A glimpse of the reel West


courtesy Lone Pine Film Festival

An iconic location from the 1948 Western film Yellow Sky, starring Gregory Peck and Anne Baxter.

Just a few hours outside Las Vegas, two film festivals offer the chance for a nice weekend getaway while catching some interesting movies in unique locations. The Laughlin International Film Festival, held October 4-7 at the Stadium 9 Cinemas in the Laughlin Outlet Center, showcases new independent feature and short films, and has become a staple of the Laughlin and Bullhead City community since it began in 2012.

A little further away (but still just about a four-hour drive) in Lone Pine, California, the Lone Pine Film Festival, held October 4-6, celebrates the small town’s heritage as a favorite shooting location for Westerns (more than 700 movies were shot there), with a festival that combines screenings of vintage Westerns and tours of the locations where classic movies were filmed.

Mara Karsen and her filmmaker son Erik Karsen Puhm co-founded LIFF (along with the late Dave Davidson) and still run the festival, having worked to build a following among residents who initially didn’t understand the appeal of this kind of event. “The first few years it was difficult to get the community to come, because they just weren't really sure,” she says. “But over the years, through word of mouth and people coming and seeing some of the great works, we get a good buzz now every year.”

This year includes an expanded slate of international films, plus a few selections with ties to Las Vegas, including the documentary Cracking Aces: A Woman’s Place at the Table, which tells the story of the first women to break through as professional poker players, with a focus on tournaments like the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. As the festival has established itself, it’s built up a following of filmmakers who regularly submit their work. “We get a lot of returning filmmakers that really like the festival, they like the people they’ve met, they like the venues,” Karsen says. “And that was what we really aimed for.”

The Lone Pine Film Festival is celebrating its 29th year, and in the beginning, classic stars like Roy Rogers and Gene Autry would attend. But as those stars have passed away, the festival has shifted to a focus on history and heritage. “We’re not a celebrity-driven festival any longer,” says festival director Robert Sigman. “We look at our legacy and our history and our heritage, in terms of the films that were made.” Sigman has enlisted Turner Classic Movies personality Ben Mankiewicz as a festival host for the last few years, helping connect to a younger audience.

Highlights at Lone Pine this year include the little-seen 1930 John Wayne film The Big Trail; the 1939 historical epic Gunga Din, an “Eastern” that was shot in Lone Pine and will be accompanied by a tour led by Bill Chemerka, author of Gunga Din: From Kipling’s Poem to Hollywood’s Action-Adventure Classic; and The Divide, a new film made by veteran character actor Perry King, about an aging cowboy dealing with dementia. “I thought it would be a really good movie to tie [in] something a little more contemporary but still passionate about Westerns,” Sigman says.

The festival is connected to the Lone Pine Museum of Western Film History, which was founded in 2012 thanks to a sizeable donation from noted Las Vegan Jim Rogers, who contributed both funding and items from his private collection. “Jim was a great supporter of the Western culture,” Sigman says, and that support has allowed the museum and the festival to thrive even after Rogers’ passing in 2014. Rogers made the trip from Las Vegas regularly for many years, and his fellow Las Vegans would do well to follow his lead.

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