Surely you’ve seen (and love) Arkansas-born Billy Bob Thornton’s classic “Sling Blade” and perhaps you’ve watched the legal dramas “The Client” and “The Firm”, both adapted from Jonesboro-born John Grisham’s best selling novels. These movies were filmed in Arkansas as well as many other films worth a watch.
1. Hallelujah (1929): This film, a musical based on an idea director King Vidor had been trying to get off the ground for most of a decade, is the story of the African-American experience in the deep South using an all-black cast. An early "talkie" musical set and filmed primarily in Memphis, some scenes of cotton fields and outdoor church revivals were filmed in eastern Arkansas. The movie’s climactic chase scene shot in Ten Mile Bayou near West Memphis. Vidor received an Academy Award Best Director nomination for the film in 1930.
In 2008 "Hallelujah" was named one of the "25 Important Motion Pictures" when added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.
2. A Face in the Crowd (1957): A classic filmed by Elia Kazan, this movie is based on Budd Schulberg’s “Your Arkansas Traveler,” a short story about a fictitious Arkansas native. Shot on location in Piggott, Arkansas, the film is known for being the screen debut of late legends Lee Remick and Andy Griffith.
Kazan used many Arkansans as extras in the film and praised the people of Piggott for their hospitality. The northeast Arkansas community was chosen because of its connection to esteemed author Ernest Hemingway, who lived and visited there when married to Piggott native Pauline Pfeiffer.
3. Bloody Mama (1970): This low-budget film directed by Roger Corman starred Shelly Winters, Bruce Dern, and a 26-year-old Robert De Niro. A somewhat exaggerated historic retelling, the movie's plot focuses on Ma Barker and her sons, Herman, Lloyd, Arthur, and Fred, as they terrorized the Midwest and the Ozarks during Prohibition.
According to several accounts, Ma wasn’t capable of planning the crimes she and her gang were accused of committing. One account is by Alvin Karpis, who joined forces with the family in the 1930s and was the last “public enemy” captured.
4. Boxcar Bertha (1972): After making "Bloody Mama" in Arkansas in 1970, Roger Corman returned to the Natural State to film this movie (which features Barbara Hershey, along with the late David Carradine and his father, John Carradine) in 1972. According to some sources, Boxcar Bertha is said to be Martin Scorsese’s first Hollywood film. Others state it was one of his first major projects.
Corman chose Arkansas because the rural areas at the time could still pass as the Depression-era South. Street scenes and interiors were shot in the Camden area. The now defunct historic Reader Railroad was used in the train scenes.
5. White Lightning (1973): A 1973 film directed by John Sargent, this movie stars Burt Reynolds as Gator McKlusky, a moonshine runner who is jailed in Arkansas for running moonshine. To avenge his younger brother’s death by a crooked policeman, Gator makes a deal with federal authorities to expose the police department's corruption. The movie features a grand finale car chase sequence.
Some scenes of "White Lighting" were filmed at Tucker Penitentiary in Tucker, Arkansas with a few of the correctional officers who worked there at the time as extras. The grounds are the same and the barracks in which a scene of Reynolds was filmed are still there, as are the guard towers.
6. The Town that Dreaded Sundown (1977): Filmed by Charles B. Pierce and set in the late 40s, the semi-documentary is loosely based on a string of murders in 1946 that happened in and around the Texarkana, Texas/Arkansas area. The movie was shot in the Garland and Texarkana area.
As the story goes, the citizens of Texarkana are left terrorized by a mysterious hooded killer who is stalking victims during the evening and leaving the local police at a loss. The murder spree became known as the "Texarkana Moonlight Murders" and ultimately would claim five lives and injure many others. The only description of the killer ever obtained was of a hooded man. To this day no one has been convicted and these murders remain unsolved.
7. September 30, 1955 (1978): Written and directed by Arkansas native, James Bridges, this movie tells the story of a college student’s reaction to the sudden death of actor James Dean. Starring as the college student is Richard Thomas, who gained fame as John-Boy Walton on the television series "The Waltons".
Bridges also chose to film the production in his home state, shooting on the campus of the University of Central Arkansas in Conway.
8. A Soldier’s Story (1983): This Academy award-winning film directed by Norman Jewison features an all-star cast including Howard E. Rollins, Jr., Adolph Caesar, David Alan Grier, Denzel Washington and Patti LaBelle. The movie was nominated for three Academy Awards; Best Supporting Actor (Adolph Caesar); Best Picture; Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium and won three other awards.
In his autobiography Norman Jewison states “production began on Sept. 10, 1983 in Clarendon, Arkansas, a small community on the banks of the White River, then a few days in Little Rock, and nine weeks in Fort Chaffee [Fort Smith], a big World War II vintage army base where German prisoners of war had been housed.” Clarendon served as the fictitious town of Tynin because of its historic downtown. While in Little Rock, the “ballgame” scenes were filmed at historic Lamar Porter Field, a Works Progress Administration project listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
9. End of the Line (1987): Newport, Arkansas native Mary Steenburgen collaborated with fellow Arkansan Jay Russell on this production. Steenburgen made the film as a tribute to her father, a Union Pacific Railroad worker. Starring along with Steenburgen in the movie is another well- known Arkansan, actor/singer/musician Levon Helm. Other stars in the movie include Wilford Brimley, Holly Hunter, and Kevin Bacon.
Steenburgen made her executive producing debut with "End of the Line," described as a "Capraesque story of aging railroad men facing the shutdown of their line." It was filmed on location in Benton.
10. Biloxi Blues (1988): The army post in this film is not in Mississippi. In fact, the movie was actually filmed at Fort Chaffee, near Fort Smith, Arkansas. Van Buren, across the Arkansas River from Fort Smith, stood in for downtown Biloxi.
Directed by Mike Nichols and starring screen and stage actor Matthew Broderick, "Biloxi Blues" is the second part of playwright Neil Simon's semi-autobiographical theater trilogy about his growth from adolescence into adulthood.
11. Great Balls of Fire (1988): This biographical film about rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis examines his troubled life, including his controversial marriage to the 13-year-old- daughter of his first cousin. Until the uproar and backlash about his marriage hit, many believed Lewis replace Elvis Presley as the King of Rock and Roll in the 1950s. The movie starred Dennis Quaid, Winona Ryder, Alec Baldwin and Arkansas native Lisa Blount.
The film was filmed on location in Marion and West Memphis, Arkansas and Memphis. The house used as Jerry Lee Lewis’ childhood home is located at 93 Military Road in Marion. The church singing scenes were shot in The Blessings Through Faith Temple Congregation Church off U.S. 70 in West Memphis.
12. Rosalie Goes Shopping (1989): A quirky, comical critique of American consumerism, this film reflects the growing international, digitized nature of debtor economics and underlines the fact that consumerism is not limited to those living in large cities. Filmed almost entirely in Arkansas, this German-produced film is centered in Stuttgart, Arkansas, a town founded, not coincidentally, by German settlers.
The film was directed by German director Percy Adlon, along with his wife Eleonore Adlon wrote and produced it. Marianne Sägebrecht plays the title character, Rosalie Greenspace, a plump Bavarian with a serious addiction to buying things. Her goofily demented Arkansan husband, Ray “Liebling” Greenspace, is played by Brad Davis (in his final film role).
13. Daddy and Them (2001): Billy Bob Thornton bases much of his experiences as an Arkansas native in his work, and his roots are evident in his 1992 film "One False Move", 1996's award-winning "Sling Blade", and this 2001 comedy starring Thornton, Laura Dern, Ben Affleck, Kelly Preston, Diane Ladd, Brenda Blethyn, Tuesday Knight, Jamie Lee Curtis and Jim Varney. This was Jim Varney's last film; he died before the movie's release.
"Daddy and Them" opened to positive reviews, with many critics praising the film's southern humor, Thornton's work as a writer/director, and the performances by the entire cast.
14. Come Early Morning (2006): Starring Ashley Judd and Jeffrey Donovan, this movie marked the directorial debut of Arkansan Joey Lauren Adams. The movie was shot throughout the metropolitan Little Rock, Arkansas area including Pulaski Heights, and Adams's hometown of North Little Rock. It premiered for wide release in Little Rock on December 14, 2006.
The movie received generally positive reviews. Film critics found Adams's directing to be a good debut, and Judd's performance was especially praised.
15. Mud (2012): Based in DeWitt, Arkansas, this drama was written and directed by Arkansan Jeff Nichols. The film stars Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Sam Shepard, and Reese Witherspoon. The film competed for the Palme d'Or at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival and was shown at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2013. The film opened to a wider release on May 10, 2013.
Nichols started filming in late summer of 2011, traveling across southeast Arkansas; film locations included Dumas, De Witt, Lake Village, Crocketts Bluff, and Stuttgart. The island in the film was located outside the city of Eudora. The cast and crew, around half of whom were Arkansas residents, numbered over 100 people. Over 400 locals were also involved as extras. According to the state government's Economic Development Commission, "Mud is the largest production ever to be filmed in the state." On filming in select parts of Southeast Arkansas, Nichols stated, "These places and people have such a particular accent and culture, and they're quickly getting homogenized. I wanted to capture a snapshot of a place that probably won't be there forever."
If you’re a movie buff, you’ve likely recognized a few names on this list. For a true “slice of life” of classic Arkansas and a great piece of storytelling, I highly recommend Elia Kazan’s “A Face in the Crowd” with the late Andy Griffith. You’ll be surprised at the diverse characters our beloved Sheriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry can play!