Historical entertainment planned for joint celebration of three Southwest Arkansas milestone anniversaries
With mountains, delta, rivers, piney woods and prairie flatlands, Arkansas can serve as a passable big-screen stand-in for almost any place in the U.S., save the frozen wastelands of Alaska, the Rockies or the beach. As such, several films have been wholly or partially shot in the state over the years, from out-and-out wastes of celluloid to certified classics. Below are a few of the more notable examples of places where the Natural State got her close-up.
Back in 1995, an largely unknown actor and screenwriter from Arkansas named Billy Bob Thornton got a weird haircut, stuck his jaw out, and managed to star in and direct one of the handful of truly great movies made in Arkansas. After it debuted in 1996, "Sling Blade," a film about a mentally challenged man who befriends and becomes the unlikely protector of a fatherless boy, went on to become a beloved classic of American cinema and arguably one of the best films of the 1990s. Thornton was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar that year for his multilayered portrayal of Karl Childers, and the film won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. Though Thornton has since gone on to film stardom, it was the low-budget film shot in Benton that started it all.
Many of the original shooting locations are still standing, including Garry's Whopper Burger (now called Garry's Sling Blade Drive-In to cash in on its cinema fame) at 619 Cox St., which featured in a pivotal scene between Karl and Vaughan (played by the late John Ritter). Also of interest is C.W. Lewis Stadium at 1004 Washington St., where Karl, young Frank (Lucas Black) and Frank's friends play a game of pickup football; and the little house that served as Frank's home at 522 S. Main St. (the home is a private residence, so please don't disturb the occupants). If you're willing to drive a bit down to Haskell, you can also see the Arkansas Health Center, a real-life state psychiatric facility that plays itself in the beginning and end of the film.
"Mud," which shares a lot of themes with the aforementioned "Sling Blade," is the work of another brilliant writer/director from Arkansas: Little Rock native Jeff Nichols. The 2012 film, centering on two boys who stumble across and seek to help a man on the run, stars Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland and Reese Witherspoon. It was nominated for the prestigious Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival the year it was released, and took home a basketful of awards from the Independent Spirit Awards in 2014, including Best Director for Nichols. Though Nichols and the studio could have gotten tax breaks to shoot the film in neighboring (and just as river-laced) Louisiana, the young director was firm that it should be shot in his home state. As such, "Mud" is rooted in the dark earth of Southeast Arkansas, and particularly the rivers and bayous of the area. Though many of the locations in "Mud" are too remote to be reached easily — including the island where the boys first meet McConaughey, which is a real island in the Mississippi River near Eudora, and the ramshackle houseboats on the White River that served as the homes of some of the characters — there are quite a few locations in Dumas that can be seen on a road trip, including the Piggly Wiggly store at 358 U.S. Hwy. 65 south, the Executive Inn just down the street at 310 U.S. Hwy. 65, Gail's Sports Bar (which appears to have closed since the filming) at 1470 U.S. Hwy. 165 and the Big Banjo Pizza Parlor at 720 U.S. Hwy. 65 south.
With Donald Trump surfing a populist wave of low-information voter adoration, it's useful to revisit director Elia Kazan's 1957 film "A Face in the Crowd." Originally something of a flop when it came out, it's since been proved prophetic for its dark portrayal of what fame — especially TV fame — can do to a person's mind. It's the story of a layabout from East Arkansas named Larry "Lonesome" Rhodes (Andy Griffith, who is amazing in his first big-screen role — and miles away from the jovial Matlock or Sheriff Andy Taylor), who rises from life as a shiftless drunk to a serious contender for a seat in the halls of political power after being plucked from obscurity to sing on a local radio show called "A Face in the Crowd." That appearance leads him to TV stardom. Rhodes' narcissism and ego ascend in lockstep with his popularity, until the waxen wings that had held him aloft suddenly melt in the limelight. By then, he's nothing short of an amoral monster, a character so dark that Griffith swore off playing anything but good-natured everymen for the rest of his career.
"A Face in the Crowd" is a film that owes quite a bit to the terrain and attitudes of Northeast Arkansas in the 1950s. While a good bit of the film was shot on sound stages in New York City, Kazan and his crew came to Arkansas in the summer of 1956 both to shoot some pivotal scenes and to recruit extras. Many of the original shooting locations are gone, including the old Clay County Courthouse, which was replaced by a more modern building in 1966, but several locations seen in the film can still be visited today, including the Piggott town square and the Matilda and Karl Pfeiffer Museum at 1071 Heritage Park Drive, a 1930s mansion that served as the shooting location for several scenes between Griffith and co-star Patricia Neal.
It's hard to talk about locations in the "Paradise Lost" documentary trilogy without having the conversation smack of Murder Tourism, but the three documentaries that brought about the groundswell of public support that eventually freed Jessie Misskelley, Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin from prison 18 years after they were convicted of a murder they said they didn't commit are inarguably landmarks of American nonfiction cinema. Joe Berlinger and his directing partner, the late Bruce Sinofsky, believed they were coming to Arkansas to film the trial of three devil worshippers who had committed the May 1993 murders of three 8-year-old boys in West Memphis until they arrived and realized they were witnessing a modern-day witch hunt. Released in June 1996 on HBO and featuring footage shot inside the courtroom (a rarity, even then), "Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills" pointed out the failures of the police investigation and prosecution in the case, leading to a global Free the West Memphis Three movement. The film would be followed by two sequels, eventually bringing enough pressure to bear from both the public and famous advocates that Baldwin, Echols and Misskelley were released from prison in August 2011. For those not morbid enough to seek out the scene of the gruesome crime near Interstate 40, locations seen or mentioned in the trilogy include the former Bojangles Chicken restaurant at 1551 N. Missouri St. in West Memphis, about a mile from the crime scene, where a mysterious man covered in mud and bleeding from a cut on his forearm was reported to police the night of the murders; the Clay County Western District Court at 800 W. Second St. in Corning, where Jessie Misskelley was convicted in January 1994; Varner Supermax Prison, at 320 State Hwy. 388 in Gould, where Damien Echols was held in near solitary confinement on death row until his release; and the Craighead County Courthouse at 511 S. Main St. in Jonesboro, where Echols and Baldwin were convicted in 1995. The three were freed from the same courthouse in 2011.
Also in Arkansas ...
Lamar Porter Field
3200 W. Seventh St., Little Rock
Seen in "A Soldier's Story" (1984)
Nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and co-starring a young Denzel Washington, "A Soldier's Story" is a largely overlooked classic of 1980s cinema shot completely in Arkansas, including scenes filmed in Clarendon and at Fort Chaffee. Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Charles Fuller, it's the tale of Capt. Richard Davenport (Howard Rollins), who is sent to Louisiana to investigate the murder of a black Army master sergeant in 1944. During that investigation, Washington's character flashes back to an important baseball game. That scene, complete with more than a hundred extras in World War II-era military uniforms, was shot in period-perfect detail at Little Rock's historic Lamar Porter Field, which opened in 1937.
Featuring rustic design elements created in concrete by sculptor Dionicio Rodriguez, the Old Mill was completed in 1933 as the centerpiece of the new Lakewood neighborhood in North Little Rock, only a few years before the 1939 debut of "Gone With the Wind." The replica mill appears in a montage of idyllic Southern scenes in the opening frames of the movie, and is believed to be the only structure seen in "Gone With the Wind" that hasn't been demolished.
Christ of the Ozarks and other locations in Eureka Springs
Seen in "Elizabethtown" (2005)
Though Cameron Crowe — the writer/director responsible for newish classics like "Almost Famous" and "Jerry McGuire" and the screenplay for "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" — has had some big hits in his day, a film that's clearly not among them is the muddled "Elizabethtown." Starring Orlando Bloom, Kirsten Dunst, Susan Sarandon, Alec Baldwin and Jessica Biel, the film surely had star power, but the road-flick-meets-manic-pixie-dreamgirl plot fell flat with audiences. Crowe filmed several fleeting scenes for the "on the road" portion of the film in Eureka Springs, including a brief glimpse of the Christ of the Ozarks statue and a shot of a concrete T-Rex at the defunct Dinosaur World tourist trap outside town.
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