• Rifle Regiment arriving at Belle Point, 1817. Artwork by Michael Haynes

    Fort Smith

    National Historic Site AR,OK

Fort Smith Goes to the Movies

Fort Smith in the Movies

No diehard movie fan can overlook Fort Smith as a setting for some of the great westerns of the silver screen. Best remembered for John Wayne’s performance as Rooster Cogburn in True Grit, a movie about the life and times of a deputy marshal out of Judge Parker’s court (and currently being remade by the Cohn Brothers with Jeff Bridges), Fort Smith has provided the story lines and characters for more than a score of films.

The better known movies include the 1975 sequel to True Grit, Rooster Cogburn and, of course, Clint Eastwood’s Hang ‘Em High, which is loosely based on the hanging judge prototype that Parker is so well known for. Lesser known films, such as The Dragoon Wells Massacre, begin with a scenario before Judge Parker.

But Parker’s federal court, in addition to providing the true stories of outlaw and lawmen, supplied some talent to the big screen as well. Bill Tilghman, a famous deputy, appeared in 1908 in The Bank Robbery. Tilghman also directed a movie, The Passing of the Oklahoma Outlaws in 1915, which featured former deputy marshal Chris Madsen in the acting credits. Long after the versatile Tilghman died, his life was featured in a 1999 made for TV movie and he was the basis for a character in the 1980 film Cattle Annie and Little Britches, starring Burt Lancaster. The subject of this movie was Outlaw Bill Doolin who along with his gang was the topic of at least four other movies including a Randolph Scott flick, The Doolins of Oklahoma.

A western would not be a western without outlaws and who better to portray a bad guy than the bad guy himself. The 1919 release of Debtor to the Law was written, directed and starred Henry Starr, by far the most interesting of the outlaws who ever came through the court at Fort Smith. Henry’s movie was the story of his successful holdup of two banks at the same time in 1915, although Henry was the only member of the gang that did not make his escape. Shot off his horse by a kid, Henry recovered, got out of prison early and decided he could make money with the movie. Filmed on the location where it happened, the best part is that his co-star was the kid that originally shot him. Whether he made any money is debatable, but he was soon back to robbing banks and meeting his maker, as they say, in 1921 in Harrison, Arkansas. In addition to Henry’s claim to fame of robbing two banks at the same time is that he is the first bank robber to ever use an automobile in the crime.

The Dalton Gang, with numerous ties to Fort Smith, has always been a favorite for the big screen. In 1907, Emmet Dalton was released from prison and got into movies. He made The Last Stand of the Dalton Boys in 1912, which was remade six years later as Beyond the Law. In that version, he appeared not only as himself, but also his brothers. No less than fifteen other movies highlighted the Daltons including the very last Three Stooges film, The Outlaws Is Coming.

After Belle Starr’s fame in cheap dime novels, she was a sure thing for the movies. First mentioned in 1928, Belle has been the topic of at least ten more movies and one 1980 television series starring Elizabeth Montgomery entitled Belle Starr. The most elaborate movie was the 1941 Belle Starr staring the far from historically correct but none-the-less beautiful Gene Tierney in the title role and costarring the great iconic western actor Randolph Scott. Among the others worth mentioning was Belle Starr’s Daughter in 1947 and a made for Italian Television movie in 1979.

Several movies have been filmed around the old courthouse itself, including most recently Frank and Jesse in 1993 and the 1982 Civil War mini-series The Blue and the Gray. The novel and critically acclaimed mini-series Lonesome Dove also had a strong Fort Smith connection.

With the fascinating characters and stories tied to Fort Smith, who knows when Hollywood will come calling again?

Bill Black

March 1996
Updated March 2010

Did You Know?

Children and families helping to raise the garrison flag on Flag Day 2006

The garrison flag flown on the old military parade ground of Fort Smith National Historic Site bears 37 stars and is 20 x 30'. On special occasions visitors assist in raising the huge flag.