Written by Denise Ryan, Director of Public Lands Policy
The Antiquities Act may sound like a dusty old piece of legislation, a relic of a bygone era that long ago ceased to have relevance for average Americans. But you will spill your popcorn to learn that the Antiquities Act -- considered America’s first preservation law enacted in 1906 -- continues to play a critical role in protecting places across the country that have been featured in some of Hollywood’s best-known blockbusters.
From “Star Wars” to “Titanic,” from “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” to “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” some of our most beloved movies were filmed in landscapes protected by the Antiquities Act. Here, we feature some of our favorites.
Death Valley National Park
When the lovable “Star Wars” characters R2-D2 and C-3PO crash land in an escape pod on Tatooine and set about wandering the harsh desert, they are not on another planet; they’re in Death Valley National Park in California and Nevada. This landscape of extremes with the hottest, driest, and lowest point in North America is the perfect setting for the desert planet with two suns. In fact, Death Valley was originally established as a national monument under the Antiquities Act in 1933 and later renamed a National Park by Congress in 1994. (Read more about movies and TV shows filmed in Death Valley.)
Devil’s Tower National Monument
Speaking of aliens, what better place for a friendly alien spaceship to make contact with humans than at Devil’s Tower National Monument in Wyoming? In the movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” Devil’s Tower becomes an obsession of the character played by Richard Dreyfuss. (Who can forget the Devil’s Tower sculpture he created out of mashed potatoes?). In real life, the 5,000-foot monolith is sacred to many Native American tribes and truly does tower over the Wyoming landscape. Devil’s Tower was our nation’s first national monument established under the Antiquities Act in 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt. You can learn more about how Devil’s Tower became the setting for part of the movie in this film clip (start at 8:00 through the end).
Statue of Liberty National Monument
The colossal neoclassical sculpture that makes frequent appearances in hundreds of movies is our beloved Statue of Liberty National Monument. Seen prominently in blockbusters such as “Titanic,” “Day After Tomorrow,” “Splash,” and “Working Girl,” it also makes an appearance in “Ghostbusters II” when Bill Murray’s character asks, “How many of you people out here are a national monument, raise your hand, please? Oh, hello, miss!”
Ellis Island, where 12 million immigrants first landed in the U.S. from 1892 to 1954, is also part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument. While the Statue of Liberty itself became a national monument through the Antiquities Act in 1924 under President Coolidge, President Johnson expanded it by adding Ellis Island to it in 1965. Moviegoers may remember that the character Vito Corleone is quarantined in a hospital room on Ellis Island in “The Godfather Part II.” In this short film clip we see little Vito looking out his hospital window at the Statue of Liberty.
Acadia National Park
Another favorite Northeastern site that was first saved by the Antiquities Act is Acadia National Park in Maine. When it was first designated by President Wilson in 1916, it was called Sieur De Monts National Monument, later renamed Lafayette National Park in 1919, and finally called Acadia National Park in 1929 by Congress in honor of the former French colony which once included Maine. The beauty of the park and the rocky coastal landscape is showcased in movies such as “The Cider House Rules” and Stephen King’s “Pet Sematary.” You can enjoy some of that beautiful landscape in this clip from “The Cider House Rules.”
Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park
Visitors to Washington, D.C., can climb the infamous staircase in Georgetown featured in the horror movie “The Exorcist,” but few realize that the 184.5-mile Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park located in Washington, D.C., Maryland, and West Virginia is also featured in this film. The C & O Canal Park was first saved by the Antiquities Act in 1961 as a national monument by President Eisenhower. The C & O Canal is a monument to a bygone era of transportation, as the park preserves hundreds of original structures, including locks, locks houses, and aqueducts. In 1971, Congress changed the name of the monument to a National Historical Park and today it is enjoyed by nearly five million visitors annually for fishing, running, bird watching, biking, camping, and walking.
Arches National Park
The 76,000 delicate arches and spectacular scenery of Arches National Park in Utah was saved by the Antiquities Act in 1929 when President Hoover established Arches National Monument. Who could imagine a better setting for a young Indiana Jones, a character destined to protect antiquities all over the world, in the movie “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade?” Check out that great scenery below in the film's opening.
Zion National Park
“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” featuring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, filmed scenes in Utah as well, including scenes in Zion National Park, which was first established as Mukuntuweap National Monument by President Taft in 1909 and was later expanded by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1937.
Grand Canyon National Park
Every American’s bucket list should include the Grand Canyon National Park, and they should plan on a much longer visit than the one made by Chevy Chase as Clark W. Griswold in National Lampoon’s “Vacation,” who spent about five seconds looking at the mile-deep canyon. President Theodore Roosevelt took action to protect the first 800,000 acres of the now national park as a national monument through the Antiquities Act. The Act would be used two additional times to add more protected lands to the cherished park, which is enjoyed by 4.5 million people a year, most for longer than five seconds.
Since the Antiquities Act was passed by Congress, it has been used by presidents of both parties to establish over 100 National Monuments. The National Trust for Historic Preservation has led efforts to permanently protect Fort Monroe in Virginia and Chimney Rock in Colorado. If anyone in Hollywood is reading this, I think both places would make excellent backdrops for your next military or Western movie set.
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