10 Movies That Immortalize Oregon

Portland Entertainment
by Henry Miller Aug 20, 2017

It’s your hometown on the screen, the same place you grew up in and think you know so well. Suddenly, you’ve got a different take on it. Watching a movie set where you live or lived gives you sense of pride. It is easy for anyone who has seen their high school hangout portrayed in a movie to understand how that setting changes your watching experience. But it is rare to come across a movie that so perfectly captures your hometown that the place becomes a character itself.

Here are the movies that do that for Oregon:

1. The Goonies

The Goondocks, a group of teenage misfits from a poor neighborhood in Astoria, go on a mission to save their neighborhood after finding a pirate’s treasure map in an attic. Along the way the audience is treated to the constant, teasing, bickering and romance that defines teenage friendships, as the heroes maneuver through “booby traps” and flee the villainous Fratellis family in order to find a legendary pirate ship.

This is the Citizen Kane of Oregon flicks, and the Oregon coastline plays no small part in that. Watching the Goonies biking around their industrial port town, sneaking into the basements of an old seaside restaurant, clambering around dangerous sea caves full of mysterious wonders- it feels like a calling to local kids to explore their backyards and beyond. Ask an Oregonian kid today, and they will agree.

2. Stand By Me

Four small-town kids leave home in search of the body of another local kid who was struck by a train. Hiking along the train tracks themselves, the gang has a series of misadventures, including fleeing a legendary junkyard dog and a speeding train, all in hopes of becoming local heroes.

A Stephen King adaption, this classic mixes youthful adventuring with somber thoughts on the impermanence and cruelty of life. While the Goonies were the focus of the narrative, an adult narrates this story, so we are told about the pains that each boy lived with at home, and what they will have to deal with in the future. It is this knowledge that makes the story ring true to folks who grew up in poor small towns, knowing that some of their friends would spend the rest of their lives feeling imprisoned by their circumstances.

A stunning Oregon countryside, still crisscrossed by old freight lines that puncture every silent summer night with their horns, is the backdrop to this realistic, somewhat cynical story.

3. My Own Private Idaho

Based on three of Shakespeare’s history plays, and written in a peculiar mix of Early Modern English and Western American English, this movie tells the tale of two male prostitutes trying to survive destitution in a drug-filled and oblique Portland. While one grew up in an abusive and broke family, and suffers from narcolepsy, the other is the charming son of the Mayor of Portland.

Local director Gus Van Sant’s earlier works portrays Portland as a playground for gay teens, petty thieves, sexual deviants, and hobo kings. While Portland’s current reputation suggests this has all been wiped out, it’s a challenge to walk along downtown’s Broadway without hallucinating Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix blasting by the numerous gutter punks on a stolen motorbike. Watching this movie will make you yearn for a past that never really disappeared, since all the newcomers now tend to envision themselves as joining the mystical landscape captured in MOPI, and recreate portions of it accordingly.

4. The General

A group of Union spies hijack a Southern train, kidnapping the Confederate train conductor’s beau in the process. Our hero hops aboard a locomotive to stop them from getting away with his girlfriend and his second love – a locomotive named “The General”.

Although the movie was set in post-Civil War Georgia, Buster Keaton filmed it in the Oregon countryside because of its proximity to Hollywood, starting a long tradition of using the Pacific Northwest as a setting, that continues to this day.

5. Meek’s Cutoff

A group of settlers on the Oregon Trail hire a rugged frontiersman to take them on the last stretch across the Oregon High Desert. After weeks of hard travel while running low on water, the pioneers begin to wonder if this fur trapper knows where he is going.

This contemporary Western masterpiece is loosely based on the true tale of Stephen Meek’s ill-fated wagon train, which had far more members than portrayed in the film. Meek’s Cutoff does not only showcase the very best of Southeastern Oregon’s desolate and geologically unique landscape, it also portrays one of the first legends in Oregon’s white-settler folklore.

6. Drugstore Cowboy

A group of drug-addicted thieves led by superstitious Bob knock-off a series of pharmacies in the Portland area. Raids by the cops, overdoses, and near capture leads Bob to consider going clean, but his old life keeps catching up with him.

Another Van Sant classic, this movie touches on many of his favorite themes: drugs, sex, families of wayward youths forged by desperation and tragedy, and a charismatic leader with more than a few quirks.

7. Free Willy

An orphan boy makes friends with a recently captured Orca at a local water park. The boy soon realizes that Willy the whale has a family waiting for him out in the ocean, that the whale’s life is in danger, and that it is up to him to set him free.

There are few scenes from a children’s movie more epic than Willy’s final escape scene over the Astoria jetty (I guess spoiler alert, but it was the early 90’s: you knew that it was going to have a happy ending.) Free Willy is perhaps best known as a catalyst for the animal rights movement in the 90’s, which resulted in Keiko, the real “Willy”, being set free from an amusement park in Mexico City. Perhaps it was also the catalyst for some Oregonians demanding to know the name and lifestyle of the chicken they just ordered at the restaurant.

8. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest

Randle McMurphy, a criminal, fakes mental disability in order to escape hard time, leading him to an institution run by the tyrannical Nurse Ratched. The charming criminal cannot help but inspire a sense of rebelliousness and anarchy in his fellow patients, who begin to defy Ratched’s authority and seek their own method of hot-blooded therapy inspired by McMurphy’s shenanigans.

A classic based on a novel written by Ken Kesey, who was an Oregon transplant. The film was shot in Salem and Depoe Bay. Although most of the movie is set indoors, Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of McMurphy captures the spirit of the counterculture movement of the 1960’s, which is still alive in Oregon’s mainstream society.

9. Kindergarten Cop

A brutish LAPD officer played by Arnold Schwarzenegger is sent on a special assignment to Astoria, where he must go undercover as a kindergarten teacher to protect a single mother and her son from a drug kingpin.

Kindergarten Cop is one of the most memorable of the Astoria film canon, largely because it features the future Republican governor of California getting a physical and emotional beat-down by millenials from Oregon. Excellent views of Astoria and answers to important questions like, “Is there a bathroom?” and “Who is your daddy and what does he do?”

10. The Postman

In a post-apocalyptic America where the US government has completely collapsed, a travelling Shakespearean actor turns into a folk hero by delivering mail between oppressed communities.

With a 9% Rotten Tomatoes score, this isn’t exactly a classic. But there is something to be said about the title and choosing to set a neo-Western in the former Oregon Country. Much of Oregon’s modern id is built up around the 19th century idea of setting out on the Trail to hack it out on the wild frontier. We tend to see ourselves as rugged individuals. Inadvertently or not, the Postman’s universe parallels the many competing concepts and powers that struggled for dominance leading up to Oregon statehood. It also notes something that bigger state residents may take for granted: that US post offices were often essential for the survival of small towns on the frontier.

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