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10 Great Films Set in New Mexico – For the State’s Centennial

10 Great Films Set in New Mexico - For the State's Centennial

Happy belated birthday to New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment, which celebrated its 100th anniversary as a state this week. One century ago, on January 6, 1912, the New Mexico Territory was admitted to the union by Congress. And throughout its existence the state has been a major part of cinema and TV history. Actually, films have been shot there since the 19th century, as you’ll see below, and Selig Polyscope Company had an early studio in Las Vegas, NM, through the 1910s, mainly for producing Westerns starring Tom Mix. In 1912 alone, Mack Sennett, D.W. Griffith and Thomas Ince shot shorts there. And in the 21st century the state’s link to filmmaking has increased tremendously.

Presently we might associate New Mexico most with the series “Breaking Bad,” which is set and filmed around Albuquerque. As for feature films, they are plentiful lately as well, thanks to great financial incentives and a recently built studio that have wooed numerous productions and billions of dollars to the state. Traditionally, though, New Mexico has been primarily affiliated with three kinds of motion picture stories: Westerns, movies regarding the state’s history with the atomic bomb tests and movies involving the alleged UFO crash at Roswell. And obligatorily some of my picks for ten great film representatives of New Mexico include those which fit the norms and their cliches.

Obviously I’m not listing a great percentage of the multitude of great films shot, set or involving New Mexico in part or whole. You may have some other favorites or titles you think are better cinematic works. Let me know of any in the comments section. For now, here are those I consider significant, in alphabetical order:

“Ace in the Hole” (1951)

Billy Wilder has made so many masterpieces that it’s hard to consider one of his films a favorite above the rest. I tend to have a rotating few that take the honor, and this drama starring Kirk Douglas is often the choice if only because it is not as well-known as some others. Originally released under the studio-changed title of “The Big Carnival,” the film also was initially not that well-received, though today it is considered a timeless classic that holds up powerfully more than half a century later. The cynical tale is about a washed up journalist from New York who finds a new home with the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin and then builds his career back up by exploiting the tragedy of a man trapped in a cave and sensationally turning it into a huge national story. “Ace” was filmed on location near Gallup and finds much meaning in the state’s “Land of Enchantment” nickname.

“The Andromeda Strain” (1971)

I’ve always been a little indifferent to this film’s neatly wrapped conclusion, similarly to how I felt recently with the comparable epidemic drama “Contagion,” but it is my father’s favorite movie of all time so I have a soft spot for it. Based on the novel by Michael Crichton and directed by Robert Wise, the majority of the story actually takes place in an underground government facility near a fictional town in Nevada. But the New Mexico setting of a tiny town completely wiped of its population by a biological threat from space is so key to both the plot and the state’s common associations with aliens and human extinction. I am pretty sure that none of the 1971 adaptation or the more recent TV miniseries version from 2008 were shot in New Mexico.

“Gas, Food Lodging” (1992)

Possibly to the locals’ chagrin, Allison Anders breakthrough indie sensation is the first film that pops into my mind when I think of New Mexico’s depiction on the big screen. The drama involves a three-woman family living in a trailer in a relative wasteland called Laramie, a sort of dusty setting the state easily offers up as metaphoric for small town stories and characters with similarly little going on. Yet it’s also the kind of place that perfectly offers ups some naturally beautiful shots of big open skies and the sunsets the state is famous for. The film was shot on location around Deming and Las Cruces.

“The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” (1966)

The amusing last installment of Sergio Leone’s “Dollars” trilogy stars Clint Eastwood as “the good” gunslinger Blondie. Along with “the bad” mercenary Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef) and “the ugly” bandit Tuco (Eli Wallach), he’s after a treasure of buried Confederate gold coins during the Civil War. Specifically the events of the film take place around the time of the Battle of Glorieta Pass, which was fought in the then-New Mexico Territory and the loot the characters are after is located somewhere near the Texas border. Obviously because it’s a Leone-helmed Spaghetti Western, this film was not shot anywhere near New Mexico. Instead it was filmed in Italy and Spain.

“High Noon” (1952)

Also not actually shot in New Mexico, Fred Zinnemann’s classic is another of countless Westerns at least taking place in the pre-statehood location (believed to be anywhere between the late 1860s and late 1870s). The precise physical setting is the fictional, never-acknowledged town of Hadleyville, where Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) has just married and is retiring from duty. Unfortunately an old enemy, Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald), and his gang have come for revenge and ultimately a famous 12 o’clock gunfight. Apparently the production was to be shot near Gallup but it was cheaper to just film in California.

“Indian Day School” (1898)

The first known film shot in New Mexico is this very short Thomas Edison-produced actuality, in which Native American children are seen walking in and out of their school located in Isletea Pueblo. The copyright on the film is February 24, 1898, nearly 14 years before statehood. Like most Edison films it looks quite staged, but there’s no doubting the work captures a piece of history, and thankfully it has been catalogued and made available by the Library of Congress. Watch it in full below:

“Let Me In” (2010)

Matt Reeves’ initially underrated remake/re-adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Swedish vampire novel, “Let the Right One In,” seems to be growing more love since it was released to disappointing box office little more than a year ago. And it deserves the fans and favor since it’s actually one of the best modern examples of why remakes aren’t to be feared. For the American version, the filmmaker transplanted the action from the Stockholm suburbs to Los Alamos, New Mexico, not just for the state’s incentives but clearly primarily for the town’s link to the atom and hydrogen bombs and therefore its association with the Cold War. The film, like the book, takes place in the early 1980s, and while many dismissed much of it for being too similar shot-wise to Tomas Alfredson’s 2008 version, the setting alone infuses so much more — and much different — meaning to the story. Here I have to turn the analysis over to Jim Emerson, whose review was the one that made me immediately watch it. I’m so glad I did. 

“Salt of the Earth” (1954)

Historically significant to the state for a few reasons, Herbert Biberman’s blacklisted film depicts a fictionalized version of the 1951 Empire Zinc Company strike in Grant County, New Mexico, with changed names but otherwise obvious reference. Because the production involved members of the Hollywood blacklist, such as Biberman, and was sponsored by the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers, members of which acted in the film, it had a lot of trouble getting made and then exhibited. Towns such as Central and Silver City ran the crew out of town, the U.S. House of Representatives denounced the film, the FBI investigated it, actors were deported because of it and most theaters refused to show it for years. It is now in the public domain and can be viewed in full below:

“Them!” (1954)

Back when nuclear weaponry was in its infancy and very much a scary concept to everyone, the idea of radiation-based mutation was a favorite for science fiction horror movies, and New Mexico was an obvious setting for such frightfully fantastical fare given that it held the first atomic bomb tests. While other genre films of the time dealt with allegories for Communist infiltration, this was the other side of America’s Cold War fears. One of the most famous giant monster flicks is this classic from director Gordon Douglas in which ants are enlarged out in the Alamogordo desert area near where the Trinity test took place. The scope of the action extends outside of New Mexico and the film was not shot there, but it remains so affiliated with the state that if I ever drive out there I’ll be afraid of coming across a stunned little girl shouting “them! them! them!”

“Trinity and Beyond: The Atomic Bomb Movie” (1995)

And of course if you want to see some of the original footage of the Trinity test, this documentary directed by visual effects artist Peter Kuran is a great place to find it. Narrated by William Shatner and featuring an intense score by William T. Stromberg, the film features beautifully restored color films of the world-changing events of the summer of 1945 in Alamogordo. Not as fully interesting (or humorous) as the more acclaimed and well-known “The Atomic Cafe,” this doc is comparably more visually appealing, fitting that it’s the one available on Blu-ray. Of course it doesn’t stay very long in New Mexico after the opening (it quickly gets into the “beyond”), but the state’s importance is enormously appropriate for this list. You can watch the film in full via Hulu below:

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