Throughout our state’s history, New Mexico has served as a popular backdrop for Hollywood films. Our high desert environs have subbed for alien landscapes, Old West vistas and apocalyptic hellscapes. Many of those cinematic productions have taken place inside movie studios like those at the new Netflix and NBCUniversal facilites in Albuquerque. Even more have been lensed at private Western movie sets such as Bonanza Creek Ranch and Eaves Movie Ranch. Over the years, however, countless well-known New Mexico places have been prominently featured on movie screens around the world.
Here, then, is just a sample of some great New Mexico destinations and the films they can be glimpsed in. Why not watch one of them for homework and then head out for a little adventure?
Acoma Sky City
Watch: Roger Corman’s 1970 counter-culture sci-fi flick Gas-s-s-s. Corman’s “trippy” post-apocalyptic comedy tells of a military experiment that accidentally kills everyone over the age of 21. Naturally (given the time period), the hippie kids take over the world. The comedic 1973 Henry Fonda/Terrence Hill spaghetti Western My Name is Nobody about an infamous gunslinger who wants to retire quietly and the oddball drifter who won’t allow him to go out without a fight.
Visit: Gas-s-s-s was shot in and around Soccorro, employing the Socorro General Hospital and the golf course at New Mexico Tech for key scenes. At one point our wandering band of heroes drives a backhoe up to Acoma Pueblo to visit a groovy commune. Acoma overlook, Acoma church and many of the historic pueblo streets are glimpsed. My Name Is Nobody employs a surprising number of actual New Mexico locations for an Italian-made film including Mogollon, White Sands and the graveyard at Acoma for a memorable tête-à-tête between Fonda and Hill. Acoma Sky City Cultural Center and the Haak’u Museum (like many New Mexico pueblos) are currently closed to the public. Admission is normally $25 for adults, $22 for students/seniors and $17 for children. Go to acomaskycity.org for the most up-to-date info.
White Sands National Monument
Watch: The 1976 sci-fi allegory The Man Who Fell to Earth, in which space alien David Bowie lands on Earth looking for water and ends up seduced by our capitalist society. Also, the obscure 1975 Western Bite the Bullet starring Gene Hackman and James Coburn as a pair of old Rough Riders competing in a 700-mile horse race through the Southwest desert circa 1908.
Visit: Flashbacks to David Bowie’s arid home planet are set in White Sands. And a particularly grueling section of Bite the Bullet finds frenemies Hackman and Coburn trying to cross the shifting gypsum dunes on horseback. White Sands National Monument is in a “phased reopening,” meaning certain facilities (like camping sites) might not be open yet. Gates for the hiking trails, dunes area and picnic areas open at 7am and close at 9pm. The visitor center and gift shop are open 9am to 6pm daily. Entrance fees are $25 per vehicle. To plan a trip, go to nps.gov/whsa.
The Gilman Tunnels
Watch: Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials. The 2015 film is based on the young adult book series by James Dashner. The series follows a group of “special” teenagers immune to an alien virus and trying to outrun tyrannical government types in the ruins of post-apocalyptic America. The tunnels are also prominently featured in the 2007 Western 3:10 to Yuma starring Russell Crowe and Christian Bale.
Visit: The middle film in the Maze Runner trilogy was shot in and around Albuquerque. Scorch Trials utilizes a number of recognizable N.M. locations including the Albuquerque Rail Yard (as Giancarlo Esposito’s junked-out headquarters) and the now-demolished courtyard of Winrock Mall (for a memorable monster attack). The climax of the film, set at a rebel group’s relief camp outpost, is staged in and around the historic Gilman Tunnels, north of Jemez Pueblo. The tunnels were blasted out of the Jemez mountains in 1924 for the Santa Fe Northwestern Railroad. The railroad never recovered from the Great Depression, however, and the tunnels were soon retired. For 3:10 to Yuma, the tunnels were sent back in time and re-staged as an actual railroad line with scores of Chinese laborers constructing a track through the mountain. Crowe and Bale make a memorable horseback escape through the historic tunnels. Forest Rd. 376 runs directly through the tunnels. They are open to the public year round. (Though they can be tricky to negotiate in winter.)
Watch: The jingoistic 1984 action drama Red Dawn, in which small-town teenagers Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen, C. Thomas Howell, Lea Thompson and Jennifer Grey fight off a Commie invasion of the USA. The classic counter-culture “biker” drama Easy Rider.
Visit: The historic northern New Mexico town of Las Vegas has a long filmmaking history. That history dates from the silent film era (when cowboy star Tom Mix shot between 20 and 30 sagebrush sagas in the dusty railroad town) to today’s world of cable TV (in which the town substituted for fictional Absaroka County, Wyoming through six seasons of A&E’s rural crime drama “Longmire”). Red Dawn was set in the fictitious town of Calumet, Colorado. The “Calument Says Howdy” mural is still visible on the corner of Sixth and Grand (directly above Vaper’s E-Cigarettes & Liquid). In one of the most memorable scenes in the movie, Swayze and Howell’s dad (Harry Dean Stanton) is abandoned at a Soviet re-education camp. That was constructed on the grounds of the still-active Fort Union Drive-In. The Fort Union is located at 3300 Seventh St. It’s open weekends only. Admission is $20 a carload. For Easy Rider Dennis Hopper (who directed, co-wrote and co-starred, along with Peter Fonda) staged the film’s iconic “Parade Without a Permit” sequence around Las Vegas’ historic plaza. Dozens of actual locals can be seen gawking at the outrageously dressed Hopper and Fonda as they wheel their bikes through a high school marching band (and are subsequently arrested).
The Very Large Array
Watch: The 2001: A Space Odyssey sequel 2010: The Year We Make Contact, released in 1984. Though not as well-regarded as Stanley Kubrick’s mind-bending 1968 film, The Year We Make Contact does offer a few down-to-earth answers to those left bewildered by A Space Odyssey‘s psychedelic ending. The 1987 Jodie Foster sci-fi drama Contact, based on the book by Carl Sagan about a SETI scientist chosen for “first contact” by an alien species.
Visit: The Very Large Array Radio Telescope Observatory (located 50 miles west of Socorro on NM-166) has been used by astronomers to make key observations of black holes, to trace complex gas motions at the Milky Way’s center and to provide new knowledge about the physical mechanisms that produce radio emissions. So it’s no wonder that the facility has served as inspiration for stories of extraterrestrial contact. In 2010: The Year We Make Contact, the VLA is the location where Dr. Floyd (Roy Scheider) and Dimitri Moiseyevich (Dana Elcar) discuss their upcoming mission to Jupiter. In Contact Dr. Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) first detects the alien signal at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. But after a grant from secretive billionaire S.R. Hadden (John Hurt), she continues her work at the VLA in New Mexico. The VLA Visitor Center and Gift Shop is currently closed to tourists to reduce the risk of COVID spread to staff and visitors. (Which is too bad, because Jodie Foster narrates the documentary film in the lobby.) Normally, the site is open 8:30am to sunset daily. Admission is $6 for adults, $5 for seniors and free for kids under 17. For updates on opening dates, monitor public.nrao.edu/visit/very-large-array.
To learn even more about filmmaking history and locations in New Mexico, visit the New Mexico Film Office website (nmfilm.com/for-fans/film-tourism/) for information and interactive maps.