Images of a few Yuma locations in film. From left to right: Hotel Del Sol from "The Getaway," desert from "Star Wars," and more desert from "Flight of the Phoenix"
Hollywood is known as America’s entertainment capital, so it is exciting for people outside of L.A. when the cameras roll into their hometown. That can be true for the residents of Yuma, who have seen their home displayed on the big screen many times. The films that have been shot in and around Yuma highlight the beauty and distinct qualities of Yuma, as well as put the city on the map.
Although Yuma may be considered a small city, more than 50 movies have been filmed in the area, with its clear blue skies and the desert landscape that have charmed filmmakers since the 1910s, with a variety of genres including adventure, western, sci-fi, romance, and action.
Bandit Joe and the Lovely Heroin’s Rescue (1909) is believed to be the first movie filmed in the Yuma area (Love). Movies filmed in and around Yuma include Morocco (1930), The Three Musketeers (1932), The Flight of the Phoenix (1965), Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (1983) and The Getaway (1993).
“From a joking Jerry Lewis in the Imperial Sand Dunes… to a naked Kim Basinger in the Del Sol Hotel, movies made in Yuma have often given The Sun something to write about,” said news writer Bob Werley.
A special landscape
The steady and predictable weather, the tall mountains and the desert terrain all make for a unique and picturesque background for a film. The cost is also cheaper than filming in L.A. When The Wilding was filmed here in 1990, Yuma Sun writer Patrick McCune interviewed the film’s director, Eric Louzil.
“Yuma used to be a place we just zipped on by,” said Louzil. “Then I met Yvonne Taylor of the Yuma Film Commission, who talked to me about Yuma. It’s such a hassle to film in Los Angeles. Here, there’s not all the paperwork. In Yuma, we just show up and start shooting” (McCune).
The film was shot at a variety of locations in Yuma, including a scene from a popular restaurant Lutes Casino. The most common film location, though, is twenty minutes away in the Imperial Sand Dunes, part of the Algodones Dunes, an enormous sand dune field in California that is near the border of Arizona and Mexico.
The dunes have been a film location for many movies, including Flight of the Phoenix and Return of the Jedi. The vast sand dunes are ideal for films whose stories take place in far-away parts of the world like the Sahara Desert or even on fictional desert planets.
Dan Smith of the Yuma Daily Sun wrote that the crew of Return of the Jedi, including director George Lucas, spent three weeks in the Dunes, which was the setting for the character Luke Skywalker’s home planet Tatooine.
“Lucas, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford and all the familiar Star Wars characters were seen frequently in Yuma establishments,” said Smith, “thrilling many a star-struck fan” (Smith). Many of the film crew stayed in Yuma during the filming in the sand dunes and were provided food by Yuma businesses.
Hanging with the stars
According to Werley, several well-known actors who have appeared in Yuma-area films include Rudolph Valentino (Son of the Sheik), John Wayne (The Three Musketeers), Humphrey Bogart (Sahara), Jerry Lewis (The Sad Sack) and Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger (The Getaway). In addition to working near Yuma, actors often visited local businesses, stayed in hotels, and interacted with residents.
Many eyewitness accounts tell of Yuma residents meeting actors while they were in town to work on projects. In 1990, McCune wrote about a local man, Cecil Huling, who remembered meeting Rudolph Valentino in his father’s downtown barber shop in 1926 at age 16.
Huling also met actress Marlene Dietrich, who was in Yuma to film Morocco in 1930. Huling recalled how the actress stayed in a whole suite of rooms at the San Carlos Hotel, which is now a residential apartment building in downtown Yuma.
“Hattie McDaniel, who won an Oscar for Gone with the Wind...wanted to get married in a hurry [to actor Clark Gable],” Huling added. “She was married in my mother’s house” (McCune).
Another account comes from stuntman Kenneth Cooper. After revisiting Yuma in 1975, Cooper spoke to the Sun about working with John Wayne and staying at the San Carlos while filming The Three Musketeers in 1932. Cooper said filming at the Yuma Territorial Prison was “a complete wreck, nevertheless a very interesting place. The old cells had writing on the walls put there by convicts, and a few tombstones still stood in the prison graveyard” (“Stuntman Revisits”).
Werley also wrote about meeting actors during the 1950’s and about how locals would hang out in the San Carlos and have drinks and with the stars. A few of Werley’s articles on filmmaking in Yuma feature his acquaintance with Jerry Lewis while on the set of The Sad Sack in 1957.
“The old Jerry Lewis movie Sad Sack was shot in the Imperial Dunes and Jerry ran the set,” wrote Werley. “We hit it off right away, and he welcomed me daily to the set with a ‘Hi, Bob.’”
Movie agents now try to limit the publicity by keeping local press unaware of a film’s shooting location, but Werley remembered the time when the situation was more easygoing.
Lots of extras
In the past, casting directors have sought out locals to be cast as extras, whether they had any acting experience or not. Yuma locals being cast in films goes all the way back to 1915, when two Yuma doctors and hundreds of local Native Americans were cast as extras in the film Natalie (Love).
“We’ll be using Kofa High kids, 250 of them,” said Louzil about filming Wilding. “The whole film is being made in Yuma posing as Los Angeles’” (McCune).
Rambo III (1988) was filmed near Yuma in the Imperial Valley. According to Yuma Sun writer Juan Aldape, the film’s casting team had contacted Yuma’s Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) to hire extras that would play Russian and Afghani soldiers. The height requirements for the extras ranged from 5 feet 9 inches to 6 feet 3 inches, and Marines cast in the film will be asked to work on the movie in their off-duty hours (Aldape).
Aldape, Juan. “Rambo Coming to Yuma to Finish Film.” The Yuma Sun [Yuma, AZ]. Accessed
23 Mar. 2018.
Love, Frank. “First Movie to be Filmed in Yuma Likely Was in 1914.” The Yuma Sun [Yuma,
AZ], 25 Apr. 2004.
McCune, Patrick. “Movie Making Not New Here: Yuma Supplied Haircuts, Liquor Plus People,
Places for Films.” The Yuma Sun [Yuma, AZ], 3 June 1990, p. 1, p.7.
McCune, Patrick. “Yuma Becomes LA for ‘rampage’ Movie.” The Yuma Sun [Yuma, AZ], 11
Smith, Dan. “Jedi: Adventure Returns to Yuma.” The Yuma Daily Sun [Yuma, AZ], 22 May
“Stuntman Revisits.” The Yuma Daily Sun [Yuma, AZ], 15-21 Mar. 1975.
Werley, Bob. “Roll ‘Em: Movies Shot on Location in Yuma Ranged From Joking Jerry to Naked
Kim.” The Yuma Sun [Yuma, AZ] 8 Sept. 1996.
“Yuma Film History.” Historic Coronado MotorHotel,
http://besthotelinyuma.com/yumafilm-history/. Accessed 22 Mar. 2018.