This time of year, attention turns to movies, between the Golden Globe awards, Oscar nominations and the annual Sundance Film Festival, where independent film is celebrated in the mountains of Utah.
Yakima County has its own brushes with Hollywood. At least four films were shot here, with one set in the Valley.
The first movie to come to Yakima County was “To Hell and Back,” based on Audie Murphy’s World War II memoir of the same name, with Murphy playing himself.
Parts of the 1955 movie were filmed at what was then Fort Lewis near Tacoma and the Yakima Firing Center, known today as the Yakima Training Center, north of Selah. The training center’s grounds were used to recreate battlefields in Sicily, Italy and France, where Murphy’s derring-do earned him every award for valor the United States could award a soldier at the time, as well as decorations from France and Belgium.
While a casual moviegoer may be able to accept the sights as European battlefields, a sharp-eyed Yakima Valley resident can spot familiar ridges and quickly recognize the sage plants that grow in and around the training center.
The movie used troops from Fort Lewis — now Joint Base Lewis-McChord — to serve as extras, sometimes wearing replica German uniforms in the battle scenes.
It is said that in one scene the production crew wasn’t happy with how the blanks being fired from a machine gun looked on film, so the Army allowed them to use live ammunition for the right effect.
The next movie was “The Hanging Tree,” a western about a doctor who comes into a Montana mining town with a secret of his own. The movie, which was Gary Cooper’s last film and the first for both George C. Scott and Ben Piazza, was filmed near Nile, at the confluence of Little Rattlesnake and Rattlesnake Creeks.
Today, Hanging Tree Campground stands where the set for the town of Skull Creek stood.
Warner Brothers Studio hired 756 local people to serve as extras in the film, and a call was put out for bearded men to play the role of hardscrabble miners in the lawless town.
Among those making blink-twice-and-you’ll-miss-it appearances in the movie were Granger Mayor Vernon Pritchard and Yakima Mayor J.K. Alderson. Local performers Dennis Hart, Shirley Henderson and Warren Bean Jr. served as stand-ins for, respectively, Piazza, Maria Schell and Karl Malden in the filming.
The movie premiered in February 1959, with showings at both the Capitol and Yakima theatres.
Granger native J. Rick Castañeda shot his 2014 indie film “Cement Suitcase” in various locations in Yakima Valley, including portions of the Lower Valley’s wine country.
The movie tells the story of Yakima Valley’s best wine salesman, and how his life is falling apart. It also features a cameo appearance by then Toppenish Police Chief Adam Diaz.
“I could not get the LAPD to appear in a film, at least not without spending a lot of money,” Castañeda said in a 2017 interview about his decision to film in the Valley.
James Franco’s 2016 adaptation of the John Steinbeck novel “In Dubious Battle” came to the Valley for the orchard scenes, as Tieton’s orchards were in better shape than the ones in drought-ravaged California.
“In Dubious Battle” depicts a strike by apple pickers in 1930s California, as well as the brutal efforts to put down the labor dispute. Franco used period farm equipment from the Central Washington Agricultural Museum, which earned both an on-screen credit as well as a donation from the production company.
It Happened Here is a weekly history column by Yakima Herald-Republic reporter Donald W. Meyers. Reach him at 509-577-7748 or email@example.com. Twitter: @donaldwmeyers.