Creating a fake sandstorm was no easy task while filming The Rifleman
Cast, crew and equipment were completely covered after each take.
While interior scenes and street shots were filmed in the relative safety of a soundstage or a backlot, many classic western shows used real outdoor locations to capture the feeling of the old west. Film crews took advantage of the amazing deserts and landscapes just a few hours' drive outside of Los Angeles.
The end result looked great on film but capturing it was never easy. For the aptly titled Rifleman episode "Ordeal," director Paul Landres and company filmed in the beautiful but unforgiving Mojave Desert.
The episode starts with Lucas and Mark out in the desert collecting enough meat salt to last them through the winter. Their run of bad luck hits right away when a rattlesnake spooks the wagon team and the horses run off. One horse breaks a leg and the wagon ends up with two busted wheels.
They’re stranded in the desert when a sandstorm hits. Their remaining horse gallops away in the chaos and the McCains are left to fend for themselves, miles from town. It's a harrowing story, testing Lucas and Mark's mental toughness as much as anything else.
It was no easy task to film either! According to a TV Guide article from 1959, the shoot required cast, crew, cameras, wind machines and half a ton of Fuller's earth to be brought out to the Mojave National Preserve. As the article puts it, "Sand, wind and actors were imported."
Fuller's earth, a soft, fine clay, was used to because it was safer for the actors but would still look like sand on camera. Giant fans whipped the powder up in gusts up to 30 miles an hour. The flurries worked great for the scene but wreaked havoc on the set. Equipment was buried after each shot. The famous rifle had to be constantly cleaned. It took half an hour just to unearth Chuck Connors' script under layers of dirt.
Six hours into filming, a very real storm forced everyone to vacate the area. Though no one was stranded in the desert, making this episode of The Rifleman certainly was an ordeal.
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Fuller's earth is actually LESS safe, as it's easily inhaled. The REAL reason it's used is that sand doesn't blow very well because it's actually quite heavy: to get the desired effect, it would require wind machines far more powerful than those used in film production, whereas Fuller's is very light, becomes airbore easily and carries for a long distance.