Most moviegoers are familiar with popular films that have made Appalachia their subject–like Thunder Road and Deliverance–or those that have used a central character from Appalachia to create powerful drama, as in the case of Jodie Foster’s Agent Starling in Silence of the Lambs. Other movies have chosen the region as the locale for a non-Appalachian story, like The Fugitive. Less well-known are the hundreds of films about the Southern Mountains that date from the earliest days of cinema history, most long forgotten. The rich history of movies about Appalachia has fueled America’s fascination with the region and created powerful and often negative images of its culture and people. In recent years, filmmaking in the mountains has become a significant element of the regional economy, generating jobs and income.
Cinema and other forms of media, some produced in and some produced about Appalachia, have presented a cultural stereotype of the region that is often more fiction than fact. Many movies, like Sergeant York (1919), portray mountain folks with an exaggerated, simple honesty and rugged individualism. Other movies, like Kissin’ Cousins (1964) with Elvis Presley, make no attempt at whitewashing the backwards persona associated with the Southern Appalachians. While film depictions have not always been accurate or flattering, these productions continue to contribute to both the national perception and the economy of the region.
If there is one word that non-natives use to describe the people that live in Appalachia it would be “hillbilly.” Just what is a hillbilly? Common adjectives include slow, dirty, lazy, uneducated, and a dialect sprinkled with poor grammar delivered with a resonant twang. Seldom are mountain residents defined by outsiders as businesspeople, researchers, academics, or professionals. This misconception is not uttered in malice. Rather, it is based on almost a century of exposure to the media’s tendency to homogenize southerners (and mountain residents) within restrictive stereotypes – those of a hillbilly.
The first films about the region were not movie stories. They were early twentieth-century documentaries called actualities, travelogues, or industrials. The industrials portrayed Appalachian residents as living a life directed by a complex, working relationship with the mountain landscape – usually as farmers, miners, or loggers. Travelogues endorsed vacations for pleasure or health, usually by rail, to the unspoiled environments that surrounded places like Asheville, NC; Tallulah Falls, GA; or Lookout Mountain, TN. These short films and news images from events like the Scopes Evolution Trial were often the only regional images available to other parts of the country.
In the 1920s, cinematic movies emerged as the nation’s favorite entertainment pastime. Hollywood soon realized that the growing urban population loved stories, true or embellished, about rural America. Sergeant York was “the greatest hero of any war in the annals of history.” The Southern Highlands (1917) gave the nation glimpses of mountain people and their primitive dwellings. These folks were simple, quaint, and sometimes lawless. Early feature films about Appalachia depicted mountain families in extremes. Some glorified them as hardworking conquerors of the wilderness, an embodiment of the nation’s pioneering heritage. Other movies displayed them as the antithesis of progress where moonshine and the environment were fate’s determining factors.
After World War II, television joined Hollywood in encouraging hillbilly stereotypes. Disney placed a coonskin cap atop Davy Crockett (1955), an ideal, heroic role model on both the big and small screen. Walter Cronkite and Charles Kuralt hosted documentaries portraying mountain poverty, bluegrass music, and Pentecostal snake-handling worship services. The Beverly Hillbillies and Andy Griffith were nightly guests in homes throughout the country. Hee Haw, a country version of Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, starred characters that looked, dressed, and acted like Lil’ Abner. Where The Lilies Bloom (1974), Spencer’s Mountain (1963), and Ma and Pa Kettle (1949) attempted to whitewash the menace out of Appalachia while preserving a somewhat backwards worldview. Other films were less flattering. A raw Robert Mitchum in Thunder Road (1958) was followed by pure, mountain evil in Burt Reynold’s Deliverance (1972). Mitchum’s masculine persona refused to conform just as the psychopaths in Reynold’s Georgia Mountains refused to become civilized. More recent productions like Nell (1995) and Cold Mountain (2003) rely heavily on mountain isolation to develop their characters. One underlying theme common to these various productions is that the people that live in the Southern Appalachians are different from the vast majority of citizens that live throughout the rest of the United States – and those difference are seldom presented as positive. Why did America and Hollywood love the hillbilly stereotype? According to J. W. Williamson, “The hillbilly allows a mainly white urban audience to both titillate itself when convenient and disassociate itself when necessary from its own worst historical behavior and any lingering bad impulses.”
However, movies and television have a larger influence on Appalachia than merely shaping its social representation. Films made locally create jobs by increasing tourism, stimulating development, and hiring for various production needs. Their economic contributions are both historic and significant. Michael Bigham of Asheville is a Hollywood scout and was a manager for the locally produced Last of the Mohicans (1992). He boasts that North Carolina has more production complexes and sound stages than any state in the nation outside of California. He points out that for over twenty years North Carolina has ranked third nationally in revenues from film, television and commercial production. One characteristic that makes the state so attractive is its variety of filming locations from the mountains to the coast. This allows the state to simulate almost any setting required. Additionally, the state provides a growing schedule of annual film festivals including the internationally-acclaimed Asheville Film Festival and the Cucalorus Film Festival in Wilmington.
Hollywood producers have discovered that the 5,000- to 6,000-foot peaks in western North Carolina provide visually spectacular backgrounds for a variety of film productions. The region has a good blend of accessibility and convenience balanced by relatively rural demographics. These characteristics combine to create a user-friendly environment for the motion picture industry.
Movie-making creates jobs in several ways. Units hire hundreds of locals to work in set construction and as extras. Workers in the service industry are required to accommodate movie production units. Since feature films and other productions are widely distributed, often globally, they elevate the region’s profile and increase its visibility. After Being There (1979), starring Peter Sellers, was filmed at the Biltmore House, the Estate realized a significant increase in revenue over the next several years. Tourists as well as permanent and temporary residents began to select the region as a destination point. Contractors, retail staff, health care workers, and educators grew in response to this active development.
Though the Appalachian region continues to struggle with a negative stereotype, that image has diminished in recent years. The differences that divide the mountains from the rest of the nation are shrinking as popular culture becomes more homogenized. For more people, fictional depictions of the mountain hillbilly are now just that – fiction. However, it is important that we understand and treasure what makes Appalachia unique – a history and heritage drawn from the landscape and the ability to confront adversity and exchange it for opportunity.
Essay by Timothy N. Osment
Notable Movies with scenes filmed in western North Carolina:
- The Swan (1952)
- Thunder Road (1958)
- Deliverance (1972)
- Being There (1979)
- Private Eyes (1981)
- Dirty Dancing (1987)
- Bull Durham (1988)
- Last of the Mohicans (1992)
- The Fugitive(1993)
- Forrest Gump (1994)
- Nell (1995)
- Patch Adams (1998)
For more information please see:
- “Documentary Films” and “Feature Films” in Encyclopedia of Appalachia, Rudy Abramson and Jean Haskell, eds., 2006
- The North Carolina Filmography: 1905 through 2000, Jenny Henderson, 2002
- Hillbillyland: What the Movies did to the Mountains and what the Mountains did to the Movies, J.W. Williamson, 1995
Below is the Digital Heritage Moment as broadcast on the radio: