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National Park Movies of the 1980s


Thurmond, a town in New River Gorge National River, stood in for Matewan in the movie production. Theatrical release poster via Wikimedia Commons.

The beauty, grandeur, wide open spaces, charismatic wildlife, historic significance, and other qualities of our national parks make them attractive filming locations for motion picture and television productions. Scores of Hollywood movies contain scenes -- sometimes vital, sometimes not so important -- filmed in National Park System units. If you are a typical movie-goer, you've seen actors cavorting, romancing, running, hiding, fighting, and dying in national parks.

All movies with national park content are interesting in various respects. Traveler wants to give these "national park movies" the recognition they deserve and highlight some that we especially like.

Traveler's Top Ten list of national park movies, which was posted in April 2008, focused on motion pictures (not made-for-television films) with one or more scenes filmed in National Park System units. The films making the cut in this first go-around were ( in chronological order):

North by Northwest (1959, Escape from Alcatraz (1979), The Presidio (1988), Dances with Wolves (1990), Thelma and Louise (1991), Gettysburg (1993), Forrest Gump (1994), The New World (2006), Into the Wild (2007), and Grand Canyon Adventure 3D: River at Risk (2008).

Traveler readers were quick to point out that this listing just scratched the surface and overlooked many deserving films. We agreed, and resolved to dig deeper. The second compilation, which included additional choices for 1950-1979, was posted in December 2009 and consisted of the following: King Solomon’s Mines (1950), The Big Sky (1953), Shane (1953), The Long, Long Trailer (1954), Vertigo (1958), Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959), Spencer's Mountain (1963), Brighty of the Grand Canyon (1967),
Planet of the Apes (1968), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Zabriskie Point (1970), Jeremiah Johnson (1972), Godfather, Part II (1974), The Eiger Sanction (1975), Star Wars (re-titled Star Wars IV: A New Hope) (1977), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and The Electric Horseman (1979).

"Honorable mention" designees were; The Caine Mutiny (1954), Forever, Darling (1956), One-Eyed Jacks (1961), How the West Was Won (1962), Mackenna's Gold (1969), My Name is Nobody (1973), The Mountain Men (1974), The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), The Man Who Would Be King (1974), and Rocky II (1979).

This edition of Traveler's national park movies series focuses on the top choices for the 1980s. Later, we'll post our choices for the 1990s and 2000s.

It's difficult to generalize about the national park movies of 1980s, but we can see a few patterns reflective of an American movie industry that was consolidating through mergers/takeovers, building multi-screen theaters like mad, and evolving in response to technological advances, soaring production costs, declining ticket sales, strong competition from cable television and videocassettes (remember them?), and this country's rapidly shifting demographics, lifestyles, and socio-political concerns. For example, studios produced many relatively inexpensive, lower-risk sequels, loads of youth-oriented films, and a goodly number of movies focused on social justice and human rights issues.

We want to tweak this listing, so let us know what you think. Is there an entry that lacks vital information or that could be improved with the addition of an interesting anecdote? What films have we overlooked? Are there some titles that should be scrubbed?

Our national park movie choices for the 1980s are listed here chronologically. No rankings are implied.

The Fog
Director: John Carpenter
Cast: Adrienne Barbeau, Jamie Lee Curtis, Janet Leigh, John Hoseman
Gist: A strange glowing fog heralds revenge-seeking ghosts bent on killing six people in a northern California fishing town that was founded 100 years ago with ill-gotten gold.
Accolades: Avoriaz Fantastic Film Festival Critic Award; Saturn Award nomination (Best Horror Film, Special Effects). Some film critics call this a "minor horror classic."
Scenes filmed in: Point Reyes National Seashore (lighthouse scenes)
Memorable scene: Two soon-to-be-murdered fishermen are startled to see a ghostly sailing ship materialize from the strange fog that surrounds their boat.
Trivia: This low-budget indie was so successful that it inspired a 2005 remake bearing the same title.

The Shining (1980)
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duval, Danny Lloyd, Scatman Crothers,
Gist: A family ensconced in an isolated, closed-for-winter hotel is tormented by an evil presence that drives the father to murderous lunacy.
Accolades: Saturn Award for Best Supporting Actor (Scatman Crothers); three other Saturn nominations and two Razzie Award nominations (Worst Actress [Shelley Duval] and Worst Director)
Scenes filmed in: Glacier National Park
Memorable scene: Jack, who is trying to murder his wife and son, sticks his head through the hole he has hacked in the bathroom door and leeringly announces "Heeeeeere's Johnny!"
Trivia: Almost all of the photography for this film was done in soundstages in England, but there was a little location filming. The opening panorama shots were filmed in Glacier National Park, and so was the sequence showing the Volkswagen Beetle on the road to the "Overlook Hotel" (that's actually Going-to-the-Sun Road you see). The exterior of the Timberline Lodge on Oregon's Mount Hood (in Mount Hood National Forest) stood in for the exterior of the Overlook Hotel. Some interior views were conceptually based on (though not actually filmed in) the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite National Park.

Blow Out (1981)
Director: Brian De Palma
Cast: John Travolta, Nancy Allen, John Lithgow, Dennis Franz
Gist: A movie sound effects technician working in Philadelphia accidentally captures evidence of an assassination and becomes tangled in a web of politically-motivated murder and deceit.
Accolades: Although praised by many critics (including Roger Ebert), the film was a commercial flop. Audiences hated its dreary ending and word-of-mouth was very disappointing
Scenes filmed in: Independence National Historical Park
Memorable scene: Jack (John Travolta) rescues a woman trapped in a submerged car with a dead man. The victim turns out to be the leading Presidential candidate.
Trivia: Two reels of film from the fictional "Liberty Day Parade" sequence were stolen during the editing process and are still missing.

Continental Divide (1981)
Director: Michael Apted
Cast: John Belushi, Blair Brown, Val Avery, Allen Goorwitz, Carlin Glynn
Gist: Chicago reporter Ernie Souchak (John Belushi) falls in love with a scientist studying bald eagles in the Colorado Rockies, where Souchak has been sent for his own safety after incurring the wrath of a crooked, lethally dangerous councilman.
Accolades: Golden Globe nomination (Best Actress)
Scenes filmed in: Glacier National Park
Memorable scene: The one that inspires the comment: "That's an American bald eagle that you're shooting at. The government takes it rather personally."
Trivia: John Belushi died on March 5, 1982, less than six months after this film was released.

Barbarosa (1982
Director: Fred Schepisi
Cast: Willie Nelson, Gary Busey, Isela Vega, Gilbert Roland
Gist: Farm boy-turned-outlaw Karl Westover (Busey) teams up with legendary outlaw Barbarosa (Nelson), who has aroused the lethal ire of a wealthy Mexican rancher by marrying his daughter.
Accolades: Although this film won no significant awards, film critics consider it highly original and some have said it's one of the best "overlooked" westerns ever produced.
Scenes filmed in: Big Bend National Park
Memorable scene: Stretched out in a shallow grave, where he is being hastily covered up, Barbarosa discretely informs Karl that he's alive, and that he'd appreciate it Karl would stop throwing dirt in his face.
Trivia: Some of the film sequences were shot in Terlingua, a Texas town near Big Bend and the Mexican town of Santa Elena. Terlingua is renowned for its high-profile chili cookoffs. In the late 1970s, the cookoff producers sponsored a competition called the “Mexican Fence-Climbing Contest.” You can't make this stuff up.

Brainstorm (1983)
Director: Douglas Trumbull
Cast: Natalie Wood, Christopher Walken, Cliff Robertson, Louise Fletcher
Gist: Scientists invent a device that can record sensations from a person's brain so that others can experience them. It's a mixed blessing fraught with potential for abuse..
Accolades: Two Saturn Awards (Best Actress, Best Music), six other nominations
Scenes filmed in: Wright Brothers National Memorial
Memorable scene: Michael Brace (Walken) shares the after-death experiences of colleague Lillian Reynolds (Fletcher) and nearly dies himself as he sees visions of hell, heavenly angels, and infinite cosmic light.
Trivia: Michael Brace (Walken) is using a pay phone at Wright Brothers National Memorial when he tries on the Brainstorm headpiece to see what it feels like to die. In a true life tragedy, a drowning accident claimed the life of the film's female lead, Natalie Wood, before the principal photography was finished. The filming was completed two years later with the use of stand-ins, sound-alikes, and tricky camera angles.

Star Wars VI: Return of the Jedi (1983)
Director: Richard Marquand
Cast: Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, Alec Guiness, James Earl Jones (voice of Darth Vader)
Gist: The Rebel Alliance must destroy the Empire's bigger, better Death Star before it is completed.
Accolades: 5 Saturn Awards (Best Science Fiction Film, Actor, Costume, Make-Up, Special effects); another 6 wins & 11 nominations (including 4 Oscar nominations)
Scenes filmed in: Redwood National and State Parks, where groves of giant coastal redwoods stood in for the forests of Edor, and Death Valley National Park ("road to Jabba's Palace" sequence).
Memorable scene: The speeder bike chase through the forest.
Trivia: The spectacular speeder bike chase, at an apparent speed of 100+ mph, was produced by first filming the corkscrew route through the trees at one frame per second and then projecting it at 24 frames per second with the addition of the speeder bikes. Some of the background filming took place at Redwoods' Tall Tree Grove, which at the time had the tallest known tree on earth. The current champion was later discovered nearby.

Vacation (aka National Lampoon's Vacation) (1983)
Director: Harold Ramis
Cast: Chevy Chase, Beverly D'Angelo, Randy Quaid, Imogene Coca, John Candy, Dana Barron, Anthony Michael Hall
Gist: The Griswolds load up their ugly Family Truckster and embark on a hellish (but hilarious) cross-country trip from Chicago to the "Walley World" theme park in L.A.
Accolades: More than just a box office hit, this film has become a pop culture icon.
Scenes filmed in: Grand Canyon National Park and fleeting view of the Gateway Arch (Jefferson National Expansion Memorial). Possibly Death Valley National Park too?
Memorable scene: Leaving a check behind, Clark grabs $1,000 from the El Tovar's cash register, jumps in the Family Truckster, and speeds away. Another memorable scene is Clark's quick glimpse "admiration" of the Grand Canyon.
Trivia: This film spawned five sequels, none of which are rated as highly as the original.

American Flyers
Director: John Badham
Cast: Kevin Costner, Rae Dawn Chong, David Grant, Alexandra Paul,Jennifer Grey (cameo)
Gist: Two brothers team up for the "Hell of the West" bicycle race across the Colorado Rockies. One has a brain tumor and cannot finish, while his lesser-achieving brother finds previously untapped reserves of physical and mental strength.
Accolades: This was a limited-release film produced before Kevin Costner achieved stardom. It only grossed about $1.4 million, and there were no awards or nominations.
Scenes filmed in: Colorado National Monument; also views of Gateway Arch (Jefferson National Expansion Memorial)
Memorable scene: Racing at breakneck speed on two-lane mountain roads with terrifying drop-offs and no guard rails.
Trivia:. Much of this film's excellent racing footage was shot during the (now-defunct) three-stage Coors International Bicycle Classic. The middle stage -- the notoriously grueling Tour of the Moon -- took place in and near spectacularly scenic Colorado National Monument.

Director: Ron Howard
Cast: Tom Hanks, Daryl Hannah, John Candy, Dody Goodman, Eugene Levy
Gist: A man reunited with a mermaid that saved him from drowning falls in love with her under very trying circumstances.
Accolades: Oscar nomination (Best Original Screenplay); Saturn Award (Best Actress); two other win and 7 nominations
Scenes filmed in: Statue of Liberty National Monument
Memorable scene: A mermaid played by the lovely Daryl Hannah comes ashore at Liberty Island and is promptly arrested for public nudity. You don't see that every day!
Trivia: This hit movie brought hugely important recognition to Hanks, Hannah, and Candy -- none of whom had yet achieved stardom -- and to Ron Howard, who established himself as a gifted director.

The Brother from Another Planet (1984)
Director: John Sayles
Cast: Joe Morton, Rosanna Carter, Ray Ramirez, Yves Rene, Peter Richardson
Gist: An escaped alien slave who is mute and looks like an African American crash-lands in New York, ends up in Harlem, and is chased by alien bounty hunters disguised as white men.
Accolades: Caixa de Catalunya (Best Actor, Best Screenplay); nominated for Grand Jury Prize (Dramatic) at Sundance Film Festival
Scenes filmed in: Ellis Island, a component of Statue of Liberty National Monument.
Memorable scene: The Brother (Joe Morton), who has shot up with heroin as an experiment, is guided through the gritty Harlem night scene by Rasta Virgil.
Trivia: The film's opening scene takes place at Ellis Island after The Brother's spaceship crash-lands in the harbor.

Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins ( also released as Remo: Unarmed and Dangerous) (1985)
Director: Guy Hamilton
Cast: Fred Ward, Joel Grey, Wilford Brimley, Kate Mulgrew
Gist: Secret agent Remo Williams, a resurrected "dead" cop, becomes a trained assassin with extraordinary martial arts skills.
Accolades: Oscar nomination (Best Makeup), three other nominations (two Saturn , one Golden Globe)
Scenes filmed in: Statue of Liberty National Monument
Memorable scene: The fight sequence on the scaffolding that covered the statue while it was being renovated for its centennial rededication (July 3, 1986).
Trivia: Some of the filming was done on a full-sized replica of the portion of the statue extending from just below Liberty's book to the top of her torch.

Rocky IV (1985)
Director: Sylvester Stallone
Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Burt Young, Dolph Lundgren, Brigitte Nielsen
Gist: When Rocky's friend Apollo Creed is killed in the ring by malevolent Soviet boxer Ivan Drago, Rocky blames himself and heads off to Russia to fight Drago himself. Guess who wins?
Accolades: Golden Screen Award, Marshal Trophy for Best Actor (Dolph Lundgren)
Scenes filmed in: Grand Teton National Park (Russian tundra scenes)
Memorable scene: In one brief scene you can see Grand Teton towering in the background.
Trivia: Rocky IV didn't impress everybody. In fact, it won 5 Razzie Awards (Worst Actor, Worst Director, Worst Musical Score, Worst New Star, Worst Supporting Actress) and was nominated for four others.

Black Widow (1987)
Director: Bob Rafelson
Cast: Debra Winger, Dennis Hopper, Theresa Russell, Sami Frey
Gist: Female federal investigator goes undercover to trap a serial-murdering gold digger who marries, kills, and cashes in.
Accolades: This "neo-noir" movie got mixed reviews, but no significant recognition.
Scenes filmed in: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Memorable scene: Hubbie Paul Nuytten (Sami Frey) shows up alive, much to the chagrin of the entrapped Black Widow.
Trivia: In 1995, Empire magazine named Theresa Russell, who played the enigmatic killer Catherine Peterson, one of the "100 Sexiest Stars" in film history.

Matewan (1987)
Director: John Sayles
Cast: Chris Cooper, James Earl Jones, Mary McDonnell, David Strathairn, Kevin Tighe, Will Oldham.
Gist: A union organizer finds the going tough in a town thuggishly dominated by a coal mining company. Based on the Matewan Massacre (Battle of Matewan), which took place in May 1920 in Matewan, West Virginia.
Accolades: Critically acclaimed. Oscar nomination (Best Cinematography); two minor awards (cinematography, human rights), six other nominations
Scenes filmed in: New River Gorge National River. One of the park's historic towns, Thurmond, stands in for Matewan.
Memorable scene: Hidden from view, armed miners watch strike-breaking detectives try to bluster their way to the train depot. Gunfire erupts, and moments later four townspeople and seven detectives lie dead.
Trivia: Fourteen months after the Matewan Massacre, detectives killed the town's police chief in retaliation. No one was ever convicted of the murder, which took place -- in broad daylight, and in front of witnesses -- on the steps of the McDowell County Courthouse in Welch, West Virginia.

Blaze (1989)
Director: Ron Shelton
Cast: Paul Newman, Lolita Davidovich
Gist: Aging Louisiana Governor Earl Long (Paul Newman) jeopardizes his career and reputation when he falls in love with young stripper Blaze Starr and moves in with her.
Accolades: Oscar nomination (Best Cinematography); American Society of Cinematographers Award, nominated for Political Film Society Award
Scenes filmed in: Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Memorable scene: The Governor doesn't take his boots off in bed, and for an absolutely hilarious reason.
Trivia: This account of the flamboyant politician's affair with Blaze Starr is highly fictionalized, though alleged to be "mostly true."

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Harrison Ford, Sean Connery, John Rhys-Davies, Alison Doody
Gist: In this third film in the Indiana Jones series, Indiana deals with fanatical Nazis while searching for his father, who has gone missing while searching for the Holy Grail.
Accolades: Oscar (Sound Effects Editing) and 2 Oscar nominations (Best Original Score, Best Sound), 4 other awards and 12 other nominations
Scenes filmed in: Arches National Park; Balanced Rock is prominently featured in beginning
Memorable scene: While being pursued by bad guys on a circus train, Young Indy (played by River Phoenix) falls into a pen filled with slithering snakes.
Trivia: 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.


Working Girl (1988)
Director: Mike Nichols
Cast: Melanie Griffith, Sigourney Weaver, Harrison Ford, Alec Baldwin, Joan Cusack
Gist: A mean, dishonest boss breaks her leg and leaves an under-appreciated assistant Tess (Melanie Griffith) to stand in for her. The working girl promptly shows that she has the Right Stuff.
Accolades: 1 Oscar (Best Original Song) and 5 Oscar Nominations (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, and 2 for Best Supporting Actress ); 4 Golden Globe Awards, 1 Grammy Award, 8 other nominations
Scenes filmed in: The lengthy opening sequence, which is a helicopter aerial, is centered on the Statue of Liberty. Tess' boss Katherine Parker (Sigourney Weaver) has a great view of Governors Island National Monument and the Statue of Liberty from her palatial office window.
Memorable scene: Tess' boss, who blatantly peddled Tess' radio deal concept as her own, is challenged to explain where the inspiration came from and cannot do it. Gotcha!
Trivia: Except for the skiing scene, the entire movie was filmed in New York. The lobby of the office building in which Tess worked was located in 7 World Trade Center, which was destroyed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989). The opening scene has the Star Trek crew camping at Yosemite National Park. Captain Kirk is climbing El Capitan without any protection when he peels off the wall and falls, but (surprise, surprise!) doesn't plummet to his death. Another scene has a character saying “….I'd note that the location of Star Fleet Academy would also be right in the Presidio” (which is, of course, a component of Golden Gate National Recreation Area.) Some of the sound recordings used in this film were made on Alcatraz Island, another component of Golden Gate National Recreation Area.


Kid Colter (1984). Directed by David O'Malley, and featuring a no-name cast, this B-grade wilderness survival story is suitable for kids, all of whom will immediately lose any interest they might have had in running away from home to live the simple life. Scenes filmed in Olympic National Park.

Big Trouble in Little China (1986) has a view of the Golden Gate Bridge taken from Conzelman Road in the Marin Headlands (Golden Gate National Recreation Area) and also features one of Yellowstone's 1930's White Touring Cars.

Broadcast News (1987) Tom and Jane (William Hurt and Holly Hunter) enjoy their first kiss at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial.

Cherry 2000 (1987), a science fiction movie starring Melanie Griffith and David Andrews, is about a guy in love with (ahem) a Cherry 2000 model genuine artificial woman. There is some footage shot in Lake Mead National Recreation Area (Colorado River, Hoover Dam vicinity) and possibly in Death Valley National Park as well.

Harry and the Hendersons (originally released as Bigfoot and the Hendersons) (1987) has scenes filmed in North Cascades National Park.

Nightmare at Noon (retitled Death Street USA) (1988) is a schlocky film -- scientists poison a small town's water supply, turning the residents into homicidal maniacs (I hate it when that happens) -- has sequences filmed at Arches National Park and nearby Moab, Utah. It won a FantaFestival award for special effects, but is otherwise very forgettable.

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It was just an oversite I am sure but the Honorable Mention movie listed as Star Wars V: The empire Strikes Back should have been Star Trek VI: Voyage Home.

The original typo (title did not match description) was corrected, Ron, thanks to sharp-eyed reader mikeD. The correct title for that 1989 film is Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. BTW, the Star Trek film to which you refer is Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986). Star Trek VI, which was released in 1991, is subtitled "The Undiscovered Country."

Parts of The Shining were supposedly filmed at Glacier National Park. The alleged inspiration for the hotel was the Ahwahnee in Yosemite.

The 1986 movie Big Trouble in Little China had a shot of the Golden Gate Bridge from Conzelman Road in the Marin Headlands.

That's an interesting website for film locations. It claims that Willow and The Witches of Eastwick had some location shots at Golden Gate NRA.

I used it to refresh my memory that 1983's National Lampoon's Vacation was filmed at Grand Canyon NP, including a scene of the "Family Truckster" peeling out from the El Torvar Hotel. I recall they also filmed them passing by the Gateway Arch in St Louis before getting lost in East St Louis.

It's interesting in German....

Thanks, ypw; you've added some important content -- especially The Shining. I must have been sound asleep at the wheel on that one. I could have sworn that The Shining came out in the 1970s, but the release date was May 1980, and it definitely belongs there. I'll go back in at some early opportunity and edit the list to include your additions.

Another bit of trivia: One of the first scenes of Star Wars VI: Return of the Jedi has C3PO and R2D2 walking towards Jabba's Palace. Although the palace was a painted addition to the shot, the "road to Jabba's Palace" was filmed in Death Valley National Park, a few miles south of Zabriskie Point.

There was the silly "Harry and the Hendersons," parts of which were filmed in my favorite National Park of all, The North Cascades.
The underrated sci-fi B-movie "Cherry 2000" was filmed mostly in Death Valley National Park.
"The Mountain Men" with Charlton Heston, Brian Keith and the lovely Victoria Racimo as Running Moon, filmed in Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Park is worth a watch.
"Barbarosa" with Willie Nelson and a great part played by Gary Busey, some of which was filmed in Big Bend National Park
There was the campy horror film "Nightmare at Noon" which is really only fun if you know the city of Moab and Arches National Park.
There was "Ghosts Can't Do It" with Anthony Quinn, though the scenery to watch really wasn’t
Grand Teton National Park, but Bo Derek herself (if you can stay awake :-))

Thinking back to National Lampoon's Vacation, there was a reason why Clark Griswold is in such a hurry to take just a glace at the Grand Canyon and hightail it out of there. He'd just had his credit card denied at the El Torvar, with the clerk refusing to take an out of state check. He then just accidentally opened the cash register, took out a wad of cash, and left the check behind.

There are scores of movies with the Statue of Liberty in a scene or two. You mentioned Splash. Remo Williams: the Adventure Begins was actually filmed at the Statue of Liberty while it was being renovated.

"Big Trouble in Little China" also features one of Yellowstone's 1930's White Touring Cars!

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