Q: I recently watched the 1949 western Masked Raiders, in which two Texas Rangers are dispatched to the fictional town of Willcox, a place their boss tells them is located in the Childress and Wichita Falls area, “up near the mountains.” I almost fell off the sofa laughing. Then the Rangers arrive at the outskirts of Willcox and meet a woman who suggests they avoid the area because of some local trouble. Instead, she says, they should go to Marfa, “only a couple of hours’ ride from here.” I’m still laughing at that one, and I wondered which other Hollywood creations got Texas really, really wrong.
Kathleen Bergeron, Salisbury, North Carolina
A: The Texanist loves movies! Especially—surprise, surprise—movies in which Texas or Texans play a role. And though there are way too many such cinematic offerings for anybody to have seen them all, the Texanist—surprise, surprise—has had the pleasure of viewing a great many. Thanks to your letter, Ms. Bergeron, he was recently able to add a few selections to that list, as well as revisit some old favorites that he hadn’t seen in a long time.
In all, the lineup for the Texanist’s first-annual Office Hours Desktop Film Festival included half a dozen full-length feature films, a whole bunch of clips, numerous trailers, and the season three premiere of Fox’s absurd 9-1-1: Lone Star. (Well, parts of the first half of the season three premiere of Fox’s absurd 9-1-1: Lone Star; the Texanist, dedicated though he is, can take only so much.) When the last of the credits finally rolled, the Texanist had likely spent more than twenty hours of a recent workweek behind a closed door with his boots kicked off and his stocking feet propped up on his popcorn-and-Goobers-littered desk, gazing at his computer screen. All in the service of providing a suitable response to this excellent query, which the Texanist hopes (fingers crossed) his boss will agree counts as work.
With the exception of straight documentaries, almost all films, including westerns, dramas, comedies, dramedies, horror movies, rom-coms, capers, foreign films, road films, movies in which someone picks up a phone and says “I think we’ve got a problem,” historical dramas, historical comedies, historical dramedies, sci-fi flicks, and the latest installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, tend to take factual liberties of one sort or another. In fact, each and every one of the movies that the Texanist screened contained at least a couple of flubs, gaffes, goofs, bloopers, or screwups in their portrayals of Texas or Texans.
Before the Texanist spotlights a few outstanding examples, however, let him note that this is not the first time that Texas Monthly has poked fun at Hollywood’s penchant for getting Texas wrong. One early instance that the Texanist recently stumbled across comes compliments of the late Larry L. King, a Putnam native and an old friend and mentor of the Texanist, in what may have been that famous writer’s first byline in this magazine.
For the March 1974 issue, King wrote about the numerous mischaracterizations of Texas he found in Lovin’ Molly, the 1974 screen adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s Leaving Cheyenne. Having spent time on the movie’s set while it was being filmed in Bastrop, King was able to relay many of his critiques directly to director Sidney Lumet and producer-screenwriter Steve Friedman—and he did not, to hilarious effect, hold his fire. King was outraged that costume designer Gene Coffin had Wichita Falls–area ranchers busting broncs and birthing calves while wearing overalls (“People simply wouldn’t have gone around fifty years ago dressed like Arkies on the way to pick prunes in California”), angered that a fence-building scene had Gid (Anthony Perkins) steadying a post while Johnny (Beau Bridges) pounded it with a sledgehammer (“Steve, the g—damn ground’s near to rock just below top soil. You couldn’t hammer fence posts in the ground!”), and supremely miffed by a ludicrously choreographed dustup (“It was the sissiest, most awkward fight I’ve seen outside Elaine’s—which is where New York’s high-rent literati gather to juice”).
More recently, in 2015, another beloved Texas Monthly contributor, Stephen Harrigan, tore into the ten-hour History Channel miniseries Texas Rising, which cast Fort Worth native Bill Paxton as Sam Houston and endeavored to tell the story of the Republic of Texas’s nascency. “Since Texas Rising starts at the Alamo, let’s go there first,” Harrigan began. “In the opening scene, the Mexican dictator Santa Anna rides through the vanquished fort past heaps of dead Texan defenders as the words ‘The Alamo, March 7, 1836’ appear on the screen . . . That’s right—March 7! A quick check of any seventh-grade Texas history book will tell you that Santa Anna entered the mission just after it fell on the morning of March 6.”
Harrigan didn’t stop there, and though the Texanist could go on, he will not. You can imagine. (Or you can go and read the piece for yourself, which the Texanist encourages you to do.)
But the Texanist doesn’t get paid to just sit around and quote other, more celebrated Texas Monthly writers. He gets paid to sit around and watch old movies on his MacBook and then take cheap shots at them. So let’s get to it. The Texanist began his desktop movie marathon with the film that prompted this inquiry, Masked Raiders, which he had not previously seen. And in addition to the geographical errors that you note, Ms. Bergeron, the Texanist also heard a Willcox townsperson proclaim that an area landowner possessed “the richest ranch in the Santiagos,” apparently referring to the real-life mountain range located south of Marathon, which, at about five hundred miles away, is an even farther ride from the fictional North Texas town of Willcox than Marfa is.
Next up in the Texanist’s fest was George Marshall’s 1941 offering Texas. Marshall directed some great westerns, and this one caught the Texanist’s eye because of the enchanting simplicity of its title and the fact that it stars a young Glenn Ford and a young William Holden—two of the Texanist’s favorite old-timey actors—as a pair of Civil War veterans standing on opposite sides of the law. At one point in the film, reference is made to a hanging tree purportedly planted by Davy Crockett some “forty years ago.” But as the film is set in 1866, and Crockett first set foot in Texas in 1836, this just doesn’t add up. The Texanist also took note of a line of dialogue uttered by ranch owner Dusty King: “Well, right here in Texas we’ve got the greatest gunslingers there are: John Wesley Hardin, Clay Allison, King Fisher, Jim Courtright, Mannen Clements.” The names and reputations check out, but Hardin and Fisher, who were both born in 1853, would have been mere adolescents at the time. Hardin, for one, was two whole years away from killing his first man, and a good number of years away from acquiring a national reputation. Additionally, Texas features a couple of faulty Texas flags that appear to be emblazoned with undersized and sadly out-of-proportion stars.
The Texanist also watched two movies entitled The Alamo—the one from 1960, directed by John Wayne, in which the honorary Texan also starred as honorary Texan Davy Crockett, and the one from 2004, which was directed by Texan John Lee Hancock and features Texan Dennis Quaid as Sam Houston and Arkansan Billy Bob Thornton as Crockett. Though the latter film induces a smidge less eye-rolling and guffawing than the former, neither is particularly strict in its allegiance to the historical record. The actual Alamo may be known as “the Cradle of Texas Liberty,” but when it comes to the cinematic Alamo, “the Cradle of Taking Liberties” might be a more accurate moniker.
Hancock’s version gets some small things wrong. It features a grievously truncated reading of William B. Travis’s already concise “Victory or Death” letter, which is a real shame. At another point, it has Crockett pulling out his fiddle and playing a jaunty version of the 1855 tune “Listen to the Mockingbird”—right there in 1836!
But the older film’s sins are much greater. Most notably, it gets the Alamo’s famous architecture wrong. The signature bell-shaped facade, which is clearly visible in Wayne’s mise-en-scène, wasn’t added to the building until the 1850 renovation. The movie also famously has Sam Houston (Richard Boone) twice stating that the Alamo sits on the Rio Grande instead of the San Antonio River. And Travis gets the location of both the Sabine River and Goliad all wrong. And there’s a scene in which the Alamo defenders react to the massacre at Goliad, though that unfortunate event actually happened three weeks after the siege at the Alamo. And while the actual Alamo faces west, Wayne has the sun setting behind the eastern-facing building. And the Duke also includes a scene with a herd of cattle in which the viewer can spot at least one Brahman, though that breed didn’t exist in Texas at the time. And during the battle, one Alamo defender can be seen sporting modern-day blue jeans with visible back pockets and a Levi’s-like tag. And Alamo survivor Susanna Dickinson’s dress seems to have a zipper, though zippers weren’t yet invented. And there’s a scene in which the viewer can spot film production trailers in the background, which is just plain sloppy. And, and, and . . . and the Texanist is going to stop now, though, once again, he could go on (and on and on).
But to reiterate, rare is the Texas film that doesn’t, for whatever reason, feature at least a few of these sorts of goofs. Even the great ones aren’t flawless. Heck, in the beloved Lonesome Dove miniseries, Captain Woodrow F. Call’s steed, a “Kiowa mare” known as “the Hell Bitch,” is played by a horse that is unmistakably possessed of non-mare parts. The Last Picture Show shows types of jukeboxes, cars, and hairstyles that didn’t exist in desolate North Texas (or anywhere, for that matter) circa the film’s early-fifties setting. Urban Cowboy, which was set on the flatter-than-flat outskirts of Houston, boasts some shots of curiously hilly terrain, as do the Houston-set scenes in the infamous Irwin Allen disaster film The Swarm. No Country for Old Men has the Rio Grande flowing in the wrong direction. Charlie Wilson’s War has an upside-down Texas flag, as well as Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts essaying truly awful Texas accents. Giant gets much right, especially the beautiful West Texas landscape. (It was filmed in and around Marfa, which, of course, is just a couple hours’ ride from Willcox.) But it also features some Texas flags with upside-down lone stars. And in the San Antonio–set scene from Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Pee-Wee asks a tour guide where he can find the Alamo’s basement and is laughed at and told, in a mocking voice, “There’s no basement at the Alamo”—even though there is a basement at the Alamo! (In fact, there are two, though the second was added after the film was made.)
In short, Ms. Bergeron, there is no dearth of Hollywood productions that get Texas wrong in all sorts of ways. But then, what would you expect from a bunch of Californians? (And the Texanist hasn’t even mentioned the many inanities—there’s an explosion at an Austin bull semen “factory”—of 9-1-1: Lone Star.)
Though these kinds of errors are often entertaining, what makes them so infuriating is that there’s a simple and obvious solution to the problem. All the Tinseltown muckety-mucks need to do is hire—for a reasonable fee, unfettered access to the catering tent, and a little love come Oscars time—a native Texan renowned for his expertise on all manner of Texana to consult on such matters. Surely such a person exists. The Texanist is certain of it.
Have a question for the Texanist? He’s always available here. Be sure to tell him where you’re from.
This article originally appeared in the March 2022 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “The Texanist.” Subscribe today.