Utah Film through the Decades

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Since practically the beginning of American cinema, the Beehive State has been one of Hollywood’s favorite leading ladies.

As it approaches the 90 year anniversary of film making in Utah, the state’s no stranger to the big screen. With over 900 films and TV movies filmed in the Beehive State—which features low-production costs, tax benefits, and a beautiful landscape that can be made to look like almost anything—it’s been a long-time favorite of film makers over the decades, playing a variety of roles in a variety of settings. These are just a few of our favorites.
[Year/Director/Rating/Utah filming locations]
The Deadwood Coach
[1924/Lynn Reynolds/Unrated/Cedar City, UT; Kanab, UT; Zion National Park, Springdale, UT]
The first film in Utah was this silent western starring the legendary Tom Mix, who has been called Hollywood’s first Western megastar and would define the genre for the decades to come. It was an adaptation based on “The Orphan” by Clarence E. Mulford, the story of a man searching for the villains that murdered his parents.
Fort Apache
[1948/John Ford/Approved/Dead Horse Point State Park, Moab, UT; Arches National Park, Moab, UT; Goosenecks State Park, Mexican Hat, UT; Goulding’s Trading Post, Monument Valley, UT]
During the 1940’s, John Ford’s westerns would immortalize the Utah landscape in celluloid. “Fort Apache,” whose plot was loosely based on Custer’s Last Stand, starred John Wayne, Henry Fonda, and Shirley Temple who was 19-years-old at the time. It was the famed first-entry in Ford’s “Cavalry Trilogy,” followed by “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” and “Rio Grande,” both of which were also partly filmed in Utah.
The Searchers
[1956/John Ford/Unrated/Monument Valley, UT; Goosenecks State Park – State Highway 316, Mexican Hat, UT]
This John Ford/John Wayne collaboration was ranked number one by the American Film Institute’s 2008 list of the “10 Greatest Films in the Western Genre” and had been named the “12th greatest movie of all time” in 2007. In one scene, John Wayne and Natalie Wood run up the side of a hill and down the other. The side they run up was filmed in Utah’s Monument Valley, but the side they run down was filmed at the Bronson Canyon area of Griffith Park in Los Angeles, 647 miles away.
2001: A Space Odyssey
[1968/Stanley Kubrick/G/Monument Valley, UT]
Kubrick’s space epic was not a financial success during its first weeks after release. MGM was ready to pull the film until theater owners convinced them to continue showing it. The proprietors had noticed an increasing number of young adults attending the film because it had become popular to watch the “star gate scene” while under the influence of psychotropic drugs. The scene—which takes place during the film’s final, enigmatic segment “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite”—was filmed in the unearthly landscape of Utah’s Monument Valley. The tickets sold to those young adults were enough to help the film become financially successful.
Once Upon a Time in the West
[1968/Sergio Leone/M/Moab, UT]
Although the majority of the film was shot in Spain and Italy, director Sergio Leone came to Utah to shoot a few scenes on location. For the scene featuring Lionel Stander as a barman, the exterior of his establishment was shot in Utah’s Monument Valley but the interior was filmed in Cinecittà, a large film studio in Rome. However, red dust was imported from Monument Valley and added to the interior scenes for authenticity. It’s most clearly seen in the clouds of dust as characters enter the bar.
Planet of the Apes
[1968/Franklin J. Schaffner/G/Glen Canyon, UT; Lake Powell, UT]
Shortly after crash-landing in the middle of a lake surrounded by unfamiliar landscape, Charlton Heston’s character, George Taylor, is asked where he thinks they are. Having no real idea, he responds sarcastically saying “We’re some 320 light years from Earth on an unnamed planet in orbit around a star in the constellation of Orion.” It was actually Utah’s Lake Powell where the scene was filmed, which is notably not inhabited by a dominant species of intelligent simians.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
[1969/George Roy Hill/M/Zion’s National Park, Springdale, UT; Grafton, UT; Snow Canyon, UT; St. George, UT]
Some scenes of what is largely considered the greatest “buddy film” of all time, especially within the western genre, were filmed in Utah. Using some of his salary from this 1969 pairing with Paul Newman, Robert Redford purchased 6,000 acres of land at the base of Mount Timpanogos in the Wasatch Mountain Range that same year. He named it “Sundance” after his character in the film, a name that’s become synonymous with the film festival which began in 1978. Aside from being the largest independent cinema festival in the United States, Sundance is one of the most prestigious in the world.
The Outlaw Josey Wales
[1976/Clint Eastwood/PG/Glen Canyon, UT; Kanab Movie Ranch – 5001 Angel Canyon Road, Kanab, UT; Paria, UT]
This Clint Eastwood revenge narrative was filmed in Kanab—Utah’s own “Little Hollywood.” While Eastwood cites it as his personal favorite, the film received mixed reviews on its release. However, it was highly praised by Native American viewers for its non-stereotypical portrayal of Native Americans in the film.
Better Off Dead
[1985/Savage Steve Holland/PG/Dan’s Market 3981 Wasatch Blvd, Holladay, UT; Brighton, UT; Snowbird, UT; Alta, UT]
In a 2004 interview, director Savage Steve Holland told the story of his suicide attempts which inspired the film. He said he went into the garage, stood on a garbage can and hung an extension cord over a pipe. As he thought to himself “Should I do this? Maybe this isn’t a good idea,” the plastic garbage can lid gave way and he crashed through it. The pipe broke, pouring water everywhere. His mom came into the garage and yelled at him for breaking the pipe. “So, I started writing down stupid ways to kill yourself after that.” Those ideas would later be developed into “Better Off Dead.”
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
[1989/Steven Spielberg/PG-13/Arches National Park, Moab, UT]
The third—and for many, the last—Indiana Jones film opened with a scene in the deserts of southern Utah featuring River Phoenix as the teenage titular hero. Phoenix became the first actor to portray a young Indy, and was nominated for the role by Harrison Ford himself. Phoenix said that he didn’t base his portrayal of the character on Indiana Jones, but on Ford, whom he watched out-of-character in preparation for the role.
Troll 2
[1990/Claudio Fragasso/PG-13/Heber, UT; Porterville, UT]
This B-movie horror flick has gone from being deemed the “worst film of all time” to finding a place as a cherished cult classic and being immortalized in the 2009 documentary “Best Worst Movie” which chronicles the making of the film and the legacy it left behind. In 2007, Morgan, UT held a “Troll 2” Festival, and transformed the city into “Nilbog,” the fictional town where the film is set.
Thelma & Louise
[1991/Ridley Scott/R/Canyonlands National Park, Moab, UT; Cisco, UT; Courthouse Towers Arches National Park, Moab, UT; Dead Horse Point State Park – State Highway 313, Moab, UT; La Sal Mountains, La Sal, UT; Thompson Springs, UT; Valley of the Gods, Mexican Hat, UT; West Valley City, UT]
It has become one of American cinema’s most iconic images, that of gal-pals Thelma and Louise running from the police and driving their ’66 Thunderbird headlong into the Grand Canyon. It wasn’t the Grand Canyon, though, but rather Dead Horse Point in Utah where their last stand was actually filmed.
Dumb and Dumber
[1994/Peter & Bobby Farelly/PG-13/Park City, UT; Sandy, UT; Bear Mountain Chalet, 425 S. Main St Heber City, UT; Lakepoint, UT; Orem, UT; Provo, UT; Salt Lake City, UT; SLC International Airport]
This road-buddy comedy was the directorial debut of the Farrelly Brothers and would solidify Jim Carrey’s career as a Hollywood funnyman. A good portion of the film was shot in Utah, filling in for small-town America. But, the Salt Lake International Airport also stood in for Rhode Island’s Providence Airport. The scene with Carrey running through the terminal, briefcase in hand while shouting “It’s ok, I’m a limo driver!” that ends with him falling onto the tarmac was all filmed at the SLC International Airport.
Independence Day
[1996/Roland Emmerich/PG-13/Bonneville Salt Flats, UT; Lakepoint, UT; Skull Valley, UT; Tooele, UT; Wendover Airport – 345 S. Airport Apron, Wendover, UT]
With the Wendover Airport playing the part of Area 51—at least the exterior—the scene in which Will Smith drags an unconscious alien through the desert was filmed at the Bonneville Salt Flats. His line “And what the hell is that smell?” was improvised. No one had warned him about the putrid smell that is sometimes caused by decaying brine shrimp in the Great Salt Lake.
SLC Punk!
[1998/James Merendino/R/Salt Lake City, UT]
This comedy-drama about a punk rocker living in 1980’s Salt Lake—based in part on writer/director James Merendino’s experiences growing up in Utah’s state capital—was almost entirely shot on location and was chosen as the opening-night feature at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival. Meredino helmed a sequel title “Punk’s Dead,” which is set to debut later this month.
Mission: Impossible II
[2000/John Woo/PG-13/Dead Horse Point State Park – State Highway 313, Moab, UT]
The most popular scene of this film, which showcases Tom Cruise as the death-defying, super agent Ethan Hunt, was filmed at Utah’s Dead Horse Point. The iconic scene featured the character free-climbing on his off time. Tom Cruise himself was on cables, but he performed his own stunts for the scene, including a particularly dangerous one which he pulled off without the benefit of a safety net and against the urgings of the film’s producers.
Planet of the Apes
[2001/Tim Burton/PG-13/Lake Powell, UT]
This critical failure was a remake of the popular 1968 film of the same name. While this film failed to capture the nuance of the original, the filmmakers tried to at least pay tribute to the source material. They did this, in part, by offering a cameo role to the original’s star, Charlton Heston, and by returning to film in some of the same locations as the original. One of those locations was Utah’s Lake Powell.
National Treasure
[2004/Jon Turteltaub/PG/Strawberry, Reservoir, UT]
While most of this film sees Nicolas Cage running around the East Coast retracing the secret history of America’s Founding Fathers by following a map on the back of the Declaration of Independence, one scene was filmed in Utah. Rather than travel to the far north, Strawberry Reservoir—Utah’s most popular fishery—was dressed up to look like the arctic where Cage and villain, Sean Bean, find the wreckage of a long lost colonial shipping vessel.
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End
[2007/Gore Verbinski/PG-13/Bonneville Salt Flats, UT]
Reminiscent of Will Smith dragging an alien carcass across the desert in “Independence Day,” this film sees Johnny Depp pulling a pirate ship across the Bonneville Salt Flats which stood in for the pirate netherworld Depp’s eccentric Captain Jack Sparrow was trapped in. For the scene, the film crew built a 60-foot replica of the Black Pearl’s front half on the back of a semi trailer. The Salt Flats shoot was scheduled for 19 days, but it wrapped in only four.
127 Hours
[2010/Danny Boyle/R/Moab, UT; Salt Lake City, UT]
Danny Boyle’s successful retelling of canyoneer Aaron Ralston’s now-famous, bone-snapping ordeal in Southern Utah was nominated for six Academy Awards and three Golden Globes. Shot entirely on location, the film took advantage of the beautiful red rocks of Southern Utah, including the cave paintings shown in the opening credits which are found in Horseshoe Canyon and are at least 1500 years old.
The Tree of Life
[2011/Terrence Malick/PG-13/Bonneville Salt flats, UT; Goblin Valley State Park – Highway 24, Green River, UT]
For this film about a family living in 1956 Waco, director Terrence Malick decided to forgo a straightforward narrative and turned it into a philosophical and introspective examination about inner conflict and the loss of innocence. A scene where Jack, played by Sean Penn, wanders across barren landscapes was filmed on locations all around the U.S. including the Bonneville Salt Flats. It’s the conclusion of this scene though that uses the unique landscape of Utah’s Goblin Valley, where Penn’s character finds his “doorway to resolution.”

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About Author

Alex Sousa is a Utah native whose passion for writing has guided his life. His first love has always been fiction, holding to a firm belief in the power and importance of storytelling. He studied journalism at Utah Valley University, has worked as a freelance writer and an editor for several Utah publications, as well as working as a copywriter for an advertising agency. His sense of adventure has brought him to untouched corners of his home state and around the world, living in Mexico, backpacking through Europe, studying in the Middle East and—for a time—being stranded in Ukraine. He currently resides in Orem, Utah, married to his work.

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