Doors Leave Their Mark : Park Expects More Visitors Because of Cavern Shown in Movie on Rock Band, but Some Remain Angry About Film


With the release this week of the Oliver Stone film, “The Doors,” rangers at this remote Mojave Desert park expect the number of visitors to increase considerably.

In the film, Val Kilmer portrays a doped-up Jim Morrison--the enigmatic lead singer of the 1960s rock group the Doors--encountering a holy man in a cave filled with mysterious prehistoric-looking Indian drawings.

The scene was filmed last April halfway up the slopes of Providence Mountains in the Mitchell Caverns, the only natural caverns in the state park system. Movie crews applied more than 100 reproductions of the drawings, called pictographs, to the walls of 150-foot-long Tecopa Cave.

Initially, the crews were unable to remove the fake pictographs without permanently scarring the walls. So Stone--the Oscar-winning director of “Platoon"--hired UC Riverside archeologist Dan McCarthy and Sarah McKenzie, a chemical company representative, to do the job under the supervision of the state Department of Parks and Recreation.

Even though the drawings have been gone since last spring, park rangers predict that the anticipated popularity of the movie will increase the popularity of the park.


Since last April, when news accounts first described the problems the crews experienced trying to remove the drawings, “we’ve had people who never heard of this place before coming out here,” said Ed Abbey, 38, one of three rangers who live at the remote site.

“They keep asking to see the pictographs, not realizing the drawings had been removed. Now that the film is being released we expect even greater numbers of visitors.”

The drawings varied in size from inch-long copies of pre-Columbian stick figures to a 2 1/2-foot-long abstract form of a Navajo deity.

The parks department has considered exhibiting photographs of the film company’s drawings at the cavern Visitor’s Center but has made no decision.

For now, the only way to see the pictographs is in the movie.

The Mitchell Caverns are at the end of a two-lane paved road 16 miles north of Interstate 40, about 58 miles west of Needles, the nearest town of any size. The caverns consist of two main chambers and several smaller ones. The entrance is at an elevation of 4,600 feet.

Although walls of some of the cavern chambers are black with smoke from the fires of Chemehuevi Indians who took shelter there for at least 500 years, no authentic pictographs have been found.

Adding the Hollywood drawings caused quite a stir, especially among environmentalists who were outraged at what they viewed as the defacing of the cavern walls.

“Shame on Oliver Stone,” said Jim Dodson, chairman of the Sierra Club’s Southern California Desert Committee.

The parks department had granted Stone’s film company permission to apply powdered earth pictographs on cave walls with brushes. The understanding was that the material could be easily vacuumed with no lasting impact.

However, water got into the powder--it is unclear exactly how--causing the images to seep into the porous limestone in the cave, which is alive with stalagmites, stalactites and other spectacular formations.

It took McCarthy and his crew five days to flush the pigments out of the limestone walls, using citric acid and water, sponges and paper towels.

Since then, the parks department has been particularly sensitive to potential problems caused by film companies.

“It is the department’s policy to encourage the film industry to use our facilities rather than have production companies go out of state, but the incident at Mitchell Caverns has resulted in each request being much more critically evaluated,” said Steven Hansen, chief ranger for the park’s Mojave River District.

Mitchell Caverns allows visitors only on ranger-guided tours, which are conducted daily at 1:30 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays at 10 a.m., 1:30 p.m. and 3 p.m.