Big Sur and The Sandpiper
‘Dark, scant pasture drawn thin over rock shaped like flame; the old ocean at the land’s foot, the vast gray extension beyond the long white violence… This place is the noblest thing I have ever seen.’ These are the words of American poet Robinson Jeffers, describing Big Sur, a 72-mile stretch of breathtakingly rugged wilderness along California’s central coast.
A 1965 documentary, narrated by legendary actor Richard Burton, starts with these words, and explains their irony. ‘He called his poem The Place for No Story, even as he watched the Big Sur become a place of many stories. Jeffers was one of the first of many artists, poets, writers to discover the Big Sur, the wilderness of forest, rock and water on the coast of Central California, the Big Sur, the Big South.’ Burton himself was another, when he visited Big Sur to film The Sandpiper (1965). And, if the narration reflects his own feelings, he was clearly moved. It’s very hard not to be moved by Big Sur, as half a century later countless tourists will testify.
‘It is a place of primitive beauty that, if you come, accepts you only on its own terms and challenges you even then,’ the narration continues. Burton describes the arrival of artists such as Henry Miller and Orson Welles in the 1960s: ‘the ones who knew that a spot of American earth remained that was still wild and untamed. This was all they asked of it, a place to be free and to grow. And this is all it gave – wind, rain, sun, silence, and a place to be free and to grow. And sometimes the shuddering of the earth as it quakes, the roar of the wind, the pounding of the surf against the rock, reminds you that you are a guest, a visitor, the Big Sur is eternal and you are not.’
The Big Sur documentary was shot at the same time as the feature film The Sandpiper, and is included as a bonus on the 2006 reissue of the DVD. The reason for the inclusion is clear – the movie was never a great critical success, and owes its popularity more to its fascinating star pairing and to its breathtaking backdrops.
The star pairing in question was Burton and his long-time love Elizabeth Taylor. The controversial story (for the Sixties, at least) is that of a free-spirited artist who enters into an illicit relationship with a married reverend, and it is said to have inspired an influx of hippies to the Big Sur region in the mid- to late Sixties.
Interestingly, The Sandpiper is one of only a few major studio motion pictures filmed at Big Sur, and one of the very few to have used local spots as intrinsic parts of its plot. Locations used include Pfeiffer Beach, Point Lobos State Reserve, Bixby Creek Bridge, and the Coast Gallery.
The stunning beachfront cabin occupied by Taylor’s character is almost worth watching the movie for in itself. Amazingly enough it still exists, though it has been relocated to a woodland, farther north in Point Reyes. A scene shot on a sound stage recreates Nepenthe, the legendary restaurant which was once Orson Welles’ cabin, and was later frequented by a whole generation of renowned artists.
‘Another form of art has come to the Big Sur,’ continues Burton’s narrative, ‘a newer, sometimes scorned, always suspect art – the art of motion pictures. But those who come – producer Martin Ransohoff, director Vincente Minnelli, Elizabeth Taylor, and I, Richard Burton – will take nothing from the Big Sur and will leave no scars. The wind and the waves will erase the marks in the sand made by lights and cameras. The shacks along the edge of the cliff will be left as the company found them, and only a film will exist to show that intruders from the commercial world had come, however briefly, to the Big Sur.
‘But it was necessary to come,’ he says, ‘because this film The Sandpiper, needs the Big Sur. Its story is at oneness with the spirit of this one place, and the world has no duplicate. There are other cliffs and rock with sand and water, but there is no other Big Sur. And there is no other Nepenthe, where those who made The Sandpiper came and relaxed and found the spirit of the endless day, even as night came to the noblest thing I have ever seen.
‘It must be wonderful to live in such a place forever,’ he muses, before advising, ‘but think twice before you try it because it is a land not always quiet and serene, and often dramatic and violent, awesome, this is the Big Sur even today.’ – Roshan McArthur