That’s El Capitan, but not the one in Yosemite, the one in Western Texas. The National Park Service website has a ton of great images of the National Parks by the way, if you like what I’ve been finding in this series. In any event, Texas movies are disproportionately Westerns, but that’s only because there are so many Westerns.
Modern Texas has given us a few fine movies as well. Boyhood (2014), North Dallas Forty (1979), Dazed and Confused (1993), and Reality Bites (1994) are all non-Westerns and all worth a look for various reasons.
Some recent movies set in the Lone Star State straddle the line between Westerns and modern Texas. No Country for Old Men (2007) may be the Coen Brothers’ finest film. Dallas Buyer’s Club (2013) contains numerous western themes while it tells its story of the AIDS crisis of the 1980’s. Bottle Rocket (1996) is a modern film about a very Western theme – bandits.
Now that we got that out of the way, let’s talk about Westerns. Sure this category has gone out of style in recent years (despite Quentin Tarantino’s endless quest to revive it), but it remains ones of the bedrock styles of American cinema. For a Few Dollars More (1965) and other Sergio Leone style “spaghetti westerns” were often set in Texas. Giant (1956), Rio Bravo (1959), Rio Grande (1950), Red River (1948), and the Wild Bunch (1969) are a few more examples.
John Ford’s the Searchers is one of the 3-4 most important films to come out of the Western genre. It’s a complicated and controversial film for numerous reasons. John Wayne typically plays the “white hat” in these films, but Ethan Edwards is a monster. Even if Edwards is taken as the villain of the piece, his quarry, the Commanche warlord Scar (Henry Brandon), is rightfully seen in most circles as more of the same from Ford – another Native American unfairly depicted as a violent barbarian. I went into Ford’s complicated relationship with the depiction of Native Americans in a previous post.
The Worst Film Ever Made
No discussion of Texas cinema would be complete without an honorary mention of Manos: the Hands of Fate (1966). When El Paso fertilizer salesman Hal Warren made a bet that he could make a cheap horror movie for under $20,000, the result was an incoherent mess of a film that sits on its own in the bottom of the cinema barrel. There it sits, soaking in its own juices like so much Torgo flop-sweat, waiting for unsuspecting viewers to be confused by its bizarre contents.
Movies by state continues! Yep, we still have way too many posts in this series left, but I’m going to finish it even it takes the rest of the year!
To Hollywood, Kentucky conjures up images of coal miners and horses. But for every Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980) and Secretariat (2010), there are actually two or three frontier movies like The Kentuckian (1955).
The most notable film set in Kentucky is actually a documentary. Harlan County USA (1976) tells the tale of a violent coal miners strike from a visceral first person point of view. The filmmakers are even assaulted by strike-breakers at one point. While the story it tells is poignant, the film itself set the standard for dozens of on-the-scene documentaries to follow.
One would think that Tennessee, home of Davey Crockett would get some more frontier love from Hollywood, but that isn’t necessarily the case. Music gets a big focus with movies like Nashville (1975) and Walk the Line (2005). There are a couple of Civil War films too, like Buster Keatons’s The General (1926). It has its share of horror movies as well, like The Evil Dead (1981).
Speaking of which, the most notable film set in Tennessee is also the most terrifying. The Silence of the Lambs (1991) is mostly set in Tennessee. It remains the only horror movie to win a Best Picture Oscar.
The Deep South has a horrifying history. Films set in Mississippi often portray both that history and its consequences. Not every movie set in Mississippi deals with themes of racism and injustice, but most do. In Mississippi Burning (1988) and A Time to Kill (1996), racism and crime take center stage. The Help (2011) also deals with racism in a less visceral, but equally effective way. Even O Brother Where Art Thou (2000) addresses some of these themes, but in a far more tangential manner.
The most notable film – 1965’s In the Heat of the Night. Sidney Poitier’s legendary performance as Vigil Tibbs, a tough detective investigating a brutal murder while passing through a Southern town. His performance is so iconic that it’s easy to forget that his co-lead Rod Steiger actual won Best Actor for his role as the racist police chief whom Tibbs reluctantly helps.
Forrest Gump (1994) hasn’t aged well – it’s essentially a sappy love letter to the Baby Boomer generation. It’s still the first movie most people think about when asked to name a move set in Alabama, however. Recently, Selma (2014) earned near universal praise from critics. Tim Burton’s underrated Big Fish (2003) is set here too.
The most notable movies set here, however, is still 1962’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Recently released books aside, Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch is still a hero in every way imaginable. It’s one of those rare movies that improve on their source material, even considering here that the source material is a literary classic.
Not many movies have been set in Arkansas. Both versions of True Grit (1969 and 2010) are set there. The most noteworthy? Probably Ridley Scott’s classic road trip film Thelma and Louise (1991).
I assumed lots of movies had been set in New Orleans, and I assumed correctly. Beast of the Southern Wild (2012), The Buccaneer (1938), A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), and Interview with the Vampire (1994) are only a few of the dozens of movies set in The Crescent City. Even so, I still get this feeling New Orleans could use some more love from Hollywood as a setting.
Not all Louisiana movies are set in the Big Easy. Dead Man Walking (1995), The Green Mile (1999), and Steel Magnolias (1989) are set in greater Louisiana. So is 2013’s masterpiece 12 Years a Slave – which as time passes may surpass the Marlon Brando version of Streetcar as the most notable film set here.
Next time – Texas.
(c) 2015 D.G. McCabe
Florida. Yes – that alligator lives in Everglades National Park (photo courtesy National Park Service). And yes – I chose an alligator instead of an orange grove, beach, or theme park. Why, you might ask? Because Florida movies are kind of like alligators:
Gator are Exciting!
Gators are exciting to watch when they get going after an unfortunate bird. So too are the many action movies and thrillers set in Florida. Bad Boys (1995), Miami Vice (2006), Scarface (1983) and Body Heat (1981) are some examples, but even James Bond got into the action with 1964’s classic Goldfinger.
Gators are Alien!
Are gators space aliens? No – but they are one of the most unique species on the planet. In this circular, tangential, and only slightly accurate way, they are like the many science fiction movies set in Florida. Armageddon (1998), Contact (1997), and Cocoon (1985) are some examples.
Gators are Sporty!
Well, there’s a notable college sports team called the Gators anyway. Florida is home to a lot of sports films including Any Given Sunday (1999), 42 (2013), and Foxcatcher (2014).
Gators are Reclusive!
Much like Charles Foster Kane towards the end of his life – gators are mysterious and hard to find. Citizen Kane (1941) often tops critics’ list as the top movie of all time. It is certainly among the most influential. A young Orson Welles invented several important editing techniques and film conventions that are still with us today. Next time you are wondering where the idea came from to use news reports to tell back story – look no further.
Gators are Dumb!
On the opposite end of the movie spectrum from Citizen Kane are the numerous B movies, ill-conceived sequels, and gross out teen films set in the Sunshine State. Porky’s (1981) and its unfortunate sequels, American Idol cash-in From Justin to Kelly (2003), the so very unnecessary Revenge of the Nerds II (1987), Earnest Saves Christmas (1988), and Mystery Science Theater favorite Revenge of the Creature (1955) are set here.
This will be a short but manageable post. We’re only covering four states today: Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia.
Like its neighbor, Maryland, most movies set in Virginia are really movies set in the District of Columbia. Granted large chunks of movies set at the CIA and Pentagon are set in Virginia, so Spy (2015), Mission Impossible (1996), and Zero Dark Thirty (2012) count.
Virginia is for lovers, but it’s also for poorly received historical epics. Mel Gibson’s The Patriot (2000) is so bloated and pompous that it has no problem impaling a British general on an American flag. Gods and Generals (2003) plays like your uncle’s drunken Civil War re-enactment – and it’s just as long too. And there’s Pocahontas (1995), which ended Disney’s early 1990’s winning streak, cheesy song and all.
The most notable film set in Virginia? I’m going to go out on a limb. 2000’s Remember the Titans is one of the ten or twenty best sports movies, and maybe the best movie ever made about American football. It holds up surprisingly well as it ages, especially for a Disney movie based on a true story.
North Carolina is well represented in the American movie canon. Cold Mountain (2003), This is Spinal Tap (1984), Tin Cup (1996), Carrie (1976), Pitch Perfect (2012) and both versions of Cape Fear (1962 and 1991) are solid to excellent films.
For better or worse, North Carolina also has a genre that I’ll call “Outer Banks Fluff.” Films like Safe Haven (2013) and I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) paint the Outer Banks as the place to set your disposable horror film or cheesy romance. My kingdom for a Wright Brothers biopic.
Like its northern neighbor, I’ll go with a sports movie for North Carolina. Many of the best sports movies are baseball films, but Bull Durham (1988) particularly stands out. It’s at once funny and poignant, a masterpiece of quintessentially American storytelling.
The Palmetto State doesn’t get a ton of love from Hollywood. The Notebook (2004) is probably the most notable recent movie set there. Well, except for Magic Mike XXL (2015) – that’s set in South Carolina too. Other quality South Carolina movies include Doc Hollywood (1991), and the first half of Full Metal Jacket (1987).
The most pivotal scene in Glory (1989) is of course the Battle of Charleston Harbor. I would call Glory the best movie about the American Civil War, at least in my opinion. Other films about the Civil War are often incredibly boring or problematic in other ways. It’s my pick for the most notable South Carolina movie.
The first feature-length film of any type is set in South Carolina. Unfortunately this film is The Birth of a Nation (1915), which can be charitably be described as an abomination before all things reasonable, holy, and/or just. D.W. Griffith was a piece of work too – but that’s an article for another day.
The final state for today is the home of peaches and bulldogs – the great state of Georgia. There are actually a lot of movies set here, and they aren’t all Deliverance (1972) either.
Fried Green Tomatoes (1991), Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997), and Buster Keaton’s The General (1926) are set here. So are most of Tyler Perry’s movies.
The most notable film set in Georgia? It’s by far 1939’s Gone with the Wind. There are few films that have been studied and debated as much as the David O. Selznick produced Civil War epic, and with good reason. It remains both incredibly popular, and incredibly controversial.
Movies by State is back! And you thought I forgot about this ambitious project? Well not so much, it’s just that it’s summer and an ambitious blog series isn’t really a warm weather activity.
Outside of California, and maybe even including California, New York City is the most common setting for American movies. Being from a part of New York State that’s far from New York City, however, I’d like to start with non-NYC movies and take it from there.
Western New York (Buffalo), Central New York (Syracuse), Northern New York (The Adirondacks), Long Island, and the Hudson Valley Region don’t get nearly as much Hollywood attention as New York City. Bruce Almighty (2003) is one of the few recent films set in Buffalo, The Express (2008) and Snow Day (2000) represent Syracuse, and Last of the Mohicans (1992) is set in the Adirondacks. Of course, the most pivotal scenes in Miracle (2004) are set in Lake Placid.
Long Island and the Hudson Valley region get a little bit more notice from our friends in the film industry. Long Island is of course the setting of the Amityville Horror and The Hamptons get a starring role in Something’s Gotta Give (2003) among other movies. The Hudson Valley is the setting of The Word According to Garp (1982) and Regarding Henry (1991).
New York City Films
There are too many films set in New York City to really do a couple of paragraphs of justice. Since this is a blog, you don’t have all day to read a bunch of ramblings either. But what is New York City to five of film’s greatest directors? In alphabetical order:
Allen is most comfortable when he gets to describe interactions between highly educated New Yorkers. Allen’s New York is one of museums and dysfunctional relationships – so think Central Park North.
Charlie Chaplin’s New York is a kind of dirty, kind of sleazy, kind of funny place. There are immigrants and millionaires, kids and tramps, and although it is sometimes not named, Chaplin’s New York is a magnificent stage – so think Midtown.
Francis Ford Coppola
The Godfather (1972) is the greatest American film, and Coppola skillfully uses the bustling immigrant communities of the Old City as a backdrop to his tale of the corrosive seduction of evil – mostly old Little Italy.
Brooklyn, 1989. It’s a hot day, too hot for pretending anymore. Pretending like we all get along and there aren’t problems in our cities and our neighborhoods. Sure that’s the setting of his most notable film, but Lee paints this all too familiar picture throughout his body of work.
New York is Scorsese’s muse. It would be unfair to take any section of the city and use it as an analogy for his films, most of which examine issues of violence and masculinity in American society. No one director has portrayed the city in as many great films as Scorsese has.
And Movies by State continues with the Mid-Altantic States: Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.
The movies have pretty much skipped over Delaware. Having been to Dewey/Rehoboth a couple of times and heard good things about the little state on the Delmarva Penninsula, it’s a bit perplexing. The so-so Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012) and George A. Romero’s ill-conceived Survival of the Dead (2009) are two of the few major releases set in the First State.
Fortunately there is one key film set in Delaware. Fight Club (1999) is a classic satire of the disaffected 1990’s and the decline of classical masculinity. It also has Brad Pitt and Ed Norton showcasing some of the best work of their careers.
The District of Columbia
The District of Columbia should be a state, but that’s a topic for another day. Hollywood has set more films here than most states due to the city’s number one employer – the Federal Government. Presidential biopics like Lincoln (2012) and Nixon (1995) are always en vogue. The American President (1995), Murder at 1600 (1997), and Independence Day (1996) are part of a mid-90’s “let’s set genre movies at the White House” craze. White House Down (2013) and Olympus Has Fallen (2013) are basically the same movie, part of the shortly lived 2013 “let’s blow up the White House” craze. The halls of Congress get their due as well, most notably in Frank Capra’s 1939 class Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
It’s hard to select a most notable film set in our Nation’s Capital, and while there are plenty of films of equal note, no American film captures our fears of a government run amuck better than the all too historically accurate drama All the President’s Men (1976). Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman give legendary performances as Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. It takes the biggest political scandal in American history – Watergate – and turns it into the pinnacle of dark, 1970’s thrillers.
Not all films set in DC concern themselves with the Federal Government. St. Elmo’s Fire (1985) takes a look at disaffected Georgetown graduates, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier is one of the two or three best superhero films made during the current “let’s even give Ant-Man his own film” era.
Poor Maryland. It’s the setting of what many critics feel is the best TV show of all time (The Wire), but otherwise it hasn’t gotten much love from Hollywood. They powers that be in showbiz seem to think Washington and Philadelphia are much sexier settings, and tend to ignore the state in between. Sure, parts of movies are set there, like Wedding Crashers (2005), Funny Girl (1968), and Enemy of the State (1998), but it’s hard to find a movie that clearly focuses it’s attention on the Free State beyond relatively obscure fare like 2004’s Saved!.
Seabiscuit (2003) is a film of many settings itself. The underrated sports film features a climax at Baltimore’s hallowed Pimlico Race Course, home of Maryland’s most popular annual event, the Preakness Stakes. Horses may be the state of Maryland’s second favorite animal, but unlike blue crabs, they’re for riding, not for eating, and what a ride Seabiscuit had.
In contrast, lots of movies get set in Jersey. There are a couple of key genres of Jersey movie. You have your disaffected suburbanite films like Clerks (1994), Garden State (2004), and Mallrats (1995). You have your crime movies, like Louis Malle’s Atlantic City (1980) and Brian de Palma’s Snake Eyes (1998). And finally, you have your horror movies like the Friday the 13th series.
On the Waterfront (1954) may be Elia Kazan’s thinly veiled excuse for naming names in the 1950’s Communist witch hunts, but it remains a remarkable achievement in American cinema. Marlon Brando gives one of his best performances, and his “I could have been a contender” speech is known to people who haven’t even seen the movie. It is often ranked among the best American films, and with good reason – it’s a well made, emotional drama starring one of the best cinematic actors at the top of his game.
Pennsylvania films can be broken up into three regions. Movies set in Philadelphia include the classic screwball comedy The Philadelphia Story (1940), classic drama Philadelphia (1993), and plenty of good films that don’t have the name of the city in the title like The Sixth Sense (1999) and Rocky (1976). Pittsburgh movies include Bob Roberts (1992), Groundhog Day (1992), Kingpin (1996), and the Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012).
The most notable film set in the fine state of Pennsylvania is not set in either of these cities. It is set in the fictional town of Bedford Falls. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) may be the single most watched American film – after all, how many other films have been seen once a year by millions of people for decades? Surprisingly, it wasn’t a box office success, and would have faded from memory if RKO hadn’t let the copyright expire. Fortunately this meant that TV stations could air the movie cheaply, and its success foretold a time when box office bombs could find a second life in another form of media.
Frank Capra’s holiday classic isn’t the only notable film set in between Pennsylvania’s big cities though. Gettysburg (1993) may be dry as sawdust, but it’s certainly not without its ambition. The heartbreaking coming of age film My Girl (1991) is set in the middle of the state as well.
We close out our Mid-Atlantic tour with West Virginia. West Virginia is a tough state to pinpoint region-wise. It isn’t quite Southern, not quite Northeastern, and not quite Midwestern. Hollywood doesn’t seem to know quite what to do with the Mountain state either, except set low budget horror movies there. Examples include The Mothman Prophecies (2002), Silent Hill (2006), and Wrong Turn (2003). 1999’s October Sky and We Are Marshall (2006) are exceptions, but for the most part it’s horror, horror, horror.
One of the finest horror movies of all time is set in West Virginia after all. Night of the Hunter (1955) made a star out of Robert Mitchum and sits near the top of many lists of best American films. It blends together all the tools of horror, thrillers, and film noir up until that point to create a truly terrifying masterpiece.
Coming up next: a focus on a common setting of American movies, New York State.
Massachusetts has gotten the lion’s share of New England love from Hollywood. It is, after all, the most populous state in New England and home to the historically important city of Boston. While many films are set in the Bay State, there are four categories key categories that I’d like to discuss: College Films, Period Pieces, Maritime Films, and Modern Boston Films.
Boston is known far and wide as a college town, and to lazy Hollywood screenwriters, College really means Harvard. The Social Network (2010), The Paper Chase (1973), With Honors (1994), Legally Blonde (2001) and a good number of other popular movies are set there. School Ties (1992) gets by with a fake, Harvard-like prep school.
There are plenty of films set in fake colleges that are plenty similar to Massachusetts/Harvard for that matter. The Program (1993), Revenge of the Nerds (1984), Van Wilder (2002), and Old School (2003) seem awfully Massachusetts-like, don’t you think?
Boston is the spiritual home of the American Revolution, but there are only a few films actually set during that time in Boston. For colonial era period pieces, the Salem Witch Trials get more attention. Hollywood has adapted The Crucible twice, in 1957 and 1996 for instance. Hocus Pocus (1993), Maid of Salem (1937), I Married a Witch (1942), and Bell Book and Candle (1958) are a few more Salem Witch Trial movies.
There are more than a few literary adaptations set in Massachusetts as well. Little Women got the big screen treatment three times, the most recent being in 1994. The Scarlett Letter has been adapted over ten times. Moby Dick’s gotten a few spins around the backlots too, although no adaptation is really definitive for this dense, symbolist tome.
Speaking of Moby Dick, the Bay State gets its fair share of seagoing films. The Perfect Storm (2000) is a good example, but adding a category for Maritime films is really an excuse to talk about the most notable film set in Massachusetts. It’s the film the launched the career of one of America’s greatest directors and made us afraid to get into the water – 1977’s Jaws.
Jaws is notable for its iconic score of course (duh-nuh, duh-nuh) and its withholding use of the film’s main villain. It’s greatest legacy, for better or worse, is that it is the film most responsible for there being a “summer movie season.” Before Jaws, movies were released and marketed largely by appealing to the public’s desire to see “big stars.” Jaws needed no big stars to become the biggest movie of all time (at least until Star Wars (1977) came out).
Jaws was really the first “event movie.” Although critics loved it, it wouldn’t have mattered if they hated it, people needed to see it just to see what the fuss was about. After all, they call successful summer movies “blockbusters” because of Jaws.
We close our discussion of Bay State films with a newer trend. Over the last few decades, we’ve seen a notable uptick in movies set in and around modern Boston. The Departed (2006) won Martin Scorsese his first Best Director Oscar. Mystic River (2003), The Town (2010), Gone Baby Gone (2007), and the semi-period piece Shutter Island (2010) have shown Boston’s potential as a setting for gripping mysteries. Finally, the inspirational Good Will Hunting (1997) has aged remarkably well.
Next time we visiting the Mid-Atlantic States: Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.