On Set: Mission de San Juan Bautista

Mission San Juan Bautista - Church EntranceHe grabs her by the shoulder and confesses his love for her again ever so passionately. But she resists him. It was difficult for her to accept his love. She is troubled by the demons hunting her mind. Instead she asks if she could go to the church alone. For a moment he resisted then he lets her go. As she approaches the church she looks up and sees the bell tower and suddenly running towards the door. He realized with her demons she might commit the unthinkable. Then he runs after her. She’s not far ahead. He heard footsteps coming from the stairwell leading to the tower. He started chasing her but couldn’t escape his sudden fear. Vertigo conquers him. He follows her fearfully calling out her name as he grabs tightly onto the wooden railing. He could almost reach her but then he looks down again and sees the bottom of the tower bouncing up and down again and again. Before he knew it, he was too late. He heard a loud screaming noise coming from above he looks out the window sees a vision of a woman falling. He was too late. She was dead.

This was the first of the two suspenseful plot of the classic Hitchcock film called Vertigo starring James Stewart and Kim Novak. Released in 1958 was based on a novel called D’Entre les Morts written by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. The screenplay was written by Alec Coppel and Samuel Taylor.

One of Alfred Hitchcock’s most iconic films was shot in the San Francisco Bay Area. In the film, the audience was taken to landmarks such as Fort Point in the Presidio by the Golden Gate Bridge, Coit Tower (especially mentioned by both lead characters), Mission Dolores, the Palace of Legion of Honor even Redwoods National Park. But there is one particular historic landmark the film highlighted that is often overlooked by visitors – Mission de San Juan Bautista. It is the location where the suspenseful and dramatic events of the film took place. I wanted to especially highlight this place because of all the landmarks shown in the film, this Mission is the least popular amongst visitors to the Bay Area. It is easy to find the Golden Gate Bridge and the Palace of Legion of Honor; some people would easily venture to the Redwoods. The Mission however might require some extra effort to some.

Mission San Juan Baustista - Altar

The Mission de San Juan Bautista is located about two hours south of San Francisco in a sleepy little town named after the Mission’s patron saint San Juan Bautista. It’s a small town perhaps no more than 10 square miles and no more than 300 residents. The Mission was founded in 1797 but the church construction did not start until 1803. Completed in 1812, the Mission is the 15th of the 21 missions in California. The earthquake of 1906 damaged half of the church. This is no surprise because the church sits just yards away from the San Andreas fault line. The church remained unrestored until 1950 when reconstruction started. However, for the film Vertigo, Hitchcock’s production team built a bell tower on the site in 1957 for the sole purpose of the film. They then demolished the makeshift tower as soon as filming ended.

Today, the Mission looked like how it did during its heyday. The buildings surrounded the Mission at the Plaza Hall were the trial in the film took place, The Adobe Building, The Plaza Hotel once the home of the Patrick Breen and his family, and of course The Plaza Stables at the southeast corner of the square also seen in the film. This plaza is known to be the biggest plaza in all of the 21 missions in California.

Mission San Juan Baustista - Baptismal Chapel

To tour the Mission Church and its ground requires a small admission fee that can be purchased in the gift shop. Included in the admission fee is entrance to the mission church, gardens museum and the cemetery where Christian native Americans and Europeans are buried all faces what is now organic farmlands. Though the interior of the mission was not featured much in the film, it is still a sight to see. The church is impressively restored with brightly colored frescoes with paintings representing the 12 Stations of the Cross (though I think the paintings could use some restorative cleaning). The Mission Church was secularized in 1835, and it still celebrates masses today. The entire mission – the church, museum, gardens and all the adobe buildings encompassing it was restored by the Conservation Program sponsored by the California State University in Monterey Bay. The Mission is open to visitors every day except on major holidays. Even in such a cold winter Saturday afternoon, people are still visiting.

Mission San Juan Bautista - stables

Travel Tips:

     When driving to San Juan Bautista, get off at Highway 129 making a left from the off-ramp following the signs to the town. Only street parking is available at the Mission but it is free. Admission fees between the Mission grounds and Plaza Stables are separate.


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