Stars shine bright at Edwards

You may not know it, but Edwards Air Force Base, in California’s High Desert, is a movie star.

Well, sort of … Sometimes Edwards AFB is like an extra in the background you have to squint to notice. In other instances, Edwards AFB is a familiar face you slowly recognize with a “Hey, that’s Edwards.” Then there’s are occasions where Edwards AFB — the base, the myth, the legend — is front and center, no doubt about it.

The home of the Air Force Test Center, 412th Test Wing and the Air Force Test Pilot School, as well as NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center, may not have seemed destined for moviedom when it started out as a water stop for the Santa Fe Railroad in 1882.

In fact, the first time the military noticed the patch of land that would become Edwards AFB, it was decided that it would make a great place to bomb. Not the typical path to the bright lights of Hollywood.

It was in 1932 that Gen. Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, realizing that the increasing population of Riverside County left him with few options for a bombing range, began the process of acquiring land for just that purpose. In 1935 bombers from March Field flew to the then Mojave Field plastering the desert with incendiary devices from 10,000 feet.

Actor Charles Bronson (right) during filming of the movie “X-15” at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., in 1961. (Air Force photograph)

However, years before the desert was cratered by Gen. Arnolds’ B-18 Bolo bombers, Hollywood saw in this rugged patch of Kern County a location that could double for the Middle East or New Mexico as it began shooting silent movies such as The Ten Commandments, Ben Hur and The Santa Fe Trail  in the early 1920s.  

It was exactly the wide-open and unsettled nature of the area, the natural landing strip of the dry lakebed, as well as its proximity to the Los Angeles aerospace industry, that heralded the rise of Muroc Army Air Field to eventually become Edwards AFB in 1947.

As Edwards AFB grew, so did Hollywood’s recognition that something special was happening just north of Tinseltown. It was during its decades-long evolution from obscurity to the Center of the Aerospace Testing Universe that Hollywood realized those hangars in the High Desert (that look a lot like studio soundstages) and the pilots making history on daily basis in cutting-edge aircraft might have an interesting story to tell.

It was after World War II the relationship between Edwards AFB and Hollywood started to gain altitude.  Stars such as John Wayne, William Holden and Charles Bronson starred in movies such as Toward the Unknown, X-15, Jet Pilot, Thundering Jets, 24-Hour Alert and Towards 60,000 Feet. These movies didn’t just use Edwards AFB and the surrounding area as a backdrop for somewhere else — Edwards AFB and its goings on became the subject of the films.

Actors Ben Affleck and Bruce Willis and director Michael Bay meet retired Maj. Gen. Richard Engel, then commander of the Air Force Test Center, during filming of the movie “Armageddon” at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. (Air Force photograph)

However, it wasn’t until 1983 that Hollywood gave Edwards AFB the top billing it deserved when it shot scenes for The Right Stuff on location. The Academy Award winning movie, based on Tom’s Wolf’s same-titled book, about the space race with the Soviet Union, the seven Project Mercury astronauts and the world of test pilots, was a critical hit that firmly stamped Edwards AFB as a star.

Fast forward several years, and Hollywood switched from non-fiction to science fiction when it came to Edwards Air Force Base. Deep Impact and Armageddon both shot scenes locally in 1998. Three installments of the Transformers franchise, directed by Michael Bay, took out permits to shoot on base. Transformers, followed by Revenge of the Fallen and Dark of the Moon leapfrogged with the first two Iron Man movies, which also included scenes shot at Edwards.

Then The Man of Steel arrived, shortly afterward followed with a return to reality, when Ryan Gosling portrayed Neil Armstrong in First Man. But it was back to fantasy, most would agree, when Brie Larson portrayed an Air Force test pilot with out-of-this-world super powers in Captain Marvel. 

Edwards AFB’s next role? Hard to tell. But the with popularity of superheroes and supervillains, it seems likely to be cast in a supporting role of someone (or something) with superpowers. However, a reality check that is out-of-this-world arrives this fall, when Disney+ premiers its eight-part series, The Right Stuff, a reboot of the iconic Tom Wolfe non-fiction book.

Actor Brie Larson poses for a photo during the filming of Captain Marvel at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., in 2018. (Air Force photograph)

Oct. 21, 1956: Actor William Holden and other Hollywood personalities attended the opening of the new base theater for a screening of Toward the Unknown, which had been filmed on the base. This marked the official opening of the new base theater. (Air Force photograph)

Aug. 14, 1960: Cayuga Production Company began shooting an episode of The Twilight Zone television series on Rogers Dry Lake. The segment was titled ‘King Nine Will Not Return.’ Lakebed temperatures reached well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit as the crew filmed scenes of a B-25 supposedly wrecked on the North African desert. (Air Force photograph)

Actors Royal Dano as the minister, Kim Stanley as Pancho Barnes, Barbara Hershey as Glennis Yeager, and Sam Shepard as Chuck Yeager between takes at Edwards AFB during the filming of the motion picture The Right Stuff. (Air Force photograph)

Feb. 2, 2012: Warner Brothers wrapped up an 11-day shoot at Edwards for Man of Steel, a Superman movie starring Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Diane Lane, and Russell Crowe. This Edwards History Office file photo shows one of the on-base filming locations with some of the heavy equipment brought to Edwards for the filming. (Air Force photograph)

March 9, 1956: A Warner Brothers film crew completed three weeks of filming Toward The Unknown, the story of test pilots and their work at the U.S. Air Force Flight Test Center. The film starred William Holden, Lloyd Nolan, Virginia Leith and featured a variety of the Center’s aircraft and personnel. Additionally this movie was the very first film shown in the new Edwards Theater when it opened on Oct. 21, 1956. Cast members from the film were present for the ribbon cutting ceremony. (Air Force photograph)


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