George White played an Indian chief in the movie "Smoke Signal." As his wife recalls, "his blue eyes stood out like buttons on a barn door."
Minor details. White says the Western was accurate, on the whole. In those days, 35 years ago, he says, producers did their research.White knew the producers. He also knew the directors of many classic Western movies. And he knew the movie stars, stuntmen and wranglers. But above all, he knew the land.
George White helped set the stage, and the stage was the country around Moab. With White's aid, dozens of movies and commercials have been made in Grand County over the past 40 years.
Movies came to Moab in 1949, when Harry Reed, the first ranger at Arches National Park, showed slides of the red rock scenery to producer John Ford.
At the time, Ford was three weeks away from starting production on "Wagon Master," and he decided to come to Moab.
Because White had been a rodeo cowboy and a horse breaker, because he was the state road foreman and owned a beautiful ranch on the Colorado, Ford asked his advice on sites. It was good that he asked. Says White, "He was planning on driving the wagons across the river at a place 50-foot deep, with quicksand on both sides."
White took him downstream where a sandbar lay just a few feet under the river's surface. There the crossing scene could be acted safely.
Before "Wagon Master" was completed, White found himself helping to set up a tent city for the film crew (Moab had only one motel at the time), arranging for permits on Bureau of Land Management land, turning his ranch into a set and finding extra wranglers and horses. (The wranglers and horses from Hollywood stayed at White's ranch.)
Ford came up with Native Americans on his own, through a local Irish-Navajo named Lee Bradley. "Ford liked working with Navajos real well," says White. Because "Wagon Master" was a boon to the town's economy and a lot of fun besides, White decided to try for more movies. He formed the Moab Film Commission and became the official go-between for the townspeople, federal agencies and Hollywood crews.
"We needed a go-between," he says.
Over the years, White visited Hollywood 10 times and spoke to producers at 20 different studios. After enticing a movie company into Moab, White was an effective, though less than subtle, negotiator.
For instance, once a local man's horse drowned while the movie company was renting it. Because he'd been directing the river scene, White says, "It was partly my fault, I should have known that horse's eyes looked loco to start with." When the owner asked to be paid seven times what the horse was worth, White discovered the movie company had forgotten to settle on a replacement price when they drew up their contract.
White ended the dispute by telling the owner, "You and I both know what that old wore-out saddle horse was worth. If you ever want to rent your horses in another movie you'll ask for less."
He was also blunt when Moabites complained about their salaries. ("Atmosphere," the crew called the locals who played minor roles - such as blue-eyed Indians).
"Just don't stop production," White would tell the townspeople. "Ask for more money next time."
And there always was a next time, since production was never halted mid-movie.
John Ford came back in 1950 to film "Rio Grande" with John Wayne. Other directors followed, and Moab has averaged a movie a year ever since.
Westerns such as "Cheyenne Autumn" and "The Comancheros" gave way to "The Greatest Story Ever Told" and "Space Hunters." As producers expanded their view of the desert, the same sandstone cliffs became backdrops for Mexico, then Palestine, then Jupiter.
As for White, his Western life has been both rough and rich. He walks very slowly now, hurting with arthritis in every bone the rodeos ever broke. Yet his memories please him.
He enjoyed those movie folks.
"John Wayne didn't like horses, but he sure sat one well," White remembers. "And Ford had a white handkerchief he always chewed and a lucky hat Will Rogers gave him."
His greatest respect is saved for wranglers, though. "That Johnny Judd was one of the handiest guys with a rope I about ever saw."
Beginning this month, the BLM and Grand County Travel Council will hand out brochures for self-guided auto tours of the movie-making sites around Moab.
In places on the tour you can still see pieces of a set. The fort that once framed White's ranch is gone but a wagon from "Rio Grande" and a stone chicken coop, the telegraph office in "Cheyenne Autumn" remain.
The southern mansion from "Rio Conchos" is gone, but its concrete steps are left-leading nowhere.
BLM specialist Mary von Koch wrote the tour guide and put the trail markers up. She had little trouble identifying sites where pieces of the set are left, or areas with well-known landmarks in the background. But there were many locations she'd have missed, she says, were it not for George White. He spent days walking the land with her, helping her see horses and wagons and the magic that was once a movie being made.