TAZA, SON OF COCHISE: 3-D Worth Waiting For!

by Mike Ballew

The first time I saw Taza, Son of Cochise was opening night of World 3-D Film Expo II in Hollywood, in September 2006. My giddy excitement on that occasion, mirrored in the smiles and laughter of fellow attendees on every side, remains for me a vivid and cherished memory. I could hardly believe I would finally see this rarely screened film as it was meant to be seen, with an electrified crowd, on the wide screen, through magic Polaroid glasses.

As the film unreeled, my appreciation deepened to respect, especially for the cinematography. I began to suspect certain shots had been made using a hitherto unknown camera rig, capable of very small, very precise interaxials. For those who may not know, the interaxial (interaxial distance; also I/A) is the separation between the left and right lenses in a stereoscopic 3-D camera system. The simplest 3-D cameras have a fixed interaxial; the lenses remain a specific distance apart and do not budge. Better 3-D cameras provide variable separation: Lenses may be spaced farther apart to give enhanced depth to distant subjects, or brought very close together to shoot close-ups without causing distortion or eyestrain.

In Taza, Son of Cochise, I felt I was looking at scenes captured with a very sophisticated camera rig, one capable of interaxials approaching zero when desired. Thing was, even the established experts were unaware of any such camera in use at Universal. We all knew the studio had designed a very commendable rig for their first 3-D film, It Came from Outer Space. That system put two Mitchell cameras side by side on a common base. One camera was mounted upside down (and modified to run backwards) so that the two lenses could be about as far apart as human eyes, in the neighborhood of 65 millimeters. Of course we also knew about the underwater rig built for Creature from the Black Lagoon, which placed two compact Arri cameras inside a watertight housing, one facing forward, the other capturing its image from an angled mirror. Again, the interaxial here was thought to be at (or maybe slightly below) the "normal" separation of 65 millimeters.

But a camera like the one I imagined for Taza? If ever it existed, it was a mystery now lost to history.

Twelve years came and went. When Bob Furmanek was kind enough to invite my participation in the upcoming 3-D Blu-ray release of Taza, Son of Cochise from Kino Lorber, he suggested I look into the remarkable photographic archives of the Margaret Herrick Library. I cheerfully agreed. It was there, in a research room in Beverly Hills, that I spent a blissful Friday afternoon in August 2019 touring Moab, Utah, in the summer of 1953, poring over several hundred medium format negatives, publicity stills taken behind the scenes of Taza, Son of Cochise.

I wish I could show you every single one I saw. Rock Hudson never looked more rugged and handsome, and maybe never happier, thronged by beaming local teenagers jockeying for a spot right next to their new idol. Barbara Rush was a radiant princess going incognito in casual dress, dropping into the Moab post office or cooling off at a soda fountain straight out of Norman Rockwell. It was sweet and touching to see Rock and Barbara enjoying a quiet moment together in a rustic lodge at day's end, or staring out at some gorgeous mountain vista, of which there are many in that corner of the Southwest.

And lo and behold, there was my "mystery camera," an "L"-configuration rig, with one Mitchell NC machine picking up its image from the front surface of an angled semi-silvered mirror, and another Mitchell NC peering out from behind, as through a transparent pane of glass. 

Here was a world-class tool for the making of 3-D motion pictures, as good or better than anything engineered at any other studio at that time. When you see Taza, Son of Cochise in 3-D on Blu-ray, good readers—many of you for the first time—I think you will agree this tool was put to bravura use.

When principal photography began on Taza, Son of Cochise on July 9th, 1953, it was the 35th English-language 3-D feature of the sound era, by order of production. As of June 1953, Universal had four 3-D camera rigs in its inventory, two to be assigned to the upcoming Jack Arnold noir The Glass Web, and two for use on Taza, Son of Cochise. These rigs were put together by skilled in-house technicians like Clifford Stine and David Horsley. So Taza's cinematographer, future Oscar-winner Russell Metty, had immediate access to colleagues who were quite knowledgeable about the new medium, and who seemed to have a genuine appreciation for it. But there is evidence in the completed film that Metty and director Douglas Sirk were willing to go their own way, making technical and aesthetic choices that certainly work, but are somewhat out of step with the practices of other filmmakers working in 3-D.

Take for instance those moments throughout the film where objects having negative parallax touch the vertical edges of the frame. Negative parallax, for those who may not know, places objects forward of the screen plane, in theater space. Floating titles, delightfully gimmicky spears and arrows and flaming torches, and even legitimate scenic elements may have negative parallax, emerging from the screen and hovering in space, seemingly within arm's reach of the spectator. But the accepted wisdom for 3-D photography teaches that, for the illusion to succeed, objects that come forward into theater space must never, ever be cut by the vertical edges of the frame. Otherwise, the effect is entirely lost—or so it is claimed.

In this frame, witness the fact that Captain Burnett (Gregg Palmer) is framed in such a way that he is just slightly forward of the screen plane, yet his figure is bisected by the right vertical edge of the frame. 


Dubois anaglyph conversion (cyan/right) for this article. TAZA was originally released in polarized 3-D only.


A more dramatic example is seen in this frame, an over-the-shoulder shot looking past Burnett at General Crook (Robert Burton). Russell Metty boldly moves his camera in close for a tight composition,  converging on Crook's face and allowing pronounced negative parallax in Burnett's left shoulder.

Another interesting strategy is also in play in the above  frame. Some scenes in the movie were shot using Universal's original camera rig design, which could not achieve substantially reduced interaxials. The practical outcome of this is that, in tight compositions with objects very close to the camera, background image points were in danger of diverging, perhaps even to the point where fusion of the left and right images would be difficult or impossible. It appears a deliberate choice was made to position friendly scout Cy Hegan (Richard H. Cutting) just beyond and between Crook and Burnett. While this makes dramatic sense in the scene, it also serves to ensure that the wandering eyes of the audience meet a figure in the near background with comfortable values of positive parallax.

This frame communicates what may be most unique about Taza, Son of Cochise in the annals of Golden Age Hollywood 3-D cinema. Note the tight framing; note also the compressed perspective and background bokeh indicative of a long focal length lens. Even so, background parallax values are very small, much smaller than would be the case when using a normal stereo interaxial. Informal calculations suggest that the I/A for this scene may have been as low as half an inch (12.7 mm). Metty and Sirk employ this strategy several times in the course of the film—a long focal length lens + a very small interaxial + tight compositions that follow moving figures back and forth across the extreme foreground.

Russell Metty's accomplishment in shooting Taza, Son of Cochise is all the more remarkable when one considers that 3-D dailies could not be viewed on the set. Metty and his camera crew (which included future Oscar nominee Philip Lathrop as camera operator) had to rely on reports from the studio to gauge whether their choices had been correct.

One behind-the-scenes photo discovered at the Margaret Herrick Library shows Metty and Sirk inspecting short lengths of exposed movie film. These were processed on the spot, in small chemical baths, so that Metty and crew could be sure their exposures were correct and that the cameras were basically functioning as expected. 

When we zoom in close enough on that photograph, you will discern an "R" roughly scratched into one piece of film, and an "L" scratched into the other. It's the kind of detail to send a shiver up the back of anyone who loves 3-D and Hollywood history.

According to contemporary reports discovered at the USC Cinematic Arts Library, actor and stuntman Charles Horvath did some serious damage to one of the camera rigs during the production—on two different occasions! Once Horvath was asked to fire an arrow from a distance of only six feet directly into a protective glass barrier in front of the cameras. According to a studio publicity memo dated August 3rd, 1953, " the unbreakable glass failed to live up to its name and the arrow point scratched the 3-D mirror [semi-silvered mirror], which had to be replaced."

On another occasion, Horvath, a former javelin champion from Penn State, according to studio publicity, hurled an Apache lance into the cameras, narrowly missing camera operator Philip Lathrop. This latter incident seems to have found its way into the completed film. See if you can look at this linked GIF animation without ducking for safety!

Parallel      Anaglyph     Crosseye

Location photography on Taza, Son of Cochise wrapped on Friday, August 7th, 1953. The film was one post-production day and one travel day behind schedule, and $1,000 over budget. The final tally, added up by studio accountants a year later: $809,238.

On the night of Friday, November 6th, 1953, immediately following a regularly scheduled showing of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, one lucky audience at the Cornell Theatre in Burbank, California, got to be the first to experience Taza, Son of Cochise, in a 2-D sneak preview. The audience response cards that survive are as sharp and colorful as the film itself, and sometimes quite hilarious.

In response to the query, "Which Scenes, If Any, Did You Dislike?"

•             "Scenes with water in them—I get thirsty."

•             "The one of the phony rock throwing."

•             "Arrow hitting girl. Also, men catching rocks—impossible."

•             "When the woman got shot."

•             "When white woman was killed, not a drop of blood was seen."

•             "Too much killing."

•             "Too much violence."

•             "Too much 'blood and thunder.'"

In response to the query, "Did the Picture Hold Your Interest Throughout? If Not, Where Did It Fail to Hold You?"

•             "Rock Hudson held me up."

•             "Too many people were dying."

•             "With all that killing, how could you lose interest?"

•             "Not enough murder."

To the query, "Any Added Comment?"

•             "As good or better than Broken Arrow."

•             "I liked the authenticity of the picture and would like to see more pictures showing the true American Indian."

•             "This is by far the best Indian production I've ever seen."

•             "The Indians looked like real Indians, not Hollywood. This is an improvement."

The two biggest complaints: The sound was much too loud, and the preview audience was deeply disappointed they did not get to experience Taza, Son of Cochise in 3-D.

By the time of
Taza's general release, in late January 1954, Hollywood was very much on the lookout for simpler, more cost-effective ways of projecting 3-D movies in theaters. Every English-language 3-D feature of the early 1950s was filmed on two separate strips of film, one for the left-eye view, the other for the right-eye view. These films were projected through gray, color-neutral polarizing filters, using two synchronized projectors. As described elsewhere on this website, this arrangement had the potential to cause myriad problems, sometimes leading to literal headaches for the audience and figurative ones for theater staff and management.

One hoped-for solution involved placing the left- and right-eye images on one band of film, to be projected on ordinary equipment outfitted with a special lens attachment to cross-polarize and superimpose the two images on the screen. The most successful such scheme of the 1950s was the Pola-Lite attachment. With Pola-Lite, the left- and right-eye images are printed on one band of 35mm film, in a toe-to-toe configuration within the space normally occupied by one ordinary frame.

Two films are known for sure to have had 3-D playdates in the Pola-Lite format, Creature from the Black Lagoon and Taza, Son of Cochise. But in the case of Taza, these engagements came several months after the film first hit theaters, consisting mainly of second-run bookings in smaller houses. Despite the promise of simplified 3-D projection made affordable for every small- to mid-sized theater, Pola-Lite failed to make a huge impression and soon faded from the scene.

Venro Theatre - Charlestown, IN

But only in the last few months, new information has come to light to demonstrate that 3-D had friends in Hollywood even into the 1960s, who were eager to see if they could rekindle the stereoscopic fire that had died out some five years previous.

Walter Beyer, formerly of Paramount, by now with Universal, seems to have been the mastermind of an ongoing series of experiments carried out after hours at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, sometime during the long and hugely successful roadshow engagement of Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus from late 1960 and throughout 1961. Academy-ratio frames were printed as side-by-side stereo pairs on one band of 70mm film, anticipating by five or six years a very similar format brought to perfection by the Soviet film industry. Using a unique projection attachment (for which blueprint schematics remarkably survive) on the front of a standard 70mm projector, Beyer and his associates achieved sharp, clear, generally impressive 3-D imagery. The one technical problem they never felt able to solve was how to get even illumination across the two frames with only minimal modification to the standard lamphouse. Judging from surviving correspondence between the parties involved, this seems to have been regarded as a deal-breaker for single-strip 70mm 3-D.

What film did Beyer and his colleagues use for these experiments? None other than the last reel of Taza, Son of Cochise, printed in color on silent, non-striped 70mm stock. One exemplar frame survives, in a special collection in Los Angeles, viewable only under very strict conditions supervised by vigilant curators. Our photograph had to be made using an improvised light box, which goes to explain the "screen door" pattern evident in the image. Compare that against a corresponding frame grab from the upcoming 3-D Blu-ray.

Who knows how motion picture history might have been different had Beyer and his colleagues succeeded in their aim to make 70mm 3-D a roadshow reality in the early 1960s? But it is heartening to know that there were (and still are) those who relish the two-eyed cinema, and who would spare almost no effort to ensure that 3-D endures and, where possible, thrives. Among those today are Bob Furmanek and Greg Kintz of the 3-D Film Archive, who are chiefly responsible for the forthcoming 3-D restoration of Taza, Son of Cochise on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber. Even compared to earlier triumphs, their work here is exemplary. While Taza, Son of Cochise will be viewable in 2-D for movie fans without access to 3-D gear, the added dimension truly elevates the film. Make every effort to see it that way.

Warmest thanks to Sandra Garcia-Myers and Ned Comstock of the USC Cinematic Arts Library; to Faye Thompson, Louise Hilton, and Elizabeth Cathcart of the Margaret Herrick Library; to the entire staff of UCLA Library Special Collections; and to Richard Lorber, Frank Tarzi, Bret Wood and their associates at Kino Lorber.

TAZA: Mise-En-Scene in Three Dimensions

by Hillary Hess

Take the time to walk a mile in his moccasins.” - Mary T. Lathrap, “Judge Softly,” 1895

Watching Taza, Son of Cochise in its intended 3-D format was something of a revelation for me. Long had I hoped for such an opportunity to see how auteur Douglas Sirk and experienced cinematographer Russell Metty would approach the use of the medium and apply it to a story most sympathetic to the Native Americans. What I saw was the result of professionals embracing opportunities in the new medium to enhance the story as well as the audience's visceral reaction.

The experience begins immediately with the opening shot which lands upon a wide western vista featuring a mounted Apache brave in the foreground. Not only is the figure placed there to provide a dimensional effect, but since we cannot see the horse's feet, we are not sure how close to the edge of the precipice it is standing. 

One might reasonably assume such tight framing was the result of an image upon which the studio imposed an arbitrary widescreen cropping after principal photography However, the 3-D Film Archive has documents in which Universal-International announce the studio adopting a 2:1 aspect ratio for its widescreen productions three months before Taza went before the cameras. Every shot which follows demonstrates Sirk and Metty embraced this new screen width as they did with depth; compositions are roomy and eye-filling for 3-D, and the gorgeous locations benefit greatly as well.

This combination of 3-D and widescreen makes that first shot truly breathtaking, not only visually, but one may already feel some concern for the brave's safety. Only as the camera follows horse and rider, do we see the full relationship between them and their environment as the trail and other foreground elements are revealed.

Indeed, throughout the film, many elements are revealed and characters introduced through camera pans and tilts, often motivated by following some action, rather than through straight cuts. This allows the viewer to experience more of this world, how the characters inhabit it, as well as eliminating an edit to introduce a new angle. Not only is it a wise economy of production, but we as the audience feel the effect of moving around in the Apache community, seeing elements of their lifestyle, and acquiring a measure of empathy in the process.

A striking example of use of mise-en-scene (the arrangements of visual elements within the frame) to elicit empathy among the Apache tribe occurs when Taza's rebellious brother Maichi and his cohorts are arrested by the U.S. Army “Soldier Coats” rather than allowing Taza the respect of allowing “Apache punish Apache.” It is a pivotal scene, setting the racial conflict into motion as well as further cementing audience sympathy with natives. In a shot that begins at 22:19, and is then seen several more times intercut with close-ups of the humiliated natives, the scaffolding to which Maichi and his men have been tied stands in the foreground, partially in negative space – our space – the now untied leather straps fluttering in the breeze, as the errant Apaches are taken increasingly further away from us. The uneasy relationship between the two cultures is strikingly presented, and we are given the perspective of the Apache, increasingly helpless to act on it. In this moment, we are seeing what the natives see, and through the enhanced 3-D medium, we get a better sense of how that humiliation must feel.

Another powerful illustration of this technique occurs at 34:30 as Taza is addressing his people. Standing up on a rock, the tribe gathers around, and two members enter the frame from each side. Our view is behind and between them as part of the crowd. When Taza addresses his people, he is addressing us as well. Later at 101:28, during the festivities on the night before the impending attack, we are giving a similar perspective. These shots are not self-conscious, but rather deftly take advantage of careful framing in depth to make us feel we belong, and they strengthen our empathy.

Just about every opportunity is taken to place various objects; bushes, twisted desert trees, discarded wagons, etc., in the foreground, many times partially in negative space, helping to eliminate the separation between participant and spectator, making us feel we are sharing the same space. The result is visually pleasing as well as enhancing our engagement with the action.

Of course, as one expects from a 3-D movie, we get those true POV shots giving us an idea of what it looks like to have an arrow, spear, rock, or tomahawk flying toward us. The western genre provides ample opportunities for such pop-out effects! And despite the overall serious and mature handling of the material, it is still a show and we would be disappointed if such moments were missing.

Mike Ballew expertly described the use of the decreased interaxial in production of Taza, which provided several benefits. First, a practical consideration when shooting outside with backgrounds approaching infinity, it is imperative to keep the separation in check lest viewers go “wall-eyed” trying to fuse visual elements spaced too far apart. Even though we are always directed to the dramatic focus of any scene, it is our natural tendency, especially when watching 3-D, for our eyes to wander and take in other various aspects of the image. By reducing the interaxial for those wide and deep vistas, they all become extremely easy on the eyes, yet we do not feel shortchanged regarding the depth. We can thank Metty and the pros who approached stereo-cinematography with this in mind; something from which a few of the 1980s 3-D films could have benefited, provided the equipment allowed for it.

Another pleasant effect of using the proper reduced interaxial is the enlargement of onscreen subjects. The “big screen” effect is maintained by keeping the action larger than life, but the trade-off is a diminished perception of depth. In Taza, the interaxial is handled wonderfully to provide both while one does not feel deprived of either. With this technique, the extreme closeups are especially attractive and revealing, contributing to the mythic qualities behind the story and its characters. Beholding the magnificently chiseled features of Jeff Chandler in full relief, albeit briefly in his third onscreen portrayal as Cochise, is worth the price of admission to me!

To summarize, I had high expectations for Taza, and it did not disappoint. It is a technically polished “depthie,” made with maturity and truly artistic eyes. Now that it can be widely seen so perfectly, it should be added to the likes of House of Wax and Dial M for Murder as an example of 3-D used with sensitivity in the Golden Age to enhance the cinematic experience. It is THAT good.  

The next generation enjoying TAZA, SON OF COCHISE in 3-D!

Click here to order TAZA, SON OF COCHISE from Kino Lorber.

Now Available: 3-D RARITIES II from Flicker Alley.

Coming soon from Kino Lorber in restored widescreen 3-D and stereophonic sound!