People & Place
  • Montana Film Production 2
  • Montana Film Production 1
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In his memorable role, Robert Redford approaches the horse quietly. He reaches out to it, as if getting to know a new friend. The moment lingers, while he begins the process of understanding the horse. Then, as director, Redford calls “cut.”  That scene in “The Horse Whisperer” was filmed in Montana where the beautiful vistas and the vast swaths of wilderness have attracted not only many people, but also film companies, whether for short takes at one location or full-scale productions. Montana has also been the birthplace of several well-known actors, directors, and screenwriters, including Missoula-born David Lynch (director of the classic Blue Velvet). Montana has hosted some of the best movies made and a few of the worst. You have plenty to choose from.

The first movies to be shot in Montana were short films  made by the Edison Manufacturing Company as they showed a tourist train leaving Livingston (1887) or the Overland Express arriving In Helena (1900).  A few years later proper films were being made here. Around 1950 there was a frenzy of activity, then a lull lasted until the 1970’s when a new phase of brisk business was ushered in that continues today.

Northwest Montana has been home to numerous productions over the years. Devil’s Pond (2003) was filmed in the Summer at Kalispell’s Horseshoe Lake and Epworth United Methodist Church. Recent independent productions include Big Eden that revolves around a fictional Montana town and Roulette, filmed in Whitefish.

The beauty of Glacier Park has attracted many movie clips.  Crews for Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and The Chronicles Of Narnia visited the park to shoot background footage of the scenery to edit into the movies.  

The Cattle Queen of Montana (1954) was filmed in East Glacier.  Barbara Stanwyck stars as Barbara Ankrum, the daughter of a Montana cattleman. She and her father drive their large herd of cattle to Buffalo Valley where Colorados (Lance Fuller), an educated Indian, rescues the unconscious Barbara after a group of Indians stampede the cattle and kill her father.   The movie also stars Ronald Reagan as hired gun Farrell who works for cattle baron Tom McCord (Greg Evans). Tom McCord uses illegal tactics to get what he wants and even causes strife among the Indians.  The local Blackfeet Indians (hired as extras) were so impressed with Barbara Stanwyck that they made her a blood sister in the tribe.  Hollywood legend has it that Ronald Reagan would call Stanwyck by her Indian name, “Princess Many Victories,” whenever he saw her. Cattle Queen of Montana is based on the real life exploits of Libby Smith Collins who drove a herd of cattle from her ranch in Willow Creek, Montana, to the railroad in Great Falls, when her husband Nat Collins became too sick to travel with the cattle.  She changed railroad regulations by becoming the first woman to accompany cattle to market in Chicago.  

In 1979, the cast and production offices of Heaven’s Gate (starring Kris Kristofferson, Jeff Bridges, and Christopher Walken) took up residence at the Outlaw Inn while the movie filmed in various locations including Glacier Park and Kalispell (where the Heaven’s Gate roller rink was constructed).  The town set of Sweetwater was erected on a platform in Glacier Park on the edge of Two Medicine Lake.  The town was actually built twice because Director Michael Cimino ordered it torn down because the street was too narrow despite the set builders suggestion of only tearing one side of the town down.  Heaven’s Gate, the box office bomb that would cause United Artists to be sold to MGM, was about the Johnson County War in Wyoming.  Glacier Park was chosen by the director because he thought Wyoming wasn’t scenic enough. (Jeff Bridges bought the ranch which was used for the brothel in the film.)

The seldom seen The Red Skies Of Montana (starring Richard Widmark and Jeffrey Hunter) is a movie about smokejumpers and was filmed around the Missoula area in 1950.  It is loosely based on the 1949 Mann Gulch fire which claimed the lives of 13 firefighters. Loggers were the subject of Timberjack (also filmed in Glacier Park and Polson).

In Libby crews filmed Richard Dreyfuss, Holly Hunter, and John Goodman at the Libby Airport for Always as well as a documentary about the W.R. Grace mines and the lawsuit against them.  In The River Wild crews shot on the white water rivers near Libby and the Middle Fork of the Flathead River. Meryl Streep faced off against Kevin Bacon in this tense drama on the rapids.

The 150 person crew of Broken Arrow spent six weeks filming on the privately owned Central Montana Railroad (near Lewiston) to capture the train sequences that would be in the second half of the film.  They used CMR engines and cars to film the dangerous scenes that required gunfire, high falls, special effects, and helicopter action shots.

The Polish brothers (Mike and Mark- identical twins) filmed Northfork in the Great Falls, Glasgow, and Augusta area.  It’s about a town about to be flooded due to the construction of a new dam and six houses needing to be evacuated.  Starring James Woods, Nick Nolte, and Peter Coyote, the film was made with muted colors and no red in order to give it unique look.

In Under Siege 2 star Steven Seagal went to the Ennis area to play a local doctor in a small Montana town trying to find a cure to a biological weapon obtained by some redneck extremists.The movie skipped theaters and premiered on HBO beginning the trend of some Seagal movies being released directly to video in the USA.  

The oddball comedy Rancho Deluxe, starring Jeff Bridges with screenplay by Tom McGuane, took place in Paradise Valley outside Livingston. Sidenote: Jeff Bridges met his future wife at Chico Hot Springs during the filming of Rancho Deluxe.

Actor/director Robert Redford set The Horse Whisperer near the same area (Big Timber and Livingston) where The River Run Through It was filmed six years earlier in 1991 (Livingston and Bozeman).  The romance of Montana was essential to the story of a man who could see into the souls of horses.  The River Run Through It is the famous fly fishing movie, starring Brad Pitt and based on a Norman MacLean novel.

Butte is described as a sad place by the director of Who Killed Cock Robin, an experimental film using local actors who improvised many of their lines.   Butte also doubled as an 1860s San Francisco for Thousand Pieces of Gold which filmed in Nevada City after the production company went through various ghost towns that were prettied up.  The film company needed the buildings and town to look like a 19th century Western town and not a tourist attraction.  The movie follows the story of Lalu, a beautiful Chinese woman sold into slavery by her poor father and going from China to San Francisco to Idaho.  

Wim Wenders (director of Until The End of The World and Wings of Desire) shot most of the just released Don’t Come Knocking in the very same city.  Don’t Come Knocking is about an aging cowboy actor (Sam Shepard) who goes MIA from a film set and ends up in Butte to reconnect with his mother (Eva Marie Saint) and a woman (Jesssica Lange) he briefly loved.  

Billings has been featured in Son of the Morning Star, The Legend of Walks Far Woman, Rodeo Red And the Runaway, Missouri Breaks, Little Big Man, Warpath, and Far and Away.  The pivotal recreation of the Oklahoma land rush for the climax of Far and Away, the Western drama with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, was shot on July 8, 1991, on a ranch outside of Billings.  A self-contained city had to be created to accommodate all the horses and people who came to be in this scene.  Traffic for seven miles on Interstate 90 was halted as the action was filmed.

Many movies and TV shows have pretended to take place in Montana, but were actually filmed in Alberta, Canada.  So, for instance, when you watch Legends Of The Fall (based on a novella by Jim Harrison and starring Brad Pitt, Anthony Hopkins, Adian Quinn, and Julia Ormand)), Monty Walsh (featuring the hero of many Westerns - Tom Selleck), or The Lonesome Dove TV series, remember they were all filmed in Canada.  The state of Montana realizes how films give an economic boost to the state when a production shoots here and endeavor to offer competitive incentives to attract productions.  

Many actors and writers call Montana home for at least part of the year.  John Lithgow has a home in Northwest Montana while Peter Fonda, Andie McDowell, Margot Kidder, Dennis Quaid, Michael Keaton, and Jeff Bridges also own homes in the state.  Screenwriter and novelist Tom McGuane’s ranch is near Big Timber.  Missoula is home to author James Lee Burke (Heaven’s Prisoners), as well as the late author Dorothy M Johnson, a University Of Montana graduate and teacher, who wrote the stories from which these favorite movies were adapted:  The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Hanging Tree, and A Man Called Horse.

One of University Of Montana’s most famous alumnus is actor Carroll O’Connor (In The Heat of the Night, All In The Family) who discovered his love for theater while there.  In 1997, he and his wife donated one million dollars to the University of Montana‘s Center For The Rocky Mountain West, a regional studies and public policy institute which was renamed in their honor.  

Moreover, in the last few years the film department at the Montana State University in Bozeman has attracted a deluge of students from all over the country who want to work in the movies.  Cindy Stillwell, a faculty member, had a short film shown at the Sundance Film Festival in 2006.  It is not surprising that Hatchfest, the Fall film festival that nurtures talents in all aspects of the industry, takes place there.  Surely this mix of movie students, actors, writers, and directors movies will continue to make movies in Montana that capitalize on its special history and beauty.


Some distinguished film industry people born in Montana...   

∑ Dirk Benedict (Starbuck on the original Battlestar Galactica, A-Team), Helena, 1945.

∑  Dana Carvey (Wayne’s World), Missoula, 1955

∑ Gary Cooper (High Noon), Helena, 1901

∑ Patrick Duffy (Bobby Ewing on the Dallas TV series), Townsend, 1949

∑ Troy Evans, (“E.R.”, “CSI: Miami”, Lost in America) Missoula, 1948

∑ Michelle Williams (Dawson’s Creek, Brokeback Mountain), Kalispell, 1980

∑ Brad Bird (The Incredibles), Kalispell, 1957

∑ John Dahl (The Last Seduction, Rounders, The Great Raid), Billings, 1956

∑ David Lynch (Eraserhead, Dune, Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, Mulholland Drive, Inland Empire), Missoula, 1946

∑ Brannon Braga (Star Trek: The Next Generation/ Voyager/ Enterprise, Threshold), Bozeman, 1965


Montana film releases mentioned in article... 

Red Skies Of Montana, 1952

Cattle Queen Of Montana, 1954

 Timberjack, 1955

Rancho Deluxe, 1975 

Heaven’s Gate, 1980 (uncut)/ 1981 (edited version) 

The Untouchables, 1987 

Always, 1989 

Thousand Pieces Of Gold, 1991 

Far And Away, 1992 

A River Runs Through It, 1992 

The River Wild, 1994 

Broken Arrow, 1996 

The Horse Whisperer, 1998 

What Dreams May Come, 1998 

The Patriot, 1998 

Devil’s Pond, 2003 

Northfork, 2003 

Who Killed Cock Robin?, 2005 

Don’t Come Knocking, 2006 


~ David Blackwell has written for Flathead Living and Entertainment NOW. He also writes movie, TV show, and DVD reviews for his Enterline Media web site: .  Currently residing in Northwest Montana, he is working on a few short stories and novels.