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LA's water wars fictionalized in the iconic 1974 film 'Chinatown'

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Jack Nicholsen and Faye Dunaway in a scene from "Chinatown."
Jack Nicholsen and Faye Dunaway in a scene from "Chinatown."

The iconic 1974 film "Chinatown" is a fictionalized version of the story of L.A. water, but one that's so ingrained in popular consciousness it's almost hard to separate from the truth.

LA Aqueduct anniversary series 2013This story is part of KPCC's weeklong series exploring the history of the L.A. Aqueduct and looking at the future of L.A.'s water resources. View the whole series

Chances are for you film buffs out there, when you think of the L.A. Aqueduct this is the first thing that comes to mind:

The iconic 1974 film, "Chinatown" is a fictionalized version of the story of L.A. water, but one that's so ingrained in popular consciousness it's almost hard to separate from the truth.

To help us do that is Professor William Deverell, a professor of history at USC who wrote a piece on "Chinatown" and L.A.'s water wars for Boom Magazine

Interview Highlights:

Q: How many times have you seen 'Chinatown?'
William Deverell: It is slightly embarrassing. I suspect I have seen this movie 50 times. 

Q: This scheme to buy up San Fernando Valley and then use public funds to irrigate it, it has kind of become Biblical truth of sorts in L.A.. Fact or fiction?
WD: "A little bit of both. The power elite as characterized in 'Chinatown' was an oligarchic group of investors and public officials. There is no doubt that a lot of land in the San Fernando Valley was bought up at cheaper prices, and then once the water arrived that land, as Jack Nicholson points out in the movie, was worth a hundred to thousand times on the investment. 

"The intrigue and mystery of the movie is that the conspiracy is secret. In fact, in L.A. in the early part of the 20th century, that conspiracy is actually quite well known, so it is not really conspiracy, and the vision was if a couple of very wealthy people got even wealthier, but the water came to L.A., the people of L.A. bought it."

Q: But wasn't the true story a kind of trickery? A conflict of interest?
WD: "Well, the Owens Valley story is intricate, and it is interesting that that 'Chinatown' movie does not go there. It does not unpeel that part of the story. The secrecy by which L.A. buys up land with water rights in the Owens Valley is undoubtedly, partly or mostly true. The notion that the Owens Valley farmers were hoodwinked into this, that is a little more complicated. Many of these folks wanted to sell, they did sell, and Los Angeles was there writing the checks."

Q: Was the city as crooked as the scene would lead us to believe?
WD: "One of the issues about Los Angeles and its growth ambitions of the early 20th century is that the figures who built the aqueduct, the figures who decided to channelize and move away the L.A. river, [at] almost exactly the same time, their ambitions are so vaunted and so big. They want Los Angeles to grow and keep its growth pace up. 

"Remember, it is growing very rapidly from the 1880s forward. In many respects, there is a ruthlessness to this. There is no question. The growth ambitions of Los Angeles are profound, and they are thinking, in the early 20th century, to build and supply water up until our time. They are thinking about centuries' worth of ambition. Is it mysterious? Is there money made? Are there deals cut? You bet."

Q: Are there parallels between real L.A. figures and characters in "Chinatown"?
WD: "So many people conflate the Noah Cross figure, this remarkably evil, sort of seething evil figure, with William Mulholland when in fact the anagrammatic name is closer to Hollis Mulwray. So the popular perception is that someone with that kind of power that Noah Cross has must be William Mulholland and not Hollis Mulwray. And Hollis Mulwray itself is a complicated name. Yeah, there is Mulholland in there, but there is also Collis Huntington, the railroad titan who does not live down here, but he certainly exercises a lot of power down here in the latter part of the 19th century."

"In many respects, Noah Cross stands for this kind of unanimous, titanic, oligarchical figure, but people have also suggested that maybe he is Harrison Gray Otis, the owner and publisher of the Los Angeles Times and the principal newspaper figure and speculator on the landscape in this period."

Q: How does "Chinatown" reflect and affect what we think about this episode in the history of our city?
WD: "Remember, the movie is 40 years old, and so there is an entire generation of young people who have not seen it. But people my age in Los Angeles, it is a touchstone, a keystone text for presumably understanding the intrigue and mystery of the water wars of the early 20th century. It is not a historical take. It is entirely fictional. It is brilliant.

"I learn something new everything time I see it, but with the new generation of collegiate students who have not seen it, there is an opportunity to offer the movie as a kind of textured vision, cinematic vision of intrigue mystery, etc., and then lay in front of those students the last 20 or 25 years of historical scholarship so they can blend them."

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