ANY LIST OF THE 25 GREATEST TEXAS movies on DVD has to start with the question, What the hell is a Texas movie? Is it made in Texas? Actually, some of the greatest Texas stories were created in Arizona, Mexico, Canada, or the Mojave Desert. Is it historically accurate? Sometimes the myth of Texas, not the reality, is the whole point, as in Blood Simple, which could have been made anywhere but fairly drips with assumptions about the dark side of the state. Was it written or directed by Texans? The most legendary of all Texas films, Giant, was based on a Yankee’s novel and directed by a Hollywood potentate, with a cast of mostly California movie stars. So we have to start with the notion that the idea of Texas has entered into movie history as a place that’s no easier to define than, say, cinematic Brooklyn, where gangsters will always be more interesting than hardworking immigrant families, or cinematic California, where grifters and private eyes will always be more exploited than surfers or computer programmers.
What we can say about Texas themes on the big screen is that the best ones almost always deal with our sins more than our virtues. Whether it’s John Wayne as the rapacious, unprincipled rancher in Red River or James Dean as the upstart oilman who represents the death of civility and the triumph of hard-edged greed in Giant, Texas is inevitably seen as a place of isolation, raw emotions, and hardscrabble lives more suited to tragedy than comedy. (Only recently has there been a turn toward comedic fare, notably in the work of homegrown filmmakers like Richard Linklater and Wes Anderson.) Even in the most life-affirming of all Texas films, Horton Foote’s superb Tender Mercies, the narrative begins with a life wasted by alcoholism and ends with that same life devastated by the death of a loved one. Movies that try to celebrate Texas history—those based on the Alamo story, for example, or the dozens of Texas Ranger movies—nearly all fall short. The Alamo story, for one thing, is inherently undramatic, almost like a one-act play, lacking the necessary twists and turns to sustain itself for two hours, much less three. The most famous of the Texas Ranger movies, The Lone Ranger, was so bleached of its Texas roots that it’s widely perceived to be a California story anyway.
The other thing we can say about Texas movies is that they’re overwhelmingly set in the least populous part of the state: West Texas. Tumbleweed, sage, and roads to nowhere are inherently more interesting, it seems, than blackland farms, cities ringed by interstates, dense hardwood forests, or even the Mexican borderlands. Larry McMurtry may or may not be the state’s greatest novelist, but he’s certainly the most cinematic. Four of the movies on the Best 25 list are based on stories by McMurtry, including Hud, whose audiences stunned its director when they viewed the character played by Paul Newman—a crass, soulless egotist—as a hero. It was the movie that launched what has come to be known as the antihero. The gentler fiction of Central Texas (Fred Gipson, author of Old Yeller) or South Texas (Horton Foote, our greatest playwright) has proven mostly resistant to the big screen, or at least resistant to modern tastes. And it’s only since Urban Cowboy, in 1980, that Texas cities were considered candidates for movie treatment at all. (That prejudice had already begun to change with the massive popularity of the TV series Dallas, which acted as a sort of bridge between the old ranching-and-oil themes and the tacky landscapes—never quite respected—of Dallas and Houston.)
Unfortunately, some of the best Texas movies haven’t been included on this list because they haven’t yet been released on DVD—notably, Victor Seastrom’s The Wind (1928), based on Dorothy Scarborough’s popular West Texas novel and featuring Lillian Gish as the heroine choked to death by her new life on the bleak prairie, and the late Eagle Pennell’s Last Night at the Alamo (1984), a brash yet tender look at the clash between Old and New Texas at a Houston bar marked for demolition so that a skyscraper can rise in its place. Last Night at the Alamo was written by Kim Henkel, who also wrote the greatest Texas horror film, if not the greatest American horror film, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Like most of our native Texas filmmakers—Anderson, Linklater, and the enigmatic Terrence Malick, creator of Badlands and Days of Heaven—Pennell and Henkel are loners, individualists, and prone to being described as “quirky.” Perhaps this is the secret to Texas films, whether they’re made in Seguin, Houston, Guadalajara, or Calgary. It’s all about a worldview that’s neither tied to Europe (the New York film) or tied to Hollywood (the international blockbuster). It’s all about characters who surprise us because they’re so damn different, and so damn recognizable. The Texas character stands out in sharp relief because we’re not used to seeing him on the screen at all.
Duel in the Sun(1946)
With an unheard-of $6 million budget, a running time of 144 minutes, an overwrought Dimitri Tiomkin score, and Technicolor photography so lush it drips crimson onto your shoes, this was producer David O. Selznick’s attempt to do for Texas what his Gone With the Wind did for Georgia. It’s generally regarded as a magnificent failure, yet it’s strangely compelling, mostly due to several scenes that were among the greatest ever filmed by the legendary silent auteur (and Galveston native) King Vidor. Instead of the Civil War, Selznick used a cattle-baron guerrilla war against the railroads, and instead of Scarlett O’Hara, he used his girlfriend, Jennifer Jones, as a half-breed sexual spitfire torn between good brother Joseph Cotten and bad brother Gregory Peck, scions of the ranch empire viciously lorded over by Texas senator Lionel Barrymore. Loaded with star power (Orson Welles does the opening narration), it survives because of those amazing scenes that did work: hundreds of mounted