My name is Joseph Shelton, and for better or worse I’m an example of that species featured on this page, the Montana writer. Yet I would have difficulty calling myself one without the kind faith and trust of “Distinctly Montana Magazine”, who has seen fit to publish my first magazine article. And in writing the upcoming piece on Montana in film for the Autumn issue I was privileged to have a rich variety of sources to draw from. The history of Montana in the movies reaches as far to the very origins of film itself, with the Edison Manufacturing Company recording the arrivals and departures of trains in Helena as early as the 1890s. With such a long period of relevance, and with so many excellent films to choose from, I mostly decided to mostly focus on those that were almost wholly shot in the state ( a decision that excluded many very good pictures indeed). So in the spirit of amending some regrettable exclusions, here are three additional Montana movies which it behooves any lover of film to become acquainted with. Yet even my list of exclusions is far from complete – there are dozens more Montana movies, some obscure and some indelibly famous, some terrible, some wonderful. I would encourage those who enjoyed reading about any of these to visit the website for the Montana Film Office at www.montanafilm.com, as I so enjoyed doing while researching and writing the article. It is an eminently useful resource.
Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974)
One notably regrettable exlusion is Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, starring the great Clint Eastwood as the former and Jeff Bridges as the latter. Thunderbolt is so called because of his preferred method of robbing banks, which is to say, at the end of a 20 mm cannon which he uses to blow off the doors of bank vaults. After a car accident and a case of mistaken identity finds Lightfoot giving Thunderbolt a drive away from apparent pursuers, they strike up an unlikely and potentially profitable friendship. They agree to reattempt a failed heist, something Thunderbolt had almost pulled off. This time, they hope, they will finish the job.
Rounding off the cast is George Kennedy as an unexpected villain. The film succeeds largely because of its strong performances.
With a tone that mixes the hard-hitting with the comic and a variety of shooting locations including Choteau, Great Falls, Ulm, Hobson and Fort Benton, the film really is a consummately Montanan product. It is also the feature film debut of director Michael Cimino, who went on to direct the Vietnam masterpiece The Deer Hunter as well as the legendary, even infamous flop Heaven’s Gate, which more than being merely a notoriously difficult and expensive production, is an extraordinarily beautifully photographed film. And another film shot in Montana, natch.
Amazing Grace and Chuck (1987)
In 1987 British director Mike Newell, who had been directing film and television in Britain since the 1960s, took on a uniquely American story in the film Amazing Grace and Chuck, an idealistic family drama about a Little Leaguer in small town Montana who is so profoundly affected by the sight of an intercontinental ballistic missile while on a field trip that he decides to make an important gesture: he will not play another game of baseball until the issue of nuclear disarmament is addressed. News of his unlikely strike reaches Amazing Grace, the moniker by which a star Boston Celtic is known. He too agrees to renounce his favorite ball game in support of Chuck, not to mention moving to the same small town. More peace-minded athletes follow, much to the chagrin of Chuck’s father and ultimately the movement grows and grows, until Chuck has the ear of the President himself, played by screen idol Gregory Peck. Roger Ebert, in his appraisal of the film, called attention to the movie’s final words: “wouldn’t it be nice?” As the late great said, “that’s the bottom line of the whole picture.”
Filmed in Bozeman and Livingston, Amazing Grace and Chuck is another early film from an important director – Newell went on to make such crowd and critic-pleasing classics as Four Weddings and a Funeral, Donnie Brasco, and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
The Thing From Another World (1951)
Most of The Thing From Another World was shot on set in the Ice and Cold Storage Company in Los Angeles, California but key outdoor scenes were filmed in the ruggedly snowy climes of Glacier National Park.
This early Cold-War horror flick is one of the most influential movies of all time. Based on a novella by John W. Campbell JR about an arctic research outpost’s discovery of a crashed UFO submerged in the ice. After partially thawing the ship the scientists unwittingly release a strange form of intelligent (and man-shaped) plant-life before realizing that his disastrous flight across the far north was nothing less than a mission to plant his sinister seed pods in terrestrial soil. The hulking alien, played with inhuman panache by Gunsmoke’s James Arness, would go on to be especially memorable to an entire generation of young baby boomers who enjoyed the flick at the matinee (often as a double bill with Invaders From Mars) or on the television around Halloween. One such terrified youth was Dan O’Bannon, who would channel his boyhood fear of the nameless Thing when penning another claustrophobic tale of terror from the outer reaches of outer space, Alien. Another was his buddy, USC film student John Carpenter who, in addition to featuring The Thing From Another World on the television in an early scene of his classic Halloween, would in 1982 direct a very splattery and itself highly influential remake with Kurt Russell called, simply, The Thing.
I very much hope you enjoy the article, available on September 1, and of course the films. And if you’ll permit me: I’ll see you at the movies!