Ten Greatest Feature Films About 
West Virginia

November 2002

Steve Fesenmaier
Research Librarian
West Virginia Library Commission

This list includes films, either dramatic or documentary, about someone or something in the state of West Virginia

This list was done to encourage librarians inside the state, and everyone both inside and outside the state, to purchase, watch, and discuss these films as they relate to the state. Most of the films are obvious. Many people do not know about the excellent documentary by Ralph Coon about WV's most famous psychotronic thinker, Gray Barker. Few know about Correct Change, the newest film to be put on the list. I admit up front that I have become a good friend of the director, Mike Lilly, but I also have to admit being friends with almost all of the filmmakers on this list, and the others:  Ten Essential West Virginia Films by West Virginia Filmmakers, Ten Essential Documentaries About West Virginia NOT by West Virginia Filmmakers and Ten Best Indie Feature Films Made in West Virginia. I am the person who convinced Sayles NOT to make his film in Virginia despite very negative responses from various state agency staff. I also worked with Coon on his film, and even arranged to have the world premiere of it at the West Virginia Cultural Center. I also became a slight friend of Davis Grubb before his demise, and even know the living second director, Terry Sanders, who is now working on a documentary about Mother Jones. I also got to know Henry King, the director of Tol'able David thru his own Hollywood friend, David Shepard, who has restored the film in its video format. The most controversial selection is Silence of the Lambs as well as The Deer Hunter, since they are more about the Pittsburgh region. However, key aspects of both films reflect on our state's culture, and are important for people who want to study the attitudes shown in films about the state's culture. I included Tol'able David for this same reason - none of it was made in WV despite what Jim Comstock believed. It in fact helped create the negative image of West Virginians as evil and dangerous people - the exact opposite of the truth given the "slavery" Virginians help bring to the coal mines of the state. I could not include The Mothman Prophecies since it was so poorly done. I have to say, as I did about the other lists, that an amazing number of libraries inside the state do NOT have copies of these ten films. Hopefully this situation will change.

1.  THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955) Charles Laughton, considered by many critics as one of the greatest English actors ever, directed only one film – this one. It was a disaster when it came out though the novel it was based on was a best-seller and received critical acclaim. It was Robert Mitchum’s greatest role, and is very, very influential in the history of filmmaking. It was partially filmed on the Ohio River though most of it was made in California. Recently the UCLA film archives restored the film.

2.  MATEWAN (1987) John Sayles, the single most famous independent feature film director in this country, came to WV in 1983. For four years he raised the money, getting most of it from Bruce Springsteen, and finally shot the film in Thurmond and other locals in the state. It is widely considered to be the greatest labor history film ever made, and is now being re-released as part of a nationwide series of showings of films by Sayles by IFC. 

3.  THE DEER HUNTER (1978) Only small parts of this film were actually made inside WV, including Weirton, but the people it is about are very typical northern WV people. It was nominated for nine Oscars and won five - Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Christopher Walken), Best Director, Best Sound, and Best Film Editing. It was widely influential in filmmaking around the world, proving that a story about working-class people can be dramatic and exciting. Robert DeNiro and Meryl Streep were both nominated for Oscars.

4.  OCTOBER SKY (1999) Based on Homer Hickham’s autobiography, Rocket Boys, this film presented a young man who rose to the heights of intellectual greatness despite growing up in a Southern WV coal camp. It won many humanitarian awards, and made the career for its director, Joe Johnston, who went on to direct the next Jurrasic Park.

5.  SHILOH (1997) Considered to be the best film about a dog since the classic Old Yeller, this film, about an abused WV beagle even had a sequel – Shiloh Season. It is based on an award-winning children’s series of books by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor.

6.  THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991) Jonathan Demme filmed this movie mostly around Pittsburgh. Clarice Sterling, the heroine played by Jodi Foster, is from WV, and the key scene where a body was found with a moth in its mouth was filmed on the Elk River in Clay County. The film changed movie history, using the case of Ed Gein in Wisconsin as its factual basis. 

7.  TOL’ABLE DAVID (1921) This film is about evil West Virginians coming over the mountain to the paradise of Virginia, killing David’s dog, destroying his family, and in general making “just tol’able David” stand up to his Goliath. Henry King, a legendary Hollywood director for more than 60 years, made this film about his own home area in Virginia based on a popular story. D.W. Griffith was supposed to make the film, but instead a young fellow from Virginia was given a chance. It influenced filmmaking all over the world, especially Russia, where it was exported and highly praised. 

8.  FOOL’S PARADE (1981) Filmed entirely in Moundsville, this film like Night of the Hunter, is based on a Davis Grubb novel. Jimmy Stewart, Kurt Russell, George Kennedy, and Strother Martin star in one of the best prison films ever made. It was Stewart’s last Hollywood feature film. Kennedy and Martin switch their roles from Cool Hand Luke, this time Martin playing the good guy and Kennedy the evil prison guard. This film, like Hunter, is based on real events that happened in WV. 

9.  WHISPERS FROM SPACE (1995) LA filmmaker Ralph Coon came to WV to film a documentary about Gray Barker. Barker is famous for inventing the idea of “men in black” and writing about the collapse of the Silver Bridge. The world premiere of the film took place in Charleston, and it has become a cult film. It’s shot in crude black and white, and very accurately recreates the strange world that Gray Barker created for himself and others around the planet. His book, They Knew too Much, has been reissued.  

10. CORRECT CHANGE (2002) Directed by Mike Lilly, a native of Charleston, this is the newest film on the list. It took Lilly several years to actually film it, shooting part in Moundsville, and then flashback scenes in Charleston and other WV locations. It has been shown in Charleston, Moundsville, and Beckley.

Other Great Films:
Clyde Ware’s two features, No Drums, No Bugles and When the Line Goes Thru
Robert Gates' two feature docs, In Memory of the Land and People and Building a Cello with Harold
WV’s first indie feature, Teenage Strangler 
Francis Ford Coppola’s Rain People 
Donn Rogosin’s feature doc on Pearl Buck, East Wind, West Wind
The silent film, Stage Struck, starring Gloria Swanson
Daniel Boyd’s first two feature films, Chillers and Invasion of the Space Preachers.

Additional AppLit Resources: 
Complete List of AppLit Pages on Film

Steve Fesenmaier's Annotated Bibliographies of West Virginia and Appalachian Films

See Also:

Appalachian Film and Television Topics
Dr. Stephen D. Mooney, Instructor, Department of English and Appalachian Studies Program, has compiled a list of film and television shows for his Appalachian Studies Classes at Virginia Tech, VA.   

Appalshop For a complete catalog, contact the Appalshop Marketing and Sales Office at 1-800-545-7467 or appalshopsales@appalshop.org.

Davenport Films and From the Brothers Grimm  
American versions of classic folk and fairy tales, many Appalachian.  Davenport has also made many other Appalachian films.

Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition
, Huntington, WV

Press release from September 9, 2002, entitled “World premier screenings at Flooded Out Film Festival
All proceeds from Oct. 10 event go to flood victims”

West Virginia Film Makers Film Festival

Winning Festival Films, background information on the first festival, local history, links to sponsors, links to information on film such as The Griffin and the Minor Canon, The Night of the Hunter, Invasion of the Space Preachers, etc.


West Virginia Filmmakers Guild 

The West Virginia Filmmakers Guild was created in 1985 to provide networking and communication between West Virginia film and video makers and those interested in these crafts in West Virginia. Central to its mission is educating the public and promoting West Virginia filmmakers and their films to the public.



Created:  12/06/2002
Last Update:  07/07/2003 12:39:55 PM
Links Checked:  07/07/2002