12 Movies You Didn’t Know Were Filmed in Arizona

The following movies are remarkably diverse in nature but share this description: filmed in Arizona

Movies filmed in Arizona go beyond Westerns. From Oscar-winning dramas to titans of sci-fi, big-screen stories have been making the most of Arizona’s iconic landscapes since 1912.

Anyone can recognize a famous skyline in a blockbuster flick but scene-spotting for movies filmed in Arizona brings a unique challenge. How many people can pinpoint Amado’s cow-skull restaurant in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore? And who recognizes the Canyon de Chelly backdrop that outperforms the plot in Poltergeist 2?

Petrified Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s this very thing—the shape-shifting quality of Arizona’s geological terrain—that has enticed more than 2,000 productions to film in the state.

“We have the most diverse topography of anywhere in the U.S.,” says Matthew Earl Jones, director of Film & Digital Media for the Arizona Commerce Authority.

This means that if a film scout seeks New England in the fall they can find it in Arizona’s White Mountains. A director who desires an alien planet? The vast badlands near the Petrified Forest will more than suffice.

When it comes to the silver screen, Arizona does it all from starring roles in legendary movies to bit parts in indie films. Here’s a peek at some of Arizona’s best work.

Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983)

Who can forget Clark Griswold’s classic Grand Canyon visit? After a few seconds of wonderment, Clark and the family were off to their next adventure.

The classic Chevy Chase comedy revolving around a family road trip gone awry was filmed in several Arizona spots including Flagstaff, Monument Valley, and Sedona—the site of Aunt Edna’s famous death scene.

Tombstone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tombstone (1993)

Okay, this one was easy. Tombstone, Arizona remains a famous tourist attraction for being the site of Wyatt Earp’s gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

>> Related article: 11 Must Watch Films Shot on Route 66

The 1993 film starring Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer revolves around the gunfight and the ensuing Earp Vendetta Ride. Tombstone was filmed primarily at the Old Tucson Studios.

Yuma © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Star Wars VI, Return of the Jedi (1983)

Parts of a galaxy far, far away are actually located in Arizona. The Return of the Jedi is the final film in George Lucas’ original Star Wars trilogy. After using parts of Tunisia to film the Imperial Sand Dunes in the previous films, Lucas and the company wanted to stay closer to home.

For the last film, they decided on building a set about 15 minutes away from Yuma around Castle.

Near Casa Grande © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Three Kings (1999)

George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, and Ice Cube starred in this drama set in the aftermath of the Gulf War.

In order to make the setting look like Iraq, director David O. Russell needed a flat and barren desert landscape. He chose Arizona—with many of the scenes being shot in the deserts of Casa Grande.

Old Tucson Studios © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

¡Three Amigos! (1986)

Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, and Martin Short star in this irreverent comedy about silent movie stars forced to save a Mexican village from the famous (or infamous) El Guapo. Hilarity ensues while fish out of water actors sing and dance their way to heroes.

>> Related article: The Ultimate Road Trip for Clint Eastwood Fans

Set in Mexico, much of the film was shot in Old Tucson Studios and the Coronado National Forest south of Tucson.

Yuma Territorial Prison © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3:10 to Yuma (1957)

This story about a small-time rancher transporting an outlaw by stagecoach is one of the most famous westerns and even spawned a remake starring Christian Bale in 2007. While the remake doesn’t stay true to its Arizona roots, the original was filmed all over the state.

Filming occurred in Old Tucson, Sedona, Dragoon, Yuma, and Willcox.

Old Tucson Studios © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Into the Wild (2007)

Few movies showcase Arizona’s natural beauty. One exception is Sean Penn’s Into the Wild starring Emile Hirsch. As Hirsch’s character hitchhikes to Alaska, audiences get a glimpse at many of Arizona’s lesser-known but gorgeous areas.

Some of the areas captured in the movie include Kingman, Lake Mead, Topock, and Page.

Lake Powell © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Planet of the Apes (1968)

One of the most iconic movies in sci-fi history, Planet of the Apes re-imagines the world. An astronaut crew crash-lands on a planet in the distant future. Intelligent talking apes dominate, while all the humans remain mute, oppressed, and dressed in animal skins. Terrifying stuff!

The desert scenes were all filmed on location in Arizona in the desert-like terrain of northern Arizona. The Grand Canyon, Colorado River, Lake Powell, Glen Canyon, and Page all make blockbuster appearances.

Canyon de Chelly © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Sea of Grass (1947)

This western begins with St. Louis resident Lutie Cameron (Katharine Hepburn) marrying New Mexico cattleman Col. James B. ‘Jim’ Brewton (Spencer Tracy) after a short courtship. When she arrives in Salt Fork, NM she finds that her new husband is considered by the locals to be a tyrant who uses force to keep homesteaders off the government owned land he uses for grazing his cattle—the so-called Sea of Grass. Lutie, has difficulty reconciling her husband’s beliefs and passions with her own.

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Filming occurred at Canyon de Chelly.

Lake Powell © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Eight Legged Freaks (2002)

After a long absence, Chris McCormick returns to his quiet hometown of Prosperity, Arizona, to reopen his late father’s mines. However, a chemical spill and lethal toxic waste have created an unstoppable army of giant spiders who prey on the unsuspecting locals turning Prosperity into an endless buffet. Now, it’s up to Chris; Sheriff Sam Parker; her son Mike; Sam’s plucky daughter, Ashley; the conspiracy theorist, Harlan, and a handful of survivors to stop the hairy menace and save the town. But, who can stand in the way of the disgusting eight-legged freaks?

Filming locations include Glendale, Superior, Black Canyon City, and Lake Powell.

Oatman © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Edge of Eternity (1959)

Helped by socialite Janice Kendon, Arizona Deputy Sheriff Les Martin works to solve three brutal murders in and around the Grand Canyon. His efforts lead to the killer fleeing with Janice as a hostage and a chase by car and helicopter leading to a climax on a miner’s bucket on cables a mile above the canyon floor.

Some of the areas captured in the movie are Grand Canyon, Kingman, and Oatman.

Lake Powell © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

John Carter of Mars (2012)

John Carter, a Civil War veteran who in 1868 was trying to live a normal life is asked by the Army to join but he refuses so he is locked up. He escapes and is pursued. Eventually they run into some Indians and there’s a gunfight. Carter seeks refuge in a cave. While there, he encounters someone who is holding some kind of medallion. When Carter touches it he finds himself in a place where he can leap incredible heights, among other things. He later encounters beings he has never seen before. He meets a woman who helps him to discover that he is on Mars and he learns there’s some kind of unrest going on.

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Filming occurred in a variety of locations including Lake Powell.

Worth Pondering…

I think cinema, movies, and magic have always been associated. The very earliest people who made film were magicians.

—Francis Ford Coppola