Georgia's long, volatile history, its varied geography, and its vast pool of talent have made it a significant location for movies since the earliest days of motion-picture production. Some of the world's greatest directors have filmed in Georgia—including Jean Renoir, John Huston, Robert Altman, Clint Eastwood, and Spike Lee—and hundreds of Georgians have helped build the American film industry.
Today, the high quality of local production-company facilities attracts a wide range of projects to the area. Thus, Georgia "stands in" for many other places, complicating the definition of a "Georgia" movie. For instance, such high-profile "southern" films as Cape Fear (1962), Fried Green Tomatoes (1991), and Sweet Home Alabama (2002) were filmed in Georgia, although the stories are set elsewhere. Other movies are set in Georgia but were produced on the West Coast. Regardless, Georgia's people, history, and themes figure prominently in the films listed below. These movies provide culturally important examples of how Georgia has been presented to the world on the motion-picture screen.
The films are listed in chronological order:
The General (1927). Buster Keaton stars in this Civil War tale—loosely based on the Andrews Raid in 1862—of Johnny Gray, a Marietta train engineer who is not allowed to enlist in the army because he and his train are too valuable to the southern cause. However, when Union troops sneak down to steal his engine, the General, and kidnap the girl of his dreams (Marion Mack), Johnny single-handedly pursues them deep into Yankee territory. There, Johnny manages to retrieve both his beloved engine and future bride, though they are pursued by the Union army all the way home. A brilliant example of Keaton's skills, The General boasts some of the best battles, train crashes, and comic scenes of the silent American cinema.
I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932). Based on Robert E. Burns's sensational memoir, I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang!, Mervyn LeRoy's movie became one of Warner Brothers' most important "social problem films." Paul Muni plays James Allen, a World War I veteran who unwittingly becomes an accomplice in a robbery. Convicted, he is sent into the cruel prison work-camp system until his successful escape. Later, after becoming a respected businessman in Chicago, Allen is tricked by Georgia judges back into the labor camps until he escapes a second time, and becomes a bitter, hunted man, forever on the run. Fugitive is an indictment of Georgia's brutal forced-labor camps and was noteworthy for its portrayal of both black and white convicts being treated like animals. The book and film prompted social activists to lobby for reforms in the southern prison system.
Gone With the Wind (1939). David O. Selznick's version of Margaret Mitchell's novel is certainly the most famous of all Georgia films. This plantation genre film presents Scarlett O'Hara's melodramatic struggle against the degradation of her lifestyle and culture as an example of the spirit and home front challenges of white southerners as a whole. The movie also set new standards in film publicity and production. Beyond the public debates about casting, Selznick turned every stage of the production process into a media event, including the censor's battle over the word damn. Perhaps most important for film history is the movie's use of Technicolor, which advanced the new technology considerably. A troublesome issue remains the film's romantic treatment of plantation life and slavery. Hattie McDaniel broke the color barrier, earning an Academy Award, but the power of her performance is undercut by her character's embarrassing limitations. For better or worse, this film still shapes many people's image of nineteenth-century southern life.
Swamp Water (1941). This was the first American film by French director Jean Renoir. Despite reservations by Hollywood studio head Darryl F. Zanuck, Renoir insisted on shooting on location in Waycross and the Okefenokee Swamp. He was captivated with the people he met and relied on his time in Georgia to enrich the script. Renoir and Dudley Nichols adapted Vereen Bell's novel of Ben Ragan (Dana Andrews) who stumbles upon the swamp hideout of Tom Keefer (Walter Brennan), a man wanted for a crime he never committed. Ben bravely proves Tom's innocence, falls in love with his daughter Julie (Anne Baxter), and helps reveal the real murderers who then suffer and die in the very swamp that had protected Keefer. Swamp Water premiered in Waycross and prompted Georgia governor Eugene Talmadge to declare "Swamp Water Day." The French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard credited this film with revolutionizing Hollywood's use of location shooting.
Deliverance (1972). Many stories set in Georgia involve deep tensions between past and present, presenting a sense of both resistance and relief at the sight of progress and change. Director John Boorman's adaptation of James Dickey's novel vividly presents the divisions between rural and urban, past and future, but, like many of Hollywood's representations, it often exploits and exaggerates stereotypes of the mountain South. As a film, Deliverance is powerful and assured, displaying a real appreciation of the north Georgia beauty about to be lost with the flooding of this river country, though it often caricatures its residents. Boorman's visual style and the soundtrack are stunning, but the film owes most to superb performances by the entire cast, especially Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty, Jon Voight, and Ronny Cox. The four Atlantans start off with assurance, willing to duel at banjos with the locals and battle the rapids, but their journey down the Chattooga River turns harrowing, humbling, and deadly. Several of the most memorable scenes of 1970s American cinema are from this movie.
Wise Blood (1979). Director John Huston's treatment of Flannery O'Connor's 1952 novel manages to catch the quirky essence of these wildly eccentric characters and the worlds they create for themselves. Hazel Motes (Brad Dourif) is a strangely earnest, uneducated young World War II veteran who becomes a sort of anti-evangelist, freeing people from the usual restrictions of religion through his self-established Church Without Christ. O'Connor's vision of absurd and twisted small-town morality is preserved and allowed to flourish in this fascinating character study by one of Hollywood's great masters. Filmed almost entirely in Macon, Wise Blood includes many Georgia actors in its supporting cast, most notably the Atlanta stage actress Mary Nell Santacroce, in one of her few big-screen appearances.
Athens, GA: Inside/Out (1986). This bright, insightful documentary deserves attention for introducing much of the world to the artists and musicians who placed Athens on the rock-and-roll map. The movie highlighted such local bands as the Flat Duo Jets and Love Tractor alongside the more famous B-52's and R.E.M. to illustrate the depth and camaraderie of the Athens music scene. The Georgia folk artist Howard Finster shows up as well. First-time director Tony Gayton, then a recent graduate of the University of Southern California's film school, combines interviews with live performance footage. He keeps his camera moving freely from club stages to downtown street scenes, all of which serve to counter the dominant image of Athens as just another football town.
Driving Miss Daisy (1989). This adaptation of Alfred Uhry's play won several Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actress (Jessica Tandy). The film is beautifully lit and boasts brilliant performances by Morgan Freeman, as chauffeur Hoke Coleburn, and Tandy as matriarch Daisy Werthan. Dan Akroyd plays Daisy's son, Boolie. The Atlanta settings sparkle like the hood of Hoke's Hudson automobile, as this pair of aging characters develops a deeper appreciation of each other's life and culture. Director Bruce Beresford opens up the play, providing a delicate soundtrack and a truly sincere presentation peppered with real-world locales as road marks along the way. A rare movie that concentrates seriously on mature Georgians, Driving Miss Daisy presents the struggle to deal with race, history, and progress.
Daughters of the Dust (1991). Director Julie Dash offers a stunning portrait of the African American Gullah community, circa 1902, living on the Sea Islands just off the Georgia and South Carolina coast. This film also provides a careful study of the end of an era. The members of an extended family grapple with a decision to leave their paradise and move north. While the move disrupts everyone's life, one young woman, Iona (Bahni Turpin) receives a last-minute love note from a Native American, St. Julien Lastchild (M. Cochise Anderson), asking her to stay behind. This is a splendid presentation of a people rarely seen on American movie screens, who live with one eye on the horizon, beyond which lies Africa, whose daily winds carry the spirit of their ancestors. Dash's slow, visually exquisite film offers up the sounds and images of another time and place that is now preserved in our popular memory forever.
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997). While this adaptation, filmed in Savannah, disappointed many fans of John Berendt's popular book, it did attract a great deal of critical attention. France's top film journal, Cahiers du Cinema, listed it as the best American movie of the year. Director Clint Eastwood streamlined the intricate collection of eccentric characters somewhat but gave plenty of attention to the city and some of its more colorful inhabitants, especially the Lady Chablis. John Cusack plays the writer John Kelso who feels as if he has been dropped into an alien world. Then, local figure Jim Williams (Kevin Spacey) shoots Billy (Jude Law), and the subsequent investigation and trials, all based on a true case, expose some of Savannah's more private antics.
Richard Neupert, University of Georgia
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