Rock Star: The True Story of the Vasquez Rocks

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Well, Sound on Sight’s Locations Month is coming to a close. A lot of good articles about iconic locations have gone up. But there’s one left. The big one. One of the most iconic and enduring locations in both film and television.

That’s right kiddies, it’s time to talk about the Vasquez Rocks.

Bandit SchoolThe rocks were formed roundabouts 25 million years ago by rapid erosion and the San Andreas Vault. That’s right, this one wasn’t cobbled together by no independent contractor or stage hand, oh no. This sucker was formed in the dawn of time by the hand of freakin’ God.

The rocks took their name from Tiburcio Vásquez, who was either a brave freedom fighter crusading against the oppressive white man or a thieving, murderous outlaw depending on who you ask. Vásquez was active around the 1870s and used the rocks as one of many hideouts to evade the law. At the height of his infamy, Vásquez was known as the “Scourge of California”. Just let that sink in.

The first use of the Vasquez rocks in film is…hard to ascertain. Around the same time in 1931, two films were released that featured the rocks: The Hard Hombre, a b-western by The Allied Pictures Corporation, a briefly lived b-studio, and the original version of Dracula starring Bela Lugosi. Both films were released in Feburary 1931, and which one filmed there first is one of those mysteries for the ages hardcore film dorks will probably argue about till the end of time.

Over the next several years, the rocks would play host to several other Western and Horror shoots, including The Werewolf of London (1935) which was actually the first mainstream werewolf movie, predating Lon Chaney’s turn as the wolfman by six years. Later in 1931, the rocks would also play host to scenes from The Texas Ranger, starring b-western legend Buck Jones (guy made an average of six b-westerns a year between 1914 and 1942).

Why were the rocks so popular? Well, location is definitely a factor. Located a few hours drive from Los Angeles, the rocks are a fairly easy to access location. Plus, well….they look really cool. Jutting out of the ground about 150 feet high at a 45 degree angle, the rocks look iconic, unique and memorable. And cool…also cool.

The advent of television at first didn’t bring too much more attention to the rocks, though it did appear in episodes of The Outer Limits, Have kirk v gornGun Will Travel, The Cisco Kid, and others.

Then in 1976 everything changed. The pop culture iconography of the Vasquez Rocks took on a whole new dimension, courtesy of a Montreal actor stage fighting badly with a guy in a rubber lizard suit, and a little show called Star Trek.

The classic Star Trek: The Original Series episode Arena filmed partially at Vasquez aired in July of 1976, and used the rocks as the backdrop for Captain Kirk’s now endlessly parodied battle with the Gorn captain. Since then, the rocks have become indelibly linked with Star Trek and nerd culture in general. To date, every Star Trek series has filmed at least once at the rocks, with the exception of Deep Space 9, because that show didn’t play by anyone’s rules but its own. The rocks are now so much a part of the visual language of Star Trek that JJ Abrams created the digital background for the planet Vulcan in his 2011 movie entirely out of the Vasquez Rocks, repeated ad infinitum. Seriously. Whole planet’s just the Vasquez Rocks going on and on forever. Or was, until Eric Bana blew it up (Spoiler alert).

The scene has been affectionately parodied at the rocks in movies including Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991), Galaxy Quest (1999) and Paul (2011), and the rocks have become one of many stops on most Trekkies favorite tourist spots, and on-screen Star Trek fans have made the trek (see what I did there?) to the rocks in shows like The Big Bang Theory and movies like Free Enterprise (1998)

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The Star Trek connection caused the popularity of the rocks to skyrocket and the distinctive peaks have become a staple of film and tv iconography ever since, with the sometimes named “Gorn Rocks” appearing in movies like Jingle All the Way (1996), Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001), Blazing Saddles (1974), Army of Darkness (1993), Austin Powers (1997), Hell Comes to Frog Town (1987) and Short Circuit (1986).

commandcenter-mountainThe rocks’ TV career has likewise continued. For the first three seasons of the series, The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers’ base was badly photo-composited into the Vasquez Rocks, with a few scant scenes being actually filmed there. The rocks have also appeared in 80s and 90s mainstays like Friends, Charmed, Sliders, Macgyver, Dinosaurs and more recently in episodes of CSI, Numb3rs, NCIS, Las Vegas and 24. Also Street Hawk and Airwolf. Not exactly mainstays but…it’s Street Hawk and Airwolf. Worth mentioning, for the theme music if nothing else.

In the world of recurring outdoor locations, the Vasquez Rocks are either the king or the guy standing just behind the king ready to knife him in the back. Sorta like the Dick Miller of locations, the image of the rocks is probably familiar to many film and TV buffs, but probably often goes unappreciated and unnamed except for “oh, it’s….that place!”. But now you, the lucky Sound on Sight reader, know the full story. Now just imagine if we could get Dick Miller to film ON the Vasquez Rocks. The universe would probably explode just from how familiar it all is.

Custom photo by Iana Ka, with many thanks

 

 

1 Comment
  1. Richard says

    I liked your article about the Vasquez Rocks. I see them in TV shows and movies all the time. I suspect that the most famous scene filmed there was the epic battle between Captain Kirk and the lizard monster (it seemed realistic when I was a little kid!). You might want to correct the date of that Star Trek episode: it was actually 1967, not 1976.

    I get the feeling that filming on that location these days mainly evokes memories of that Star Trek episode, so it’s pretty difficult to film a serious movie there. If memory serves, the first tribute to Star Trek using the Vasquez Rocks was Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, where Bill and Ted are watching that Star Trek episode, then they are hurled off the rocks by their evil robot twins.

  2. Caelum says

    Dick Miller has worked at the Vasquez Rocks at least once, for the film Executive Action in 1971 or so. He was playing one of the Kennedy assassins, and the rocks was their practice stand-in for Dealey Plaza. Years later Dick went there with his wife, just driving through, and he climbed up to where he’d been shooting his rifle in the movie and found the spent shells still there.

    Anyway, good analogy – the Dick Miller of locations. Bronson Canyon might be another contestant for that title.

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