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Traveler's Top 10 Picks For Movies Involving National Parks

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Gettysburg, the movie, was actually filmed at Gettysburg National Military Park.

Dozens of movies have depicted actors and actresses cavorting, romancing, running, hiding, fighting, and yes, even dying in national parks or places destined to become national parks. Here are ten of Traveler's favorite movies with a national park connection of some sort. Note that we don’t restrict the field to films shot on location in parks.

Thelma and Louise (1991). When Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis decided to rev up that ’66 T-bird convertible and launch themselves into the Grand Canyon, they created one of the most memorable moments in movie history. The audacity of this deed was matched to the epic scale of the Grand Canyon itself. It’s a long, LONG way down from the rim to the rocks, and you don’t act on suicidal impulses there unless you really, REALLY mean it. Did the girls-gone-bad remember to buckle their seatbelts? Check it out at this site. Factoid: The fatal plunge was actually filmed on U.S. Bureau of Land Management land (Shafer Trail) below Dead Horse Point near Moab, Utah. Some other scenes in this film were shot at Arches National Park. Respectful Request: At least one damn fool who saw this movie decided to depart this mortal coil the same way. Please don't do it yourself; Traveler needs all the readers we can get.

Into the Wild (2007). In April 1992, young Chris McCandless took up residence in a converted school bus he stumbled upon at a hunting camp in Alaska’s Denali National Park & Preserve. There he stayed, and there he died. Chris had decided to live in the wilderness for a while to test himself and deepen his self-awareness. He went alone, told no one where he was headed, and possessed only the most rudimentary wilderness survival skills and gear. Bad things happened. In September, moose hunters found Chris’s wasted body inside the bus. It weighed just 67 pounds -- clear evidence that Chris had suffered a long and lonely demise. Decide for yourself whether it was bad luck or poor judgment that left this young idealist stranded and doomed. Factoid: Director Sean Penn did not film on location, but instead used an astonishingly accurate reproduction of the bus installed about 50 miles away at Jack River. The real bus, which is now graffiti marred and has lost some of its contents to souvenir hunters, still sits where Chris found it. Privacy loving residents of nearby Healy want to get rid of the bus because it has attracted so many “McCandless pilgrims” (about 100 a year), some of whom were stranded and had to be airlifted out.

Dances with Wolves (1990). Having been badly wounded in body and soul, Civil War hero Lt. John Dunbar (Kevin Costner) journeys to the Western frontier. There he is delighted to find Indians, buffalo, a dancing wolf, and Mary McDonnell. Camera crews filmed Dances at a variety of locations, but the most gorgeous mixed grass prairie landscape they found was at Badlands National Park in southwestern South Dakota. Psychologists and literary historians tell us that the natural prairie found at Badlands and some other national parks impresses us most with its sense of boundlessness. Look to the horizon in any direction and the only thing you see is…… more prairie. Open space, the lab coats say, inspires thoughts of personal freedom and creativity that exist in counterpoint to the feelings of work, obligation, and everyday routine that buildings, forests, and other closed spaces evoke. Aha! So THAT’S why we liked this flick! Factoid: Remember the raw liver that Kevin ate after the buffalo hunt? Not a Bear Grylls moment, folks. It was just cranberry Jello.

Forrest Gump (1994). Slow-witted Forrest is duped into speechifying to an anti-war gathering at the Lincoln Memorial. There he spots Jenny in the audience and sloshes to a joyful reunion in the reflecting pool. It’s movie magic on the National Mall. If you’re going to choose a place that symbolizes American freedoms and ideals, you can scarcely do better than the National Mall in general and the Lincoln Memorial in particular. The Mall is where people from all over America have traditionally gathered to exercise their First Amendment right to assemble peacefully and petition the government for a redress of their grievances. And no public place on the Mall symbolizes the struggle for social change more powerfully than the Lincoln Memorial – a fact of which Martin Luther King, Jr. was keenly aware when he delivered his landmark “I Have a Dream” speech from this very spot on August 28, 1963. Factoid: If you loiter near the Lincoln Memorial, there’s a good chance you’ll encounter foreign visitors exchanging big smiles and saying “Forrest Gump! Forrest Gump!”

The Presidio (1988). Meg Ryan plays the female lead in this action mystery flick. To the dismay of her Sleepless in Seattle fans, Meg has dumped her girl-next-door image and morphed into a hottie. Meg’s love interest is played by the young Mark Harmon, who is arguably prettier than Meg and has serious issues with Meg’s father. Looking sharp in his Colonel’s uniform, Sean Connery conquers a badass bar brawler using only his thumb. The action epicenter is the Presidio, a former military post in San Francisco that became a unit of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in 1994. Factoid: The Presidio houses commercial enterprises that help to pay expenses. In 2005 the marquee commercial tenant, Lucasfilm (of Star Wars fame), employed about 1,500 workers and paid around $5.6 million a year in rent.

Escape from Alcatraz (1979). Bank robber Frank Morris, played pretty well here by Clint Eastwood, is incarcerated on The Rock. Try as he might, ‘ol Frank just can’t take a liking to Alcatraz. So he and the two Anglin brothers make a daring getaway from the prison and disappear into the icy waters of the bay. They probably drowned or died of hypothermia, but nobody knows for sure; no trace of them has ever been found on the mainland. Like the Presidio, Alcatraz is a unit of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Each year thousands of tourists take the short ferry ride out to The Rock to tour the place, try a cell on for size, and imagine what it must have been like to be caged in that awful place while knowing that America’s most delightfully livable city is less than two watery miles away. Factoid: Given the bay’s 57ish-degree water, powerful currents, and other hazards (which don’t include man eating sharks), swimming from Alcatraz to the mainland is a daunting task. But hundreds of people have done it for kicks, and at least one guy did it while wearing handcuffs. If you’re interested, the South End Rowing Club sponsors an annual Alcatraz Invitational Swim. Handcuffs are optional.

North by Northwest (1959). Start with a script that is intricate, sweeping in scope, and full of drama, tension, and surprises. Put together a cast that features Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason, Leo Carroll, and Martin Landau. Hire Alfred Hitchcock to direct. How could your film not be a masterpiece? Bad guys mistake New York advertising executive Roger Thornhill (Carey Grant) for a government agent. They attempt to put out Thornhill’s lights, but he escapes and heads west to Chicago, to wheat-filled plains, and finally to the Black Hills of South Dakota. The bad guys, who have already determined that Thornhill cannot be killed in a car accident, on a train, or with the use of a crop duster, decide that pushing him off the Mount Rushmore National Memorial should do the trick. Silly bad guys; they must have forgotten to read the script. Factoid: “Big” is a relative concept. The Chief Crazy Horse Memorial under construction elsewhere in the Black Hills dwarfs the Mt. Rushmore Memorial, which could be neatly tucked into the space between the chief’s outstretched arm and his horse’s neck.

Gettysburg (1993). We owe a vote of thanks to media mogul Ted Turner for producing this 258-minute epic, which is as historically accurate a Civil War movie as you are ever likely to see. During the first three days of July 1863, Gettysburg was the site of the biggest and bloodiest battle of the war. When the smoke cleared, 51,000 soldiers had been killed, wounded, or captured and General Robert E. Lee’s second and last invasion of the North had been repulsed. Gettysburg was the turning point of the war, and thus the “High Water Mark of the Confederacy.” Today, Gettysburg National Military Park is the crown jewel of American battlefield parks. Factoid One: For the first time ever, the Park Service allowed a motion picture producer to reenact and film battle scenes directly on the Gettysburg battlefield. Viewers familiar with this battlefield will recognize scenes shot at Devil's Den and Little Round Top. Factoid two: If you look carefully, you can spot Ted Turner himself in a cameo portrayal of the soon-to-be-dead Confederate Colonel Waller C. Patton. Factoid Three: Tom Berringer, portraying the star-crossed Confederate General James Longstreet, was forced to wear the silliest looking fake beard ever seen on the silver screen – or anywhere else, for that matter

Grand Canyon Adventure 3D: River at Risk (2008) This 34-minute IMAX movie was filmed in 3-D format, which is exactly what you would want to do if you if the choice were yours to make. The audience becomes part of the action, experiencing every gut-wrenching twist and turn of a river trip that forces viewers to see nature as they never have before. “In our film,” says producer/director Greg MacGillivray, “the Colorado River becomes a metaphor for global water issues, revealing how interconnected our rivers, water supply and human actions really are.” Factoid: In 2004, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation released water from the Glen Canyon Dam to mimic natural flooding and supply sediment for Colorado River sandbars and beaches. The peak flow, about 8.5 million gallons a minute for two straight days, was said to be sufficient to fill 6,200 bathtubs a second. BuRec released water in flood-mimicking amounts again in March 2008.

The New World (2006). OK, let’s get something straight from the outset. We fully appreciate that calling this over-hyped chick flick “entertainment” takes more nerve than a toothache. Traveler encourages you to see it only if you cannot possibly rest easy until you have seen every one of Colin Ferrell’s cinema gigs. We wouldn’t even mention this wretched waste of talent were it not for the fact that parks commemorating 400-year old English settlements are woefully underrepresented in this movie list. Here’s the gist: The English put down roots in the Virginia wilds, thinking to civilize the place and make Big Bucks. Life in the Jamestown settlement proves prevailingly lethal -- not least because the settlers know very little about producing food, whereas the local Indians know a lot about dealing with uninvited guests. Love blossoms anyway, and isn’t that sweet? If you are really interested in the Jamestown story, go visit the Colonial National Historical Park. Factoid: Embarking for Jamestown was not conducive to longevity. Around 80% of the 6,000 settlers sent from England to Jamestown between 1607 and 1625 soon died of malnourishment, disease, or other afflictions. Many would-be settlers succumbed to sickness or shipwreck without ever laying eyes on Virginia.

Comments

When I was down there for training my supervisor pointed out the damage done to the trees from the film crew right on the Linville Falls trail. I'm not sure if that trail exited the NPS boundaries before coming back in near the falls.


The Last of the Mohicans does have scenes shot in the Linville Falls vicinity. Linville falls has been part of Blue Ridge Parkway since the early 1950s and is accessible via a spur road. However, my understanding is that the footage used in the movie was shot on a trail near Linville Falls in the Linville Gorge Wilderness, which is in Pisgah National Forest. Perhaps somebody can clarify the matter.


I just have to add some mroe to this on-going list.

Misty of Chincoteague filmed at Assateague Island (part of the VA side does belong to the NPS so it counts!)
and Last of the Mohicans filmed at Linville Falls on the Blue Ridge Parkway


Anonymous:
I'm pretty sure the scenes in "Indiana Jones" filmed at Arches were during Indy's youth.

I believe they were, but the era in the film was probably before Arches became a National Monument. I know that isn't critical here, but I thought I'd mention it.

And CAPTCHA for today is "barking observation".


Yes, you're correct about the footage shot at Arches. See the recent Traveler article National Park Movies of the 1980s. The entry for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade contains this bit of info:

The movie's opening scenes, which show Young Indy discovering treasure hunters unearthing the Cross of Coronado, were actually filmed last. And while that sequence was filmed in Arches National Park, it was originally supposed to have been filmed in Mesa Verde National Park. The switch to Arches was made only after Native Americans voiced strong religious objections to filming in Mesa Verde's Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings.


I'm pretty sure the scenes in "Indiana Jones" filmed at Arches were during Indy's youth.


Thanks for the interesting commentary, Elliott. When I get the chance, I'm going to incorporate your information into a revision of the basic article and in several additional movie-themed articles now in draft. I hope I'll have an opportunity to watch Forever Darling too, but I must admit that my movie-watching backlog is already very intimidating.


For more Traveler park movie selections and discussion, visit this site. The next installment in this series, which is in preparation, will focus on national park movies of the 1980s and 1990s. I'll be sure to give The Rock its due. I've seen the film several times and agree that it's a good selection.


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