Ben Jones had no background in filmmaking or screenwriting. Instead, he had a vision — an idea for a story he wanted to tell.
After many years, and many twists and turns, Jones’ original idea has turned into a movie called Peace River, and much of it was filmed at Philmont Scout Ranch.
The idea for the story first came to Jones more than a decade ago, when he was working as a cowboy at a friend’s ranch in New Mexico. Cowboying is something Jones knew plenty about. He worked on his family ranch as a child and rodeoed for four years in high school.
Jones also knew a few things about history. He considers himself an amateur historian.
Then came the moment.
“I was aware we had special operations soldiers who rode horses in Afghanistan,” Jones says. “I was enamored with the historical anachronism of that.
“I mean, look. We sent a man to the moon. And in the 21st century, we’ve got soldiers riding into battle on a horse. It seemed like an intriguing, historical scenario. So, I’m on this spring roundup one day and this idea came to me for a movie script. Within 72 hours, I had it outlined in writing.
“And, of course, it only took me 12 years to get from that point to this point. It’s a pretty wild adventure that we’ve been on here.”
Watch the trailer below, and read on for more on how the filmmakers took advantage of all that Philmont has to offer.
It starts with a story
Peace River tells the fictional story of a wounded U.S. military veteran who has returned home from the Afghanistan War. The film chronicles the young man’s attempts to put his life back together, relying on his faith, and the support of a childhood friend and his World War II-veteran grandfather.
Even though he doesn’t have a background in the movie business, Jones has long considered himself a storyteller. Growing up in the small North Louisiana town of Ruston, Jones played college football at LSU in the early 1970s and graduated with a degree in engineering. (His older brother is LSU legend Bert Jones, who went on to play 10 seasons in the NFL.)
But it was after five years at Dallas Theological Seminary that Ben Jones found his calling as a lay minister who uses stories in his sermons.
He might have made a living in the energy industry, but it was telling faith-based stories that Jones really lived for.
“I wrote the script before I read any books on script writing because I really didn’t want to be influenced,” says Jones. “I felt very confident in the core story that I had. I wanted to be sure and get it on paper the way I envisioned it before I got too much outside influence.”
Location, location, location
Another thing Jones had was a clear vision of what the film should look like. Not just the story, but the scenery behind the story. And that’s how he ended up back in New Mexico, more than a decade after the idea had first popped into his head.
Jones estimates that around 48% of the movie’s filming was done at Philmont. The rest was done at other ranches nearby.
“Man, that is a natural filmmaking facility,” Jones says. “All that raw land. All those facilities to house people and feed them. I mean, it’s a natural filming location and a natural film production facility. It was just fabulous.”
Entering the fall of 2020, there definitely was not a lot of commotion at Philmont Scout Ranch. All non-essential activities in the state had been shuttered due to the coronavirus pandemic. There were no Scouts trekking across Philmont’s pristine backcountry. Philmont Training Center remained mostly empty.
Then Ben Jones came calling. The film industry was considered essential, so they’d be allowed to work mostly uninterrupted.
“We had the time, we had the space,” says Philmont general manager Roger Hoyt.
The cast and crew stayed in the Philmont facilities. During the days, they’d go into the backcountry to shoot the movie. In the evenings, they’d eat at Philmont’s dining hall and sleep in their dorms.
Filming at Philmont
Philmont Scout Ranch is still a working ranch and basically a small town of its own. Even with no Scouts or adult volunteers present, there were already employees there to keep the water running, keep the lights on … things like that.
Then came an entire movie crew.
“We would take some food to them on site when they requested it,” Hoyt says. “They had a scene where they needed lights and sirens, so we brought in our ambulances and fire truck.
“We have a lot of resources that allowed them to be able to quickly put a scene together out there because we are kind of a small city in itself.”
“The whole staff couldn’t have been nicer,” Jones says. “They were so accommodating.”
Jones might have thought the adventure of bringing his vision to the screen would end once the movie started filming. Turns out, there was one more twist in the story still to come.
On the first day of the filming, the actor slated to play the grandfather had to drop out of the movie. The production team had a serious decision to make: shut down the production and find another actor, or …
“The director, Doug Vail, says to me, ‘I think you should play the role,’ ” says Jones.
“We were trying to decide what to do. Do we shut the production down and go home? Do we wait a year? It was already October 7. We were trying to beat Old Man Winter.
“And Doug said, ‘I think you ought to play the role. You wrote it. You know it better than anybody else.’ ”
And just like that, Ben Jones, the man with no filmmaking experience – much less acting experience – was playing the role of Bo Shane, a World War II vet, who, according to the movie’s official synopsis, pours his life’s love and wisdom into his grandson Casey.
He is joined by Chase Garland, who plays Casey; Jessica Nunez-Wood, as Casey’s childhood friend Maria; and R.W. Hampton, singer, real-life Eagle Scout, former Philmont staffer and Philmont Staff Association Distinguished Staff Alumni Award winner from 2018, who plays a rodeo coach and pastor.
“It was pretty incredible,” says Jones.
Peace River is rated PG-13. Parents are urged to be cautious. Some material may not be appropriate for younger viewers.