I'd only been to Mount Rushmore once before, more than a dozen years ago. This time (July 2017) I had a few questions on my mind. Very much like my stop by Devils Tower a couple days prior, there is a cinematic connection—Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest (1959). In the final sequence of the film this iconic location becomes an integral part of the story. It's the setting for the climax of the plot, and is as fixed in the public's mind as that of the tower rendezvous with alien visitors in Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
The folks who maintain the signage on the highway approach to Mount Rushmore proudly announce the Hitchcock connection. I can't admit to actually having seen National Treasure: Book of Secrets, although I slept through it on a flight once. The appearance of the monument in North by Northwest is a combination of location shooting, rear projection, matte paintings, full size sets, and scale model work.
Due to the objection of the government, we weren't allowed to have any of the figures on the faces, even in the interior studio shots... We were told very definitely that we could only have the figures slide down between the heads of the presidents. They said that after all, this is the shrine to democracy. — Alfred Hitchcock
The production initially planned to do most of the live action photography on location, and some shots outside the real visitors center remain in the final film. They were on location for just one day—September 16, 1958. But after word got out that there would be a fight scene and a couple of character deaths at the location, government officials barred them from completing planned filming on the faces of the monument.
The crew flew back to Hollywood, where Mt. Rushmore had to be recreated at MGM. The South Dakota State Historical Society published a fascinating article about this in 1993 if you'd like to read about it in more detail.
Nothing could be built on top of the monument, even temporarily. The MGM researchers had to get special permits and US National Park Service escorts just to visit the area in order to photograph and measure it in detail. There's actually a documentary called The Man on Lincoln's Nose (2000) about the entire process which received an Oscar nomination for short subject that year. The film features interviews with Hitchcock's famous art director and production designer, Robert Boyle.
What's fascinating to me is—like Devils Tower—cinematic subsumption ensures that anyone who has seen even a just few seconds of the finale of North by Northwest after midnight on TCM can't get the cinematic Mount Rushmore out of their brain when they visit the location. As Daniel J. Boorstin (The Image), Jerry Mander (Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television), Neil Postman (Amusing Ourselves to Death), and most recently Neal Gabler (Life: the Movie) have argued; we recognize the difference between film and reality when we're asked to consider it. But we can't manage that distinction. And the version on screen—whether in a movie theater, on a television set, on a computer, or a tablet, or a phone—is the one that comes to dominate.
So all I'm thinking about as I wander the grounds is North by Northwest. I think about how long it's been since I last saw the movie. I'm mapping my own point of view in accordance with the vistas featured in the film. And I'm far from the only one—I overheard several different visitors (albeit, older ones; retirees) make a comment or two about the Hitchcock classic. "Remember in that movie when..." etc.
Funnily, upon the film's release, most of the public thought everything actually was shot at the monument on location. The U.S. Department of the Interior was not amused, and demanded that MGM remove the line at the end of the film's credits thanking them.
In the context of theming, just like at Devils Tower, the presentation on screen becomes the essential character of the location. The only aspect which thrust me into the present were the additions to the monument since it appeared in North by Northwest.
After leaving the parking lot, the walk towards the monument is framed with a symmetrical alley of stone columns. From the US National Park Service website: The Avenue of Flags was initially established as part of the celebration of the United States' Bicentennial in 1976 at the request of a visitor. The 56 flags represent the 50 states, one district, three territories, and two commonwealths of the United States of America.
The avenue was constructed in 1976 for the United States Bicentennial and augmented in 1998 with additional structures. The aesthetic is strikingly modernist next to the monument, creating a somewhat distracting contrast—it's almost too solemn, too cold.
Mount Rushmore was the brain child of South Dakota state historian Doane Robinson, and was executed by sculptor Gutzon Borglum and his son Lincoln. Gutzon died in March, 1941 during construction; it was actually Lincoln who saw to the completion of the monument in October later than year. It's curious to note that originally the design called for the presidents to be carved from head to waist—as seen in this concept model—but the project ran out of funds.
It's interesting that cinematic subsumption runs both ways. Because of its iconic status and visual record of U.S. Presidents, Mount Rushmore is sometimes featured in film and on television to indicate changes to American society, either in the present or in the future.
In the sequel to the original Christopher Reeve Superman film (1978), three Kryptonian supervillains (General Zod, Ursa, and Non) fly over the monument and alter it with their heat vision to depict themselves. Abraham Lincoln is destroyed and shown to crumble to pieces while the current U.S. President and members of his staff watch on television in the Oval Office.
The defacing of Mount Rushmore is both literal (the Kryptonians establishing themselves as the absolute rulers of the United States) and metaphorical—they are remaking the history and culture of the country in their own image.
In the original screenplay for Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989), officers Chekov and Sulu of the starship Enterprise were to hike in the park at the monument and get lost in the woods. This scene was not shot, but a proposed matte painting exists, with a woman to the left of George Washington. The novelization of the film by J.M. Dillard (based on the screenplay, not the finished film) identifies her as Sarah Susan Eckert, the first African-American president of "Northam" which appears to be some kind of future successor to the United States as a nation state (seems to be a contraction of "North America"). In Star Trek canon, the year is 2287:
Sulu glanced absently over his shoulder at the wilderness they were leaving behind. in the distance, a great mountain thrust into the sky, five faces carved into the stone. All of those honored here were political figures who had died centuries before Sulu was born, including the most recent addition to the monument, Sarah Susan Eckert, the first black Northam president. — Star Trek V novelization by J.M. Dillard, p. 59
Here, the author Dillard is adding texture and detail to the screenplay (and perhaps matte art) she was referencing—these author(s) and/or scene artist(s) foresaw not only an African-American president, but a female one as well. One of these has indeed come to pass, and it happened less than twenty years after the film's release, rather than two hundred.
While researching this little-known aspect of Star Trek lore, I couldn't help but imagine a contemporary film (perhaps set in the near future) in which President Obama is depicted on Mount Rushmore. Again, the subsumption works both ways. Our cinematic experiences of Rushmore are telegraphed over it in real life, and conversely the monument becomes a canvas with which to paint our imaginings of an alternate America's present (Superman II) and even longings for the future (Star Trek V).
For me, and for many film buffs, North by Northwest will always be inexorably bound up with Alfred Hitchcock. As a child, I vividly remember the Frank Lloyd Wright-esque Mid-Century modern retreat which belongs to James Mason’s character, Phillip Vandamm. Wright was actually asked to design the house, but his fee was too high, so the Hollywood people led by Robert Boyle took care of it. The house was accomplished via a combination of full interior sets, partial exterior sets, and matte work.
I was so sure "The Vandamm House" was a real structure that I asked where it was when I first visited Mount Rushmore in 2005. But it only exists in the realm of cinematic subsumption.