The hillbilly Tennessee depicted in Hollywood films is akin to the romanticized mythographic West of cowboys and Indians. Though there may be a grain of truth imbedded somewhere in the stereotypical image, it is far from representative of the state or its inhabitants. Ironically, many films in the silent era (1896-1927) depicted the state and Tennesseans in a more favorable light. Tennessee became associated with hillbilly culture in the minds of viewers only after the media coverage of the 1925 Scopes Trial depicted the state’s residents as backward rubes. Newsreel footage of the Dayton citizens who crammed into the town to observe the happenings, coupled with the scathing observations of H. L. Mencken, left lasting impressions of Tennessee as the locus of the illiterate and unreconstructed. This stereotype was, perhaps unwittingly, reinforced by the growing popularity of country music heard in national broadcasts from Nashville on WSM and Knoxville on WNOX. These random events converged to cement the image of Tennessee as the home of the hillbilly.
Country music has played a key role in many films set in the state, from Ferlin Huskey’s Country Music Holiday (1958) to Robert Altman’s frenetic and disjointed masterpiece Nashville (1970) to the recent Thing Called Love (1995). Lives of country music stars have served as grist for the cinematic mill, providing the requisite heartache, violence, alcohol and drug abuse, illicit sex, and dejection that viewers associate with the musical genre. Among the films that exploit such fare are Your Cheatin’ Heart (1964) with George Hamilton reliving the sanitized life of Hank Williams; Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980), the rags-to-riches story of Loretta Lynn starring Sissy Spacek, Tommy Lee Jones, and Levon Helm; and Sweet Dreams (1985), in which Jessica Lange portrays the incomparable Patsy Cline. Country music is also used to establish a sense of place, mood, and character and to provide a voice for male characters who otherwise are depicted as incapable of expressing their thoughts or emotions.
Prior to the 1960s, most films about Tennessee were not filmed in the state. Tennessee lacked the resources necessary for filmmakers, and California had to double for Tennessee. John Huston’s classic film Red Badge of Courage (1951), based on Stephen Crane’s novel about the battle of Shiloh, was shot on location in California. Nor was the earlier dramatic story of Sergeant York (1941) shot in Tennessee. One early exception is Alan Holubar’s film The Human Mill (1923), which was filmed on location in Franklin. Basing the film on John Trotwood Moore’s romantic novel The Bishop of Cottonwood, the director set out to recreate the battle of Franklin. The film marked the first Hollywood venture into the state and used Civil War veterans and extras from all over Middle Tennessee. Unfortunately, Holubar died during the filming, and the movie was never edited for distribution; the whereabouts of the footage remain unknown. One wishes that the footage had been lost for I Walk the Line (1968). Filmed on location in Smith, Overton, Fentress, Jackson, and Putnam Counties, directed by John Franenheimer, and starring Gregory Peck, Tuesday Weld, and Ralph Meeker, the film depicts the state in the most sordid and stereotypical terms.
Several historic figures from Tennessee’s past have been depicted on film; most prominent among them are Davy Crockett, Andrew Jackson, and Sam Houston. Out of the dozens of Crockett films, the two most popular are Fess Parker’s simplistic, sanitized Disney Crockett created from the Crockett Almanacs and John Wayne’s larger-than-life, ultra-American Crockett from The Alamo (1960). Hollywood also has interpreted key events in the state’s history. Stanley Kramer’s Inherit the Wind (1960) recreates the Scopes Trial; that same year Elia Kazan looked at the impact of the Tennessee Valley Authority in Wild River, which starred Montgomery Clift and Lee Remick.
In the 1980s several changes made Tennessee the location for a number of Hollywood films, both about the state and as the screen double for other states and nations. In 1983 Governor Lamar Alexander founded the fifty-member Tennessee Film, Tape, and Music Commission to aggressively pursue filmmakers and encourage them to produce feature films. Filmmakers recognized the cost benefits in not having to pay union scale by hiring local laborers and technicians in a right-to-work state. Additionally, the numerous recording facilities in Nashville and Memphis facilitated postproduction and editing work.
Alexander’s team met with immediate success, and four films were shot in Tennessee. Mark Rydell’s domestic tragedy The River, starring Sissy Spacek, Mel Gibson, and Scott Glenn, features the Rogersville area as the Midwest farmbelt. Sylvester Stallone and Dolly Parton teamed up for the off-key musical romance Rhinestone. Jane Fonda and Levon Helm shot the tear-jerking story of triumph, The Dollmaker. Perhaps the most interesting film shot in Tennessee that year was the science fiction film Star Man, starring Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen. In that film, Tennessee doubles for Minnesota, the Midwest, and even Arizona–the desert sequences were shot around Copper Hill.
The success of the first year of filming in Tennessee encouraged further production. In 1984 the Disney corporation used Nashville locations and the State Capitol for the dramatic story of the first seeing-eye dog, Love Leads the Way, directed by Tennessean Delbert Mann and starring Timothy Bottoms, Ernest Borgnine, and Ralph Bellamy. Jean Jacques Annaud filmed a portion of his virtually silent feature The Bear, which chronicles the life of an abandoned cub, in Tennessee locations near Memphis. The Willie Nelson feature Songwriter was shot in Nashville and the surrounding area. In 1985 Franklin doubled for a small town in western Pennsylvania in Michael Apted’s chilling film about a family of criminals, At Close Range, starring Christopher Walken and Sean Penn.
Sissy Spacek portrays Marie Ragghianti, the woman who blew the whistle on the Ray Blanton administration, in the 1986 feature Marie. This film marked the screen debuts for two of Tennessee’s biggest stars: the Tennessee State Penitentiary and Fred Thompson (now a U.S. senator). Once slated for demolition, the prison has become a popular movie set; the HBO film Attica (1996) was recently shot there. In 1999 came the release of the Tom Hanks movie The Green Mile, which prominently featured the state prison. Thompson has acted in several major films including No Way Out, In the Line of Fire, and The Hunt for Red October.
During the administration of Governor Ned Ray McWherter, film production declined. A brief resurgence of state filmmaking occurred in the mid-1990s. The Firm, the first of John Grisham’s popular thrillers, was filmed in Memphis and starred Tom Cruise. Interestingly enough, portions of two feature films set in exotic jungles were filmed in Middle Tennessee. Location scouts chose Rock Island State Park as a site to double for the jungles of Colombia in Sylvester Stallone’s action-adventure yarn The Professional, and another Upper Cumberland location doubled for the jungles of India when Disney shot its live-action version of The Jungle Book at Fall Creek Falls State Park and Lost Creek Cave.