Screen Time: Yellowstone on TV and in Films
Yellowstone on Screen
Yellowstone has fired the imagination of people since before it was a national park. In the early 1800s, mountain man John Colter was amazed by the steaming, bubbling landscape he found there, and was then mocked for the fantastical tales he told about it. Because words obviously weren’t enough to capture the wonders of Yellowstone, in 1871 the Hayden Geological Survey included both a photographer (William Henry Jackson) and two painters (Thomas Moran and Henry Wood Elliot) among its ranks, who were instrumental in exciting national interest in its astonishing terrain.
By 1911, author William Popham used America’s first national park as the setting for his romance novel, Yellowstone Park Romance. A couple of decades later, movies — and eventually TV shows — were being set in the park. “Yellowstone is exotic and mysterious at the same time,” says Wyoming author C.J. Box, who has set numerous books in and around Yellowstone. “It’s not like Disney World. It’s magic. Despite attempts to manage it, it’s still wild and anything can happen here.”
Here are some key movies and TV shows that were either set in or filmed in Yellowstone over the years. (All ratings and photos are from IMDB.com.)
Ex-cons, an ingenue, and gangsters come to Yellowstone in the 1936 film Yellowstone (5.7/10 stars). Murder, love, a family reunion, and a search for hidden treasure ensue. An original poster for the movie advertised it as “The Great Geyser Murder Mystery!”
Trivia: Yellowstone was the first movie set in Yellowstone, but the 1918 silent movie Heart of the Wilds was the first one filmed in the park (though it’s set in northwest Canada).
Star Trek: The Motion Picture
The 1979 Star Trek: The Motion Picture (6.4/10 stars) is definitely not set in Yellowstone — it’s set in space, on the USS Enterprise, and on alien planets in the 23rd century — but it is only the third feature movie to be filmed in the park. Minerva Terrace in the Mammoth Springs area was used as a stand-in for the planet Vulcan, described as a hot, arid world with a thinner atmosphere than Earth. Securing permission to film there during the busy summer tourist season was difficult, but it was allowed so long as the crew remained on the boardwalks to prevent damage to geological formations.
Trivia: Minerva Terrace’s white travertine and steaming hot springs were shown, but a parking area and green hillsides and mountains in the distance were edited out in the studio and replaced by a painted background of a giant moon.
The Wrong Guys
“Better than you might think,” “a guilty pleasure,” and “a great ‘80s comedy” critics wrote on IMDB.com about The Wrong Guys (5.2/10 stars). Although filmed in nearby Grand Teton National Park, this 1988 flick starring John Goodman, Louie Anderson, Richard Belzer, and Richard Lewis is set in Yellowstone. Five former Cub Scouts convene at the park as adults to camp on a mountain that thwarted them as kids. Their reunion is interrupted by a machine gun-toting ex-con though.
Trivia: The five main actors in this movie come from a background of stand-up comedy.
Meet the Deedles
In 1998’s Meet the Deedles (4.1/10 stars), a former Yellowstone ranger out for revenge (played by Dennis Hopper) plans to steal Old Faithful (!). All that stands in his way are two delinquent surf bum brothers from Hawaii. The brothers (played by Paul Walker and Steve Van Wormer) were supposed to go to summer camp in Wyoming, but get sidetracked in Yellowstone, where they take jobs as rangers. If you think this sounds improbable even for Hollywood, you’re right: Critics called it “completely incompetent, humorless filmmaking” and “obnoxiously unfunny surfer comedy.”
Trivia: This was the first Disney movie that featured Paul Walker.
Woody Harrelson, Jon Cusack, Danny Glover, and Amanda Peet star in the big-budget 2012 (5.8/10 stars), which critic Roger Ebert called “the mother of all disaster movies.” The fifth-highest grossing film of 2009, 2012 begins with a family camping in Yellowstone. They return home to California, where a series of earthquakes soon start, causing much of Los Angeles to fall into the Pacific Ocean. The family returns to Yellowstone to pick up a secret map and manage to get away from the park just before the supervolcano it sits atop erupts. Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions spread around the world; a tsunami sends an aircraft carrier into the White House.
Trivia: While in Yellowstone, characters in the movie are shown to be on the 2,779-foot summit of Mt. Big Horn. In reality, there is no Mt. Big Horn in the park, but Big Horn Peak is one of the park’s tallest mountains, with an elevation of 9,930 feet above sea level.
The Yogi Bear Show
Airing in 1961-1962 from Hanna-Barbera Productions, The Yogi Bear Show (6.6/10 stars) ani-mated series stars Yogi, a smooth-talking forest bear out to raid park goers’ picnic baskets, while Park Ranger Smith tries to stop him. Most of the cartoon’s action takes place in the fiction-al Jellystone Park, inspired by Yellowstone with its mountains, forests, waterfalls, and geysers. There have been many spinoffs, including The New Yogi Bear Show, a 1988 update of the origi-nal; Yogi Bear, a live action/CGI film released to theaters in 2010; and Jellystone!, scheduled to debut on HBO Max in 2021.
Trivia: Yogi, who is “smarter than the average bear,” was named after baseball star Yogi Berra.
The BBC’s 2005 two-part drama Supervolcano (6.7/10 stars) bills itself “as a true story that just hasn’t happened yet.” It speculates what would happen if the supervolcano beneath Yellowstone erupted, and the result is a dramatic disaster show. Ash blows east across the U.S. and closes many major commercial air routes, forcing 25 million people trapped by ash to walk to safety. (Spoiler alert: Most don’t make it.) As the ash spreads, a volcanic winter renders much of the Lower 48 states uninhabitable.
Trivia: Eerily, Supervolcano is set in 2020, a year marked by a massive disaster of another sort.
The National Parks: America’s Best Idea
Filmed over six years at dozens of national parks, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (8.6/10 stars) is a six-part, 12-hour documentary series by Ken Burns. It first aired on PBS in 2009. Parts of several episodes, including much of the first episode, were filmed in Yellowstone. (One of the critiques leveled at the series is that “half of it is about Yellowstone and Yosemite.” And no wonder. Yellowstone has so much interesting history and geology it could take up 100 percent of a 12-hour series.) In addition to showing the flora, fauna, and unique geology of the national parks, the series traces the evolution of the very idea of national parks and their birth when Yellowstone became the nation’s first in 1872.
Trivia: In a 2014 interview with USA TODAY Burns said about Yellowstone, “When you’re there, you feel like you’re at the moment of creation.”
The acclaimed Paramount Network series Yellowstone (8.6/10 stars) has catapulted the park’s name into the firmament of pop culture, even though it is not named for the national park but rather for the Dutton family’s sprawling Yellowstone Ranch, which borders the park. Starring Kevin Costner, Kelly Reilly, Luke Grimes, and Cole Hauser, this show was called “a country version of the Sopranos” by an IMDB user. Its third season aired in 2020 and season four is expected in 2021.
Trivia: Some of this show’s scenes of grizzly bear/human encounters are based on real accounts of incidents that happened in and around the park.
Created by David E. Kelley based on Wyoming author C.J. Box’s book The Highway, the 2020-2021 ABC television show Big Sky (6.5/10 stars) takes place in and around Yellowstone. An example: Two girls take a detour through the park en route to Helena, Mont. A trucker does the same and corners them in Yankee Jim Canyon, outside the park’s northern entrance at Gardiner, Mont.
Trivia: Box says he doesn’t think of Yellowstone as an inspiration but more as a great location.
Written by: Dina Mishev
Dina Mishev is a freelance writer based in Jackson Hole, Wyo.
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