(Screenshot from The Vanishing Frontier)
An interesting piece of Appalachian film history is a fifty minute long documentary titled The Vanishing Frontier. It is sometimes thirty minutes, depending on the edit, and was originally broadcasted on WBTV, out of Charlotte, North Carolina. Its date is listed as 1963, although it is unclear whether this was when the film was completed or aired.
It is worth checking out whether you are a documentary fan or simply want to know more about Appalachia and its people. You will be treated to a collection of interviews with mountaineers who all have something to say about the concept of the “hillbilly.” An added plus is that the history of the company that produced The Vanishing Frontier is almost as interesting as the film itself.
The North Carolina Film Board produced nineteen films, all of which were documentaries. It was spearheaded by then North Carolina Governor Terry Sanford, and was considered, according to Jay Mazzochi’s write-up of the production company on ncpedia.org, Sanford’s “pet project.”
The company seemed to be entirely politically motivated, considering it went belly-up when Sanford lost a race. It would seem either that North Carolinians didn’t care too much for their heritage, or the people funding the project…(it wasn’t a cheap)…felt the money would be better spent elsewhere.
The production history provides some valuable insight on the film itself. Rather than providing straight answers on anything, The Vanishing Frontier takes on a theoretical approach as it dives into Appalachia and all that encompasses it. This mirrors the production, because it brings to mind questions: is anything said in this film specifically motivated by politics, or is it a completely innocent endeavor, which coincidentally owed its creation to a politician?
The former seems the more likely candidate, considering that the film deals with topics that could be said to revolve around the world of politics, including education reform…
…Coincidentally, the first paragraph of Terry Sanford’s obituary, written by Daniel J. Elazar for Publius, states, “Sanford is credited with helping to improve education in North Carolina, first as governor, by increasing spending for public schools and universities, and later as president of Duke University, by overseeing its expansion in areas including medicine.”
It seems as if the more one follows the money used to fund professional media, the more one begins to see hidden political agendas that normally wouldn’t be readily apparent. They would, of course, be apparent if one were to look up the production company, but they wouldn’t be to the typical person watching the documentary for leisure.
This article is not proposing that spending more money on education in North Carolina is a bad thing: it is simply saying the funding of The Vanishing Frontier is interesting.
As an archival find, The Vanishing Frontier is priceless. Its subject matter can certainly lead one down many avenues of thought, but the same can be said, perhaps more so, when its placement in history is put under scrutiny.
Elazar, Daniel J. “In Memoriam: Terry Sanford.” Publius, Winter 1998.
Mazzocchi, Jay. “North Carolina Film Board.” NCPEDIA, State Library of North Carolina, 2006. https://www.ncpedia.org/north-carolina-film-board
“The Vanishing Frontier.” University of North Carolina at Chappel Hill, North Carolina Collection. https://library.digitalnc.org/cdm/ref/collection/avmovies/id/26