Texas Movies: Hollywood, TX

Why it’s not our Texas.

When I was a Texas farm boy, back in the late thirties and early forties, one of my daily chores was to round up the cows for evening milkings. Never mind that I rode bareback on a swaybacked, half-blind old horse through limited stretches of scrub oak and mesquite shinnery in search of four docile, dehorned critters with pet names like Olive Oyl and Daisy: I turned such bucolic expeditions into dangerous trail drives, shooting marauding Indians or cattle rustlers on the run, issuing cowboy yodels meant to soothe my spooked “herd” to avoid the inevitable stampede when lightening flashed and thunder crackled. Most of the time we were tracked by hungry wolves and cutthroat bandoleras.

Sometimes I rode away from my bovine responsibilities to rescue a certain country princess who occupied my heart from fourth through seventh grades. When I caught up with her dastardly kidnappers, I merely beat them up if the princess appeared unharmed; had they so much as mussed her precious brown hair, I resorted to six-gun justice. Best not to mess with ol’ Tex King in them days, especially if he was fresh from the Palace Theater in Cisco, where for 9 cents he likely had learned $1 million worth of code-of-the-West punishments from Buck Jones, Tom Mix, Ken Maynard, and Bob Steele.

The rootin’-tootin’ Texas that Hollywood exported via the Palace Theater somehow seemed more authentically Texan than did the flesh-and-blood Texas where I picked cotton, slopped hogs, or joined pickup football games on corn-stubble fields; it seemed so because I wished it so, the magic of fantasy being ever so much more satisfying than life’s mundane drudgeries. I think I willed myself to believe that Eastland and Callahan counties lay too far east to qualify for cowboy magic but that just beyond Abilene, maybe — out there around Sweetwater or surely in the far reaches of El Paso County — Texas Rangers and stern marshals were, indeed, shootin’ and ropin’ two-legged varmints ‘round the clock.

Visiting my Uncle Raymond’s Bar-T-Bar Ranch just west of Putnam, I was chagrined to learn that his cowboys wore no guns and drove cars to their homes at night instead of sleeping under the stars by their horses after drinking boiled coffee around lonely campfires. Having never once witnessed a fistfight, a six-gun showdown, or a single cattle rustler twisting in the wind from a Bar-T-Bar tree limb, I concluded that Uncle Raymond didn’t know beans about ranching; no wonder he could attract only dull cowboys content to mend fences, kick out salt blocks, and castrate little calves!

As a beardless soldier among fellow GIs from all over, I soon realized that not only dreaming Texas farm boys took their cues from Hollywood. Everybody called me Tex; my family name inspired many to ask whether I might be connected to the famed King Ranch, an honor that I found increasingly difficult to disclaim. But playing Tex had its downside: Fellow soldiers scoffed when I shot only marksmen scores on the Fort Dix rifle range rather than the sharpshooter scores they expected; my assumed equestrian talents were exposed when a semi-spirited steed easily unhorsed me at a Staten Island riding stable. Only after that grabbing, graceless public spill did it tardily dawn on me that I myself had come to believe I might be the incarnation of the movie Lone Star cowboy. That moment has since led me to ponder, when observing—on-screen or off-screen—bumptious big-hat businessmen, yeehawing barstool Bubbas, or sassy-talkin’ sweet young thangs, the question of whether Texas life has more nearly imitated Hollywood art or vice versa.

Yes, many of Hollywood’s Texas depictions are overblown clichés or romantic bushwa. But what I did not realize, until viewing old films in my maturity (or reading such books as Don Graham’s Cowboys and Cadillacs: How Hollywood Looks at Texas) was that a fair number of truths have been presented along with myths and legends. Hollywood cattlemen who hated the notion of sod-busting farmers fencing in the ranges, of oil wells fouling the land, or of wild towns becoming tamer cities perfectly reflected the suspicion with which rural Texans—and some not so rural—have for generations viewed social change. And in making various land-grabbers the villains of the Texas frontier, Hollywood was not far off the mark in showing that “progress” is more often championed by those likely to profit from it, such as bankers, real estate developers, booster businessmen, and their captive politicians.

Hollywood probably has reflected much more than it has shaped the racial attitudes of Texans. Early films presented Mexicans as treacherous greasers who cheated a cowboy at cards and then stabbed him in the back ( A Tale of Texas, 1909), sold liquor to Indians ( A Romance of the Rio Grande, 1911), kidnapped Tom Mix and then took a bribe from a woman to release him ( The Heart of Texas Ryan, 1917). And time after celluloid time, General Santa Anna’s hordes butchered brave Texans at the Alamo con mucho gusto. Without denigrating the courage or sacrifices of Alamo defenders, I find it difficult to believe that Mexican troops were uniformly as cowardly and blood-thirsty as Hollywood made them. Most notoriously virulent was 1915’s Martyrs of the Alamo (released in 1927 as The Birth of Texas), in which no Anglo female escapes sexual harassment from drunken Mexican soldiers before the battle and no Alamo defender escapes the worst possible atrocities. I know of no movie before the revisionist Seguin (1981) that told of Mexicans who fought against Santa Anna at the Alamo; such tejanos were lost to Hollywood history, as were black cowboys and buffalo soldiers. The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez (1983), based on an incident in which a turn-of-the-century Mexican farmer killed a sheriff because of a misunderstanding of language, gave an evenhanded and sensitive interpretation of events; in an earlier time, the movie could not have been made.

Not until Giant (1956) do I recall seeing a movie in which some sympathy was displayed for

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