John Ur returns with another glimpse into the cinematic adventures of the 50 states. Today, he presents us with a double whammy of both Dakotas.
National Geographic’s recent feature article on North Dakota, "The Emptied Prairie," documented the ghost towns that lie in the open space between the cities of North Dakota and the farmlands where cattle, buffalo and wheat reign supreme. In South Dakota, there is much of the same: a few mid-size cities, lots of farmland, Native American Reservations, and in every direction, horizon.
Given that North and South Dakota respectively rank 47th and 46th out of 50 in population (as of the 2000 Census), and that the majority of their land is devoted to agriculture (like much of the rest of the Great Plains), it stands to reason that there would not be many movies to choose from when reviewing homegrown cinema. Unfortunately, reason stands true in this instance. With apologies to Dakota natives, I have made the executive decision to combine North and South Dakota into one column for the purely selfish reason of giving me more material to work with.
North Dakota, though not rich in film history, holds (a small) claim to a cinematic gem. The Coen Brothers’ 1996 crime-drama, Fargo, was named after the largest city in North Dakota. But unfortunately, to further undermine the North Dakotan Tourism Industry, Fargo was largely shot in Minnesota. There is however, one distinct shot that you can look for if you’re driving through ND. There is a large statue of Paul Bunyan that sits west of the city of Bathgate on Pembina County Highway 1. Besides this minor claim to fame (and the larger fame that the film’s title brings to the small city), I can’t find another movie set or shot in North Dakota. Native Dakotans, can anyone help me out?
South Dakota is a veritable Hollywood compared to its northern brethren. Though a large portion of its landscape is similarly flat and spacious, the southwest corner is home to the Black Hills and Mount Rushmore as well as Badlands National Park. Mount Rushmore has been featured in a handful of films, most notably Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. In the climactic scene near the end, Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) and Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) are chased across the top of the monument by Phillip (James Mason) and Leonard (Martin Landau). Of course, you’ll have to watch the thriller to find out about the dramatic ending...
If you visit the South Dakota Film Office website, you'll find three categories to choose from: Key Benefits, History, and Dances With Wolves. It's an early tip-off that Dances with Wolves might be a popular movie that was shot here… Just a hunch, maybe.
Kevin Costner’s Academy Award-winning picture was shot almost entirely in South Dakota, with sets built on the Triple U Buffalo Ranch north of Pierre and in locations throughout the rest of the state, including Spearfish Canyon in the Black Hills. Many of the scenes depicting the wagon journey from Fort Hayes to Fort Sedgwick also show glimpses of the nearby ghost-like town of Interior, and Badlands National Park. If you travel to South Dakota, I hope you’ll take the time to visit Badlands. Camp out in the park, and you may be rewarded with colorful and eerie sunsets among the craggy rock formations that caused the Sioux Indians to name this land “mako sica” – “land bad.” And do feel free to sing Bruce Springsteen’s “Badlands” at the top of your lungs while visiting.
Read More: For more movies filmed in South Dakota, see the SD Film Office’s page. Previously on CRT: Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas.
Photos: John Ur