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.

>> Related article: Most Iconic RVs from the Movies

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.

>> Related article: Filmed in Utah: 9 Itineraries through Hollywood’s Most Iconic Settings

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

10 Iconic Road Trip Movies

What is it about the road trip that lends itself so well to cinema?

The sun is shining, the weather is sweet, and the asphalt is calling: road trip season is here.

It’s a mood captured countless times on the big screen over the years with road trips used as a powerful device for narrative progression. Families confined within a space for hours on end, surprise encounters, and the inherent jeopardy of traveling at speed in a metal box have all played a role in some of the most memorable movies of all time.

Wigwam Motel, Holbrook, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There is something uniquely American about the idea of hitting the open road and driving endlessly through changing landscapes, either toward the promise of something better or as an escape from real or imagined oppression. While running the gamut from liberating to terrifying, American road trip films share a common thread: through the act of driving there is the opportunity for discovery. Characters often find something new about themselves, others, or some greater principle or purpose.

I researched the history of road trip cinema and chose 10 of the most iconic films in which people drive across the U.S.

On a road trip to Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Some road films reveal that running away is futile or even cowardly while others crystalize the fact that we cannot outrun the consequences of our actions even if we drive forever. At the same time, the genre reminds us that there is great potential in removing ourselves from the monotony or comfort of everyday life—that the act of leaving can be a powerful assertion of agency.

The history and diversity of American road trip films span decades and generations and encompass countless genres. From the lawlessness and violence of “Natural Born Killers” to the horror of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” and even the bittersweet optimism of “Little Miss Sunshine,” road trip films reflect the politics and sense of national identity of their time and place.

Mural at Kingman, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Easy Rider (1969)

Starring: Harley-Davidson Hydra-Glide custom motorbikes

Easy Rider stars Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper as bikers who smuggle drugs from Mexico into California, sell them and head eastward to New Orleans trying to make it in time for Mardi Gras. They stash their money near the gas tank of the “Captain America”—a custom-made motorcycle with a signature long front end—ridden by Fonda’s character. Along the way, they stop at a commune in Arizona and find trouble in New Mexico where they encounter a drunken lawyer played by Jack Nicholson who they convince to join them.

Oatman, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Produced on a mere $360,000 budget, Easy Rider is remembered as a film that captures the feeling of late-’60s counterculture complete with hallucinogenic trips, a free-love commune, and a soundtrack studded with The Band, The Byrds, and Jimi Hendrix. Its legacy is also one of subverting the mainstream Hollywood studio system. Its unprecedented commercial success—grossing $60 million globally on a small budget—as well as its indie status, stunned Hollywood executives.

Related: 11 Must Watch Films Shot on Route 66

Did you know? Only one bike from Easy Rider—the “Captain America”—is known to have survived. The other choppers were stolen before filming ended and haven’t been seen since.

Depicting life as it was in West Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

Starring: 1953 Chevrolet 3100 and 1972 Ford Club Wagon

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre changed the horror film genre and American filmmaking more generally in profound ways. Aside from inspiring nine films in the franchise, it pioneered the slasher genre while showing surprisingly little blood and gore, relying instead on clever camera work and misdirection to suggest horrific images. Filmmakers including Ridley Scott, Wes Craven, and Guillermo del Toro count the film amongst their favorites. “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” takes aspects of the traditional road trip film beginning with the group of idealistic young people piled into a car and quickly turning the viewer’s expectations into a nightmare.

Fuel stop from the past in Williams, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The film follows a group of friends who take a road trip through rural Texas to visit a family member’s gravesite but are forced to stop when their car runs out of gas. Early signs of danger include a violent encounter with a hitchhiker and when they stop at a quiet gas station only to find out the pumps are empty. Terror builds when they come across Leatherface, the now-legendary chainsaw-wielding villain who wears a mask made of human skin.

Did you know? The film is an allegory for the Vietnam War.

The Grand Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983)

Starring: Wagon Queen Family Truckster (based on a 1979 Ford Country Squire)

Road comedy National Lampoon’s Vacation follows the Griswold family led by patriarch Clark (Chevy Chase) as they embark on a road trip from Chicago to a southern California amusement park. The trip, a bid to spend more time together as a family and enjoy a picturesque vacation quickly goes awry. Driving a large, ugly station wagon, the family experiences countless misadventures along the way.

An amusement park somewhere in America © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The station wagon used in the film, known as the Wagon Queen Family Truckster was specifically designed as a parody of 1970s station wagons complete with faux-wood paneling and a “metallic pea”-colored paint job. Five identical cars were produced for the film due to the extent of the mishaps experienced by the family.

Related: The Best Road Trip Songs

Did you know? The film’s fictional Family Truckster was designed by the American custom car builder George Harris who’s perhaps best known for making the Batmobile used in the Batman live-action TV series.

Traveling the roads of West Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Paris, Texas (1984)

Starring: 1958 Ford Ranchero

After emerging from the Texas desert unable to speak or explain where he came from, Travis (Harry Dean Stanton) is rescued by a German doctor. The doctor contacts Travis’ estranged brother (Dean Stockwell) who then drives from L.A. to pick him up. When they return to California, Travis meets his young son who has been adopted by his brother and they decide to embark on a journey to find his son’s mother.

A West Texas sunset © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Traveling from southern California to Houston in a classic blue and white ’58 Ford Ranchero, the two reconcile. Passing through desert landscapes, past old road motels and neon signs, the aesthetics of “Paris, Texas” are part-Western, part Edward Hopper Americana.

Did you know? The moving character study was written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Sam Shepard,

A scenic byway in Ohio © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rain Man (1988)

Starring: 1949 Buick Roadmaster convertible

Rain Man tells the story of Charlie (Tom Cruise), a young hustler who discovers he has a brother, Raymond (Dustin Hoffman) after his father dies and leaves Raymond his lucrative estate. Charlie travels to Ohio and finds that Raymond is an autistic savant who has been institutionalized. In an attempt to gain control of the money from their father’s estate, Charlie kidnaps Raymond from the institution. The two embark on a road trip from Cincinnati to Los Angeles where Charlie plans to fight for custody of his brother in their father’s 1949 Buick Roadmaster convertible.

The film’s enduring legacy is complicated: While it was groundbreaking for its representation of a character with autism some have called its portrayal of autism spectrum disorder reductive or stereotypical.

Did you know? The owner of the Buick Roadmaster used in Rain Man is the film’s director, Barry Levinson.

Wigwam Motel, Halbrook, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Thelma & Louise (1991)

Starring: 1966 Ford Thunderbird

Thelma & Louise stars Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis as two best friends who depart their unsatisfying home lives in Arkansas for a weekend away only to become fugitives on the run from the law. The two head in the direction of Mexico in Louise’s 1966 blue Ford Thunderbird convertible hoping to cross the border and evade capture by the FBI. Louise insists they avoid driving through Texas so they take a meandering route west traveling through New Mexico and the Grand Canyon.

Malpais National Monument, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Thelma & Louise remains a landmark film in the feminist cinema for its politics, exploration of gendered violence, centering on a best-friend relationship, and for subverting several genres: the Western, the road film, the buddy film, and the crime drama. Davis and Sarandon both received Best Actress Oscar nominations for their co-starring roles.

Did you know? Thelma and Louise isn’t the only famous film to feature a fourth-generation Ford Thunderbird convertible: a yellow example also appeared in the 1964 James Bond movie Goldfinger.

Shoot-out in Tombstone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Natural Born Killers (1994)

Starring: 1970 Dodge Challenger convertible

Starring Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis as a murderous married couple, Natural Born Killers grapples with the way mass violence and its perpetrators are given celebrity status by the media.

The film follows the couple as they go on a multi-state killing spree traveling from New Mexico to Arizona and Nevada, all the while attracting media attention that turns them into macabre cult heroes. Featuring a red 1970 Dodge Challenger convertible, the film subverts the often family-friendly conventions of the road trip movie while incorporating images of Western landscapes to remind viewers it is a particularly American story. The film sparked controversy over its gratuitous violence and director Oliver Stone was sued when the film allegedly inspired copycat crimes (the suit was later dismissed).

Did you know? According to Tom Sizemore, he got the part of Detective Jack Scagnetti after writing a monologue for the character which he made Oliver Stone listen to in the parking lot of a bar. 

The Straight Story (1999)

Starring: 1964 John Deere 110 lawnmower

Based on a true story, The Straight Story follows Alvin (Richard Farnsworth), an elderly Iowa man who decides to visit his estranged brother after he has a stroke. Unable to drive, Alvin hitches a trailer to his lawnmower and embarks on a journey to Wisconsin. Only able to travel at five miles per hour, the journey takes several weeks and involves a series of mishaps and connections made with other long-term travelers and passersby.

The Straight Story was filmed along the actual route that the real Alvin Straight took on his original journey. Farnsworth who died by suicide one year after the film’s release had been suffering from cancer that left his legs partially paralyzed during the filming of The Straight Story. He received a Best Actor Oscar nomination for the role.

Related: Ultimate Road Trip Playlist: Sing Your Way Across America

Did you know? As crazy as it sounds, The Straight Story is based on a true story. In 1996, the real-life Alvin Straight really did drive his ride-on mower for 240-mile trip to visit his unwell brother.

Wine Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sideways (2004)

Starring: 1987 Saab Turbo convertible

Sideways stars Paul Giamatti as Miles, an unsuccessful writer who brings his friend Jack (Thomas Haden Church) on a road trip to California wine country as a final adventure before Jack gets married. Traveling up the coast of California in a bright red ’87 Saab Turbo convertible, the two men experience a range of mishaps leading up to Jack’s wedding ceremony.

Wine Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The film which centers largely around Miles’ obsession with wine (particularly pinot noir) has been credited with influencing the California wine industry. As of 2017, production of California pinot noir wine had increased by 170 percent since the film’s release—a trend that winemakers labeled “the Sideways Effect.”

Did you know? The reason for the film’s title is never explained in the film itself but it is made quite clear in the novel on which the film is based as the two main characters use the term “sideways” to mean “intoxicated.”

Wigwam Motel, Halbrook, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

Starring: 1978 Volkswagen Type 2 camper van

Starring Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Steve Carell, Paul Dano, and Abigail Breslin as members of a dysfunctional family, Little Miss Sunshine tells the story of Olive (Abigail Breslin), a young girl and aspiring beauty queen trying to get to a beauty pageant to compete.

New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Based in New Mexico, her large family—including her parents, grandfather, uncle, and half-brother—travels 800 miles in a yellow VW bus to reach southern California for the competition that is just two days away. Along the way, issues with the bus as well as personal trials and misadventures, bring the family together in unexpected ways. Breslin earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress at just age 10.

Related: Texas Road Trip Playlist: Sing Your Way across Texas

Did you know? Little Miss Sunshine’s screenplay writer Michael Arndt based the issues affecting the Volkswagen on the unreliability of a camper van from a real-life childhood road trip of his own.

Worth Pondering…

Because the greatest part of a road trip isn’t arriving at your destination. It’s all the wild stuff that happens along the way.

—Emma Chase, Tamed