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for people who care about the West

Rants from the Hill: Out on Misfits Flat

 

“Rants from the Hill” are Michael Branch’s monthly musings on life in the high country of western Nevada’s Great Basin Desert.

The quintessential Nevada film is John Huston’s 1961 picture The Misfits, starring Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift. The movie had its origins in playwright Arthur Miller’s trip to Nevada in 1956. While doing his requisite six weeks’ Nevada residency in order to divorce his first wife so he could marry Marilyn Monroe, Miller closely observed the landscapes and people of Nevada, including witnessing a wild horse roundup out on the Smoke Creek Desert. He documented his Nevada experience in the short story “The Misfits,” which appeared in Esquire magazine in October, 1957, and which he subsequently rewrote as a screenplay he described as a “valentine” for Monroe, for whom he wrote the starring role of Roslyn Tabor.

The plot of this dark film might be summarized as follows. Roslyn, a fragile, lost woman seeking a divorce, comes to Reno, where she meets three lost men—three different sorts of cowboys—each of whom is also in escape mode and all of whom soon fall in love with her. This odd crew remains impressively drunk most of the time. At last they head out into the desert to hunt wild horses in a roundup so violent and tragic as to compel the realization that the values of the Old West, now gone forever, have been replaced by nothing but uncertainty, instability, and loneliness.

Sound fun? The story gets better. In addition to the production of The Misfits being an over-budget and behind-schedule nightmare of emotional volatility, psychological pressure, drug addiction, alcoholism, and excessive gambling on the part of cast and crew alike, the picture now has an over-hyped but irresistible reputation for having crushed or killed many of the people associated with it. The highly publicized Miller-Monroe marriage imploded during the making of the film, as Monroe spiraled downward into narcotics addiction. Gable, who at age 59 insisted on doing many of his own stunts, said of Monroe on the last day of shooting, “Christ, I’m glad this picture’s finished. She damn near gave me a heart attack.” The next day he did suffer a heart attack, and ten days later he was dead. The Misfits was also the final film for Monroe, who died of a probable suicide in the summer of 1962. Monty Clift survived a few years longer than his co-stars, but the film nevertheless plays a strange role in the story of his demise. The Misfits was on television on the evening of July 22, 1966. Asked by his companion if he wanted to watch it, Clift headed off to bed with a curt reply: “Absolutely not.” Those were his last words. By morning he was dead at age 45. Monroe was only 36.

Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable on the set of The Misfits.


I call The Misfits the quintessential Nevada film because it so powerfully dramatizes the restlessness and uncertainty of whatever the New West is and is still becoming. Miller insightfully described Nevada as a fascinating, alien place inhabited by people who had in common only that they had come here to “escape something somewhere.” “In a way they were free people,” Miller observed decades later, “but they were unfree in the sense there was an unrequited longing for something they couldn’t name.” “Misfits” are these free yet unfree people, who remain trapped between a troubled past and an uncertain future, between the erasure of the iconography of independence associated with the Old West and the radical mobility and instability of the New West. They have managed to escape the encumbrances and responsibilities that burden most of us, but in severing those ties they have also come unmoored, set adrift in the chartless immensity of Nevada’s sagebrush ocean.

The landscape of the Great Basin is crucial to the film, both thematically and visually. Miller was fascinated by the fact that in this wild desert “the people were so little and the landscape was so enormous.” “They were practically little dots,” Miller said, “and you felt that with them. They were like specks of dust across the road.” Speaking as one of those specks, I agree that the existential reality of life in the Great Basin is a matter of scale—both a temporal and spatial scale within which the illimitable openness of the big empty offers a constant argument for our own inconsequentiality. This is the realization the unhomed characters in The Misfits seek desperately to avoid but must ultimately face.

Crucial to the film is the place where Roslyn and her three men finally confront this loss: a remote “playa”—what we call the vast alkali flats in the basins between desert mountains—that is the site of the dramatic wild horse roundup that concludes the film. It is a painful scene in which the tools of the New West (an airplane and a truck) are used to capture six wild mustangs, which are to be sold for a pittance and unheroically rendered into dog food. Although the horses are ultimately released after Rosyln breaks down while witnessing their cruel treatment, it is clear that the Old West is headed for the meat grinder just the same, and that nobody has the slightest idea what to do about it, or how they’ll endure whatever comes next.

As an admirer of this desperate film, and as a man desperate for an excuse to skip work and go hoofing in the desert, I decided to try to find the spot where this dark crescendo of The Misfits was shot. I discovered that the mustanging scene had been filmed on a playa near the waterless wide spot of Stagecoach, out in Lyon County. Unlike 90% of Nevada, this playa turned out to be privately held land, which meant that an unauthorized visit could be hazardous to my health. Who in hell owns their own desert? Eventually I tracked down the owner, whom I’ll call “Lester,” not only because that’s the perfect name for a guy who owns his own desert, but also because that happens to be his real name. Lester agreed to meet me in Carson City to tell some stories and give me access to “Misfits Flat,” which is what this unnamed desert playa came to be called after it was fatally associated with Miller and Huston, Monroe and Gable.

Before leaving the Ranting Hill for the Carson Valley I invited my friend Cheryll to ride shotgun. She’s an expert on Nevada literature and has a passion for the Huston film; even more important, she wears a bright red snow suit that looks cool out on playas, where the bone white immensity of snow and sand constantly threatens to diminish humans to invisibility. Cheryll and I met Lester at a little Vietnamese restaurant, where by the time we arrived he was eating a big bowl of hot-peppered pho and drinking beer. He soon began to reel off amazing stories about his life both before and since coming to Nevada. Lester had been a good kid who in the mid-sixties jumped the ship of middle-class respectability to join the freaks in Haight-Ashbury. When the scene in the Haight began to commercialize he lighted out for the territory, where he became a Yosemite big wall climber who routed pitches with rock legends including Galen Rowell, Dick Long, and TM Herbert. Moving from stone to water, he later lived in Santa Cruz, where he became a skilled sailor. Only after these and other adventures did Lester make his way to the backcountry of Nevada, where he became a world champion in what he calls “dirt boating,” a slang term for “land sailing,” which is a challenging sport that from my point of view amounts to racing insanely across the playa at speeds up to 100 mph in a three-wheeled go-cart driven by desert winds that fill a giant sail riding atop it.

When we asked Lester how he came to own Misfits Flat, he said only that he reckoned it would be easier to buy it than to see it posted with No Trespassing signs. No further comment. He had purchased the 2,000-acre tract from the Flat’s long-time owners, who still had the handwritten receipt showing how much the studio had paid for the right to shoot The Misfits there in the summer and fall of 1960. I broke out a printed satellite map of the area and over another beer Lester annotated it for us, indicating various shooting locations. He then gave us directions, the combination to his gate, and permission to spend the afternoon on Misfits Flat.

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Sign for Misfits Flat. Photo by Michael Branch.

To get to Lester’s desert you roll east from Carson out “The Loneliest Road in America” (the official designation of highway 50), past the Moonlite Bunny Ranch brothel, and eventually turn onto what I’ll call “Breakaheart Road,” not only because that’s the perfect name for the route to a place called Misfits Flat, but also because that happens to be its real name. After bouncing and weaving the truck through the potholes, washboard, and frozen mud of what might just as well have been called Breakaspine Road we came to Lester’s gate, with its hand-painted sign. Leaving the truck there, Cheryll and I walked through the snow and sage onto a knoll where we had a good view of the expansive playa where the film’s indelible mustanging scenes were shot.

Looking out across that snow-dusted alkali flat to the jigsaw-cut mountains beyond, I had a compelling feeling that I’d been to this remote place before. And of course I had, but only because a band of misfit writers and actors were here a half century before me. To the west I picked out the pointed peak against which I could picture a particular moment in the film, one in which a roped stallion rears, tethered to and towering over two doomed cowboys who are standing on their own long shadows.

Scene from The Misfits.

 

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Michael Branch's photo of the same location.

To the east we saw the double-knolled ridge beneath which so much of the picture’s final scene was shot—and it had to be shot eastward because these were afternoon shoots, and they had to be afternoon shoots because Monroe routinely arrived on set hours behind schedule. We also make out the gently sweeping desert ridgeline that was etched behind the most dramatic shot in the film, an unforgettable long shot in which the emotionally brittle Rosyln, played by a Monroe who was at least as emotionally brittle as her character, is a tiny speck of dust completely alone out on the playa, shrieking into space. I recreate the camera position for the shot while Cheryll, in her red snow suit, jogs out on the snowy playa to about where the long dead, eternally youthful Norma Jeane Mortenson once stood, screaming her beautiful blonde head off.

Marilyn Monroe scene from The Misfits.

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Michael Branch's friend Cheryll re-enacting the shot.

Arthur Miller claimed that we rural Great Basinians are driven out into these unpeopled desert expanses by an unnameable and unrequited longing, that we’re trying to “escape something somewhere.” Maybe this is the same longing that drives a kid from the suburbs to the hit the streets of Haight-Ashbury and scale the walls of Yosemite and tack the swells off Santa Cruz and buy his own desert so he won’t have to see No Trespassing signs. Maybe this is also the longing that carried me into the beautiful desolation of the high desert, where I can rant in solitude and freedom, screaming my damned head off, like Marilyn Monroe with whiskey and a beard. But if Miller was right that we are the misfits who’ve washed up on the barren shores of these dry lakes, he missed the most important part of the story, which is that we love it here. To us, these dry wilds are home.

Miller and Huston tried to script and shoot the death of the Old West out here on Misfits Flat, but to be in this place is to experience an expansiveness and light that doesn’t give a damn about that. Even the poignant loss dramatized in the film is a human-scale emotion that the immensity of the land won’t abide. I’m reminded of the moment in The Misfits when Roslyn is asked if she’s ever been outside of Reno. “Once I went to the edge of town,” she replies. “Doesn’t look like there’s much out there.” Gay Langland, the free-spirited old cowboy played so perfectly by Clark Gable, replies with a simple insight that any misfit desert ranter can understand: “Everything’s there.”

Bouncing out Breakaheart Road at dusk, we see six dark mustangs threading their way through the snowy sage.