Abe's nostril.

Hitchcock's desire to showcase the monument isn't surprising given that he seems to have felt the same way about locations as he did actors: the more recognizable the better. His use of famous landmarks had been well established in the narrative precursor to North by Northwest with a climactic scene atop the Statue of Liberty in the 1942 wrong-man thriller Saboteur. A year prior to North by Northwest, Hitchcock employed the Golden Gate Bridge in the background of a significant scene in Vertigo (though not the climax).

When it came time to film at Mount Rushmore, the National Park Service and the Department of the Interior objected to scenes involving violence on or around the landmark as well as any depiction of an actor in conjunction with the monument's sculpted faces -- this was considered to be desecration of a National Memorial -- and even revoked the production's shooting permit. The government also prohibited these scenes from being filmed with a replica of Mount Rushmore constructed in a studio.

Hitchcock did of course end up using a mock-up back in Hollywood, and of course he did include the violence atop the fake monument (he wasn't a fan of being told what he couldn't do). This brought a lot of controversy to the film and both MGM and the MPAA received letters of complaint from the Interior Department, which claimed the film went against their agreement and that in general the Production Code should "consider the appropriateness" of films set in national parks. (For a lengthier and more detailed telling of the controversy, check out this American Experience supplement.)


In the end, there is no doubt Hitchcock did the Interior Department and this park specifically a favor in showcasing Mount Rushmore so memorably in North by Northwest. Though apparently there has been more of a problem with visitors going into restricted areas since the film's release, there have also been a great many tourists who visited the monument solely because they saw it in this film. Like many of Hitchcock's work, North by Northwest partly functions as a vacation ad. In fact, the first trailer for the film literally treats it as such:

I probably wasn't first exposed to Mount Rushmore through North by Northwest. That introduction was likely made with a textbook, or if through a movie, more likely Superman II. But Hitchcock's film certainly left a greater impression of the monument on me, and that's another reason the Interior Department should be grateful. So many other films have exploited Rushmore for silly gags that, even if not violent, are more desecrating.

Somewhat following North by Northwest's lead, the monument has occasionally been used for a secret lair -- though mostly heroes make their base there instead of the bad guys (as in Team America: World Police). Too often there is a visual joke involving the substitution or addition of faces to the sculpture. In Superman II, the trio of supervillains easily zaps their own images onto the monument, while in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier and Head of State a fifth face is shown to have been sculpted (unfortunately it is never Susan B. Anthony, who at one time was a proposed fifth figure). Then again, Hitchcock wasn't against the gag, as you can see in the poster above. Other visual allusions have been made to the landmark and/or its depiction in North by Northwest in such films as Richie Rich and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

Until the National Treasure sequel, North by Northwest also likely had the most prominent and lengthy employment of Mount Rushmore for a feature film. But even if the newer movie surpasses the latter in screen time (I'm not certain it does) and its production had greater cooperation from the Park Service (it would appear so), it's yet another hokey exploitation of the monument that fails to match the gorgeous portrayal in Hitchcock's film. If you want to appreciate the landmark and can't physically get to it, North by Northwest is the film to use for your virtual trip, regardless of the fact most shots aren't of the real deal. And when I finally make it up there to South Dakota, I'll be sure to tell 'em Hitch sent me.
categories Columns, Cinematical