In the May/June 2022 issue of Salt Lake, we’re celebrating the legacy of Utah’s movies. Read more about the current state of the film industry in the Beehive State. Revisit Utah’s dances with the devil with beloved (and less beloved) horror movies. Celebrate the iconic film history of Monument Valley’s magnificent landscapes.
In the 1920s, as the legend goes, there was a hard push to establish Kanab as “the finest scenic wonderland to be found in the entire West,” after The Deadwood Coach (1924) was shot about 10 miles away in Johnson Canyon. That effort paid off, with a boom of Western film productions starring the likes of John Wayne throughout the ’30s and ’40s and earning Kanab the moniker “Little Hollywood.” The boom finally petered out in the 1970s as the popularity of the Western faded to black like so many cinematic sunsets. But that doesn’t mean the drive to attract film productions to Zion died as well. 1978 saw the founding of the Sundance Film Festival, once again putting Utah on the map.
Utah’s film resumé boasts both John Ford’s iconic Westerns and campy cult horror flicks like Troll 2, possibly the worst movie ever made. But what are the very best Utah-made movies? What films were shot here that we didn’t know about? And how many flicks have a scene in Monument Valley just to glean a little of that Utah magic? We talked to local film experts, hit the Internet, reopened a Netflix account and scoured IMDb, for a crash course in Utah’s long and storied celluloid past. After many sleepless nights and much gnashing of teeth, we came up with our 10 favorites. Now we present them to you in no particular order (along with dozens more found during our hunt for the best/worst) and reflections by some of Utah’s own movie-biz folks.
1. BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969)
STARS: Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Katharine Ross
DIRECTOR: George Roy Hill
You might see this as an obvious choice, given the Sundance Kid’s ongoing influence in Utah and his appearance on the cover of this magazine on more than one occasion. But if you watch Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid tomorrow, you’ll quickly realize why this is our favorite Utah movie. Paul Newman has never been more charming, Robert Redford was never again this cool on screen, and together they make the ideal pair for an action- and humor-packed buddy flick that features stunning Utah scenery, including stops in Snow Canyon, St. George and Zion National Park. The “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” montage is still cringe-inducing, but it’s the only major misstep along the duo’s run to Bolivia by way of New York City, all the while watching the posse on their tail and wondering, “Who are those guys?”
2. THE SEARCHERS (1956)
STARS: John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, Natalie Wood
DIRECTOR: John Ford
Arguably the best of Ford’s Westerns, The Searchers features The Duke as Ethan Edwards, a Civil War vet who joins his brother’s family on their Texas ranch after the armistice. Ethan’s family is soon massacred by a band of Comanche, except for the kidnapped youngest daughter, Debbie (Natalie Wood). Ethan spends the next five years searching for Debbie and the diabolical Chief Scar, and the viewer comes to realize the racist and possibly crazy Ethan might not care about saving Debbie as much as he simply wants to kill natives. Ford brilliantly uses the spectacular Monument Valley—filmed for the first time, as the DVD commentary notes, “in both color and VistaVision!”—as his Lone Star State, building tension in expansive, memory-searing scenes.
3. SLC PUNK! (1998)
STARS: Matthew Lillard, Michael A. Goorjian, Annabeth Gish, Christopher McDonald
DIRECTOR: James Merendino
As a document of Salt Lake’s mid-’80s punk-rock underground, this often-hilarious flick is not accurate enough for the scene’s survivors and is probably all-too-real for many in the conservative majority who never realized the activities depicted were commonplace. Rampant drug use, anti-Reagan rants and mohawked, slam-dancing teenagers are the last things outsiders might expect to find in clean-cut SLC, but they are the norm in this 1998 feature by Salt Laker James Merendino. The characters are based—loosely based—on real SLC punks of the era, and there are some stunning shots of Salt Lake’s urban landscape, aided by an irreverent ’80s punk soundtrack, that make this a worthwhile 97-minute trip back in time.
4. FOOTLOOSE (1984)
STARS: Kevin Bacon, Lori Singer, John Lithgow, Sarah Jessica Parker
DIRECTOR: Herbert Ross
It’s easy to find plenty of folks who rate Kevin Bacon’s breakout film their favorite Utah-made movie; the image of Bacon dancing around the Lehi Roller Mills is as iconic to ’80s-raised kids as the shot of John Wayne at the end of The Searchers is for Western fans. The Footloose story is simple: city boy Ren (Bacon) moves to a small town, only to find local religious zealots have outlawed—gasp!—dancing and rock music. Rallying the repressed teen populace (including a young Sarah Jessica Parker) to his cause, Ren convinces the fire-and-brimstone preacher (John Lithgow) that dancing is good, clean fun, just in time for the senior prom. The Wasatch Front looms in the background of nearly every scene—the production bounced from Lehi and American Fork to Payson and Orem—and we can thank Footloose for Bacon’s spiky haircut becoming the iconic look for American men in the mid-’80s.
5. THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES (1976)
STARS: Clint Eastwood, Chief Dan George, Sondra Locke, John Vernon
DIRECTOR: Clint Eastwood
Many critics consider The Outlaw Josey Wales to be Clint Eastwood’s best Western, even better than his 1992 Best Picture Oscar-winner Unforgiven. Eastwood plays a Civil War-era farmer whose wife and son are slaughtered by a renegade crew of Union troops. Joining a band of Confederate rebels who continue to fight the Union—thereby making him an “outlaw”—Wales chases the men across some of Utah’s most memorable landscapes, including Paria, Glen Canyon and Lake Powell. Along the way, Wales builds a new “family,” including a couple of Indians, widows and a young boy, and Eastwood builds a stirring look at the cost of war on a man’s soul.
6. THELMA & LOUISE (1991)
STARS: Susan Sarandon, Geena Davis, Harvey Keitel
DIRECTOR: Ridley Scott
For decades American film audiences were offered road movies and buddy flicks featuring men. Thelma and Louise proved the same audiences would gladly watch a couple of butt-kicking women bond while they run from a violent night gone awry toward a new sense of personal freedom. The movie is carried by the performances of Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis as their characters discover how emotionally tough and rugged they truly are in the face of a fast-approaching, ultimately doomed end. Director Ridley Scott matches that revelation with panoramic shots of Utah’s tough, rugged and beautiful terrain, including views of Canyonlands and Arches National Parks, Dead Horse Point State Park, Valley of the Gods near Mexican Hat and the La Sal Mountains.
7. DUMB & DUMBER (1994)
STARS: Jim Carrey, Jeff Daniels, Lauren Holly
DIRECTOR: Peter and Bobby Farrelly
Critics and academic types will be appalled to find this slice of Farrelly Brothers slapstick on any list that includes films like The Searchers, even if geography is a major component of said list. Like the Marx Brothers, Monty Python or Adam Sandler, Dumb and Dumber offers a comedy dividing line—you either love or hate it. Watching Jeff Daniels and Jim Carrey as best friends Harry and Lloyd is to watch total commitment from a couple of actors. Granted, it’s largely a commitment to flatulence jokes and stupidity, but still. It’s a buddy flick, it’s a love story and it’s a road movie that stops in Provo, Park City, Orem and Salt Lake. Virtually every line of dialogue is aimed straight at your funny bone, and some of the physical humor pulled off by the two leads is undeniably impressive.
8. THE SANDLOT (1993)
STARS: Tom Guiry, Mike Vitar, Art LaFleur
DIRECTOR: David Mickey Evans
The Sandlot is a beloved family movie that capitalizes on nostalgia and childhood, even featuring a Wonder Years-style voice-over. It has largely withstood the test of time to become something of a classic, following the dreams and misadventures of a group of young baseball enthusiasts. The film and its iconic scenes were all shot in Utah. The eponymous sandlot was located in the Glendale neighborhood of Salt Lake City, the infamous carnival fiasco was shot at Liberty Park and the pool used in the film was the Lorin Farr Community Pool in Ogden. People love this movie. And, as they say, “legends never die.”
9. 127 HOURS (2010)
STARS: James Franco, Amber Tamblyn, Kate Mara
DIRECTOR: Danny Boyle
Adapted from Aron Ralston’s autobiographical 2004 book Between a Rock and a Hard Place (meant to be interpreted literally), 127 Hours depicts the struggle of a lone climber near Moab, where he is trapped by a boulder in a slot canyon. To escape, he cuts off his own arm with a pocketknife. Gruesome subject matter aside, it’s more about the strength and indomitable will of the human spirit and showcasing the lengths to which we are willing to go to survive. It also shows off some of Utah’s most stunning landscapes, as it was filmed on location in Canyonlands National Park. It is the prettiest movie you will ever see about a man cutting off his own arm.
10. HEREDITARY (2018)
STARS: Toni Collette, Milly Shapiro, Gabriel Byrne
DIRECTOR: Ari Aster
This Sundance film with a paltry $10 million-dollar budget might be one of the scariest films ever made in Utah (admittedly arguable, considering the sheer number of horror movies filmed here). Hereditary was filmed in Salt Lake and Summit Counties. You’ll recognize a familiar and imposing mountain range in the background of scenes at a funeral shot at Larkin Sunset Gardens in Sandy. The film is a slow burn, make no mistake. It begins as a supernatural mystery about a dark family secret, an enigmatic burden weighing down a grieving family. After the film ratchets up the tension, preying on our fragile emotions, the final act unspools all at once and delivers on the scares.
Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)
This Christmas-themed splatter flick falls under the “so bad it’s good” label (director Quentin Tarantino has also listed it as inspiration if that’s any indication), with Santa slaying folks from Salt Lake to Heber City and back again.
Troll 2 (1990)
You know that “so bad it’s good” label? This movie, which is not actually a sequel, is just “so bad,” but it’s found a global audience nonetheless.
Made for TV Christmas Movies
As the old adage goes, if you’ve seen one of these movies, you’ve seen them all: A career-oriented woman leaves the big city and her job as a reporter (or baker, or writer, or small boutique shop owner) and comes to a small town to rediscover her humanity, her capacity to love and the true meaning of Christmas. These 2021 titles were all filmed in Utah:
A Picture Perfect Holiday on Lifetime
Candy Coated Christmas on Discovery+
Mistletoe Mixup on Amazon Prime
Sister Swap: A Hometown Holiday on Hallmark Channel
Sister Swap: Christmas in the City on Hallmark Channel
A Fiancé For Christmas on Lifetime
The Housewives of the North Pole on Peacock
Hot Chocolate Holiday on Lifetime
WATER-SKIING CATS AND PLATFORM SHOES: Trent Harris’ Essential Utah Film
Writer-director Trent Harris doesn’t necessarily look back on Rubin and Ed with the same affection as the fans who made a cult classic—at least among Utah film geeks—out of the story of an antisocial homebody, a middle-aged pyramid-schemer and a dead, frozen cat.
Harris doesn’t revel in fond memories of star Crispin Glover’s dangerously tall platform shoes, or of Utah college students in the early ’90s sporting “My cat can eat a whole watermelon!” T-shirts. Instead, he remembers the arduous production that led him to collapse on the final day of shooting, the stroke that knocked out one of his leads, Peter Boyle, a week into production, and the studio essentially abandoning the film. “That movie was buried so fast,” Harris says, “It opened the week after the L.A. riots. People weren’t in a good mood. The critics were in a really bad mood. They just creamed it. It wasn’t that they didn’t like it; they hated the movie. Some jackass at The Boston Globe said it was the worst movie of the decade.”
Rubin and Ed is far from that, but the treatment the movie received was enough to send the then-Los Angeleno on the road to Utah, where he’s lived ever since. Rubin and Ed marked Harris’ first successful pitch to a major studio, Columbia Tri-Star, but he was fed up with Tinsel Town long before.
“I was so burned out on Hollywood, trying to sell scripts, that I finally said ‘to hell with it’ and decided that I would write a screenplay that was so simple I could just go out in the desert with a couple of friends and just shoot it,” Harris says. “Oddly enough, that was the one Hollywood bought. It was crazy how fast it happened … I was amazed anybody would make that movie.”
The final product is a winning buddy flick starring Glover as Rubin and, after Boyle bowed out, Howard Hesseman as Ed. The distinctly odd duo spends much of the movie wandering through the red rock of Southern Utah looking for the “right spot” to bury Rubin’s dead pet.
Harris’ love affair with Hollywood is long over, but his love of central Utah’s scenery continues. His latest film, which is something (but not exactly) of a sequel to Rubin & Ed, saw Harris return to the desert to create Echo People, a movie that teaches us all that “you never know when you’re going to need a rubber ant.”
Rubin and Ed was released on Blu-Ray in 2020 and Harris still gets tons of emails about the film from around the globe. He sells DVDs and memorabilia on his website.