In which I find myself in prison and go searching for the ghosts of Milton Sills, Raoul Walsh and Glenn Ford

Most movie fans know about the Yuma Territorial Prison. Van Heflin spent the better part of 90 minutes trying to send Glenn Ford there. John Wayne played foreign legionnaire using it as a backdrop. And one of Raoul Walsh’s most popular films, The Honor System, used it as a location way back in 1917.

The Yuma prison was a popular location and setting in the silent and classic film eras. It still gets used on occasion. I visited the site a while back and took pictures, doing the whole touristy thing. I even bought a t-shirt. I hope you enjoy the snaps and to make things even more interesting, I am going to tie in one of the most important silent films shot in Yuma.

honor system 02

A dark and gritty prison drama, The Honor System was critically acclaimed and popular when it was first released. John Ford described it as one of the best pictures he had ever seen and director Walsh described the film’s leading man, Milton Sills, as a hell of an actor. I bring this up because it seems that this is the only way we can experience The Honor System, through the memories of people who saw it on its initial release. The film is missing and presumed lost. (Check your attics but I don’t have high hopes. This is Fox we’re dealing with.)

The prison then...
The prison then…
And now.

Per the AFI catalog, the film is a social justice picture (very popular genre in the 1910s) that has the following hook:

Convicted of murder for killing a man in self-defense, Joseph Stanton is sentenced to life imprisonment. By circumstances, Stanton is enabled to send a plea to the governor asking him to investigate the deplorable conditions in the prison, and the governor institutes legislation establishing the honor system in the prison and improving the living conditions.

honor system 01

The film starred Milton Sills, Miriam Cooper (the director’s wife) and George Walsh (the director’s brother). Curiously, Sills seems to be omitted from much of the marketing material. This could be due to his status as a freelancer. Why should Fox build up a star who could be working for someone else next week? In any case, it’s odd.

The prison has been renovated and made tourist-safe but it still has a splendidly creepy vibe:


One can imagine that Walsh made good use of such a dynamic setting.


yuma-prison-04yuma-prison-05Well, I hope you enjoyed my little prison excursion. More silent locations are in the works. See you then!


  1. David Shepard

    Miriam Cooper told me that two prisoners were released on their honor to attend the premiere of the film in NY. Honor or not, both scrammed and were never found. She remembered it as really outstanding.

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