Hollywood Producer Is Still Paying for the 1846 U.S.–Mexican War

"Lone Survivor" unwittingly stepped into an odd land dispute — and the tab for making the war film gets larger.
Courtesy of Universal

Time for some American history: Between 1846 to 1848, the United States of America and Central Republic of Mexico were engaged in armed conflict over territory. The war came to end upon ratification of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, whereby the Americans paid millions for land in the Southwest including a large portion of New Mexico.

Many years later, Peter Berg's Lone Survivor needed a place to shoot the story of a Navy SEALS team ambushed in the mountains of Afghanistan. They settled on a spot in New Mexico after reaching agreement with the Chilili Land Grant, run by Juan Sanchez.

After the filming was done, however, a local landowner named Patrick Elwell wrote a letter to Lone Survivor producers. "I have no idea who authorized your Production Company to use my property for the filming of the 'Lone Survivor,' nor have I personally authorized any person or organization to act in my absence."

For the bombing of his land, Elwell demanded $160,000, comprised of $75,000 for 19 days of filming on the property and $85,000 for "reclamation costs due to destruction of natural erosion preventing vegetation."

In subsequent communications with the Georgia Film Fund, Sanchez defended himself. "If there is someone else claiming the land we have not seen any deed or proof that the land is not Merced land," he wrote. "We feel that we have not violated the agreement with Georgia Film Fund Seventeen production."

So Lone Survivor producers sued both Elwell and Sanchez, looking to get a New Mexico federal judge to determine the true owner of the property.

Elwell then brought cross-claims against Sanchez for conspiracy to trespass, misrepresentation, unjust enrichment and negligence.

In a motion to dismiss those cross-claims, Sanchez said the property where Lone Survivor was filmed was a political subdivision of the State of New Mexico, controlled and governed by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. He asserted immunity under the New Mexico Tort Claims Act, which requires notice to a governmental entity within 90 days of occurrence.

The response? According to Elwell's legal papers,"he was unaware that the Land Grant was a political subdivision of the State, but that, in light of that fact, the Land Grant and Sanchez appear to be correct in their arguments."

Elwell dropped his cross-claims, but got permission to assert a claim for inverse condemnation, basically a move to get the Chilili Land Grant to compensate him after taking his property.

But that's not the end of the story.

On Tuesday, the Georgia Film Fund revealed that they had made an offer of judgment to Ellwell of $35,000. Apparently, it's been accepted.

Pointing to this amount, Sanchez' group is looking to have the case thrown out of federal court because it doesn't meet the $75,000 minimum jurisdictional requirement.

But Lone Survivor producers are pointing to all the money they've shelled out to dress up a piece of land once fought over by American and Mexican soldiers into a piece of land fought over by American soldiers and the Taliban. There was the original $35,000 rental fee, $25,000 more for rehabilitation, $35,000 to Ellwell and about $50,000 more in attorney's fees and costs. Altogether, the tab is more than $150,000 and counting.

Who is going to pay for that?

"The Chilili Defendants are contractually obligated to indemnify Georgia Film for these expenses," says the production company.

The 1846 U.S. Mexico War isn't quite over. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo never imagined how Mark Wahlberg would factor.

Email: Eriq.Gardner@THR.com
Twitter: @eriqgardner

 

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