Q: I’m a newcomer to Texas. What are the ten films set here that I should see?
Tom Ricks, Austin
A: “This is Texas—mighty colossus of the Southwest. A land of infinite variety and violent contrasts; a land where today’s ranch hand can become tomorrow’s multi-millionaire. But more than a state, here is a state of mind: manners, morals, emotions. Of people who are often as exhilarating, exasperating, exciting as the land they belong to. Out of this fabulous and tempestuous panorama comes a story of magnificent scope and great personal charm, a cavalcade that spans a quarter-century…. A mighty monument of memorable entertainment.”
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Welcome to Texas, Tom Ricks! Good on you for wanting to learn about your new home. And what better way to do so than a festival’s worth of moving pictures? (Actually, given Hollywood’s knack for exaggeration and dramatization, there probably are better ways to learn about Texas. But most of them would take a lot longer to get through.) As you may or may not have guessed, the slab of grandiose verbiage quoted in the previous paragraph comes from the official trailer for one such celebrated talkie, George Stevens’s 1956 three-hour-and-change star-studded epic, Giant. And the Texanist, a former fact checker, can attest to its veracity; Texas is indeed a gloriously mythic land full of larger-than-life characters who possess larger-than-life stories. So it’s not at all surprising that Texas has lent itself to a, well, giant number of big-screen cinematic offerings.
Indeed, there have been hundreds, if not thousands, of films made about Texans and Texas, going all the way back to the likes of the earliest Texas-set films, such as 1903’s The Dance of the Little Texas Magnet, of which no copy is known to exist and therefore about which there is little information, and Old Texas, a silent 1916 self-produced biopic of sorts starring legendary cattleman Charles Goodnight that has grainy footage of actual Kiowa Indians hunting actual bison in the actual Palo Duro Canyon.
In June 2011, well before you arrived here, Texas Monthly empaneled five experts in the field of film and tasked them with whittling down that enormous catalogue to the “ten greatest Texas films ever,” which would undoubtedly meet your needs. The professional buffs, after some debate, settled on ten shining celluloid specimens with which the Texanist has no real beef. In no particular order, that list included:
The aforementioned Giant, the sweeping Western drama based on the Edna Ferber novel that introduced iconic Texan characters Bick Benedict (Rock Hudson) and Jett Rink (James Dean), has stunning shots of the picturesque Trans-Pecos region (as well as the picturesque Elizabeth Taylor), and went a long way toward putting Marfa on the map.
The Last Picture Show (1971), the desolate, dusty, small-town coming of age story directed by Peter Bogdanovich and based on Larry McMurtry’s semi-autobiographical novel. This black and white film, starring Jeff Bridges, Timothy Bottoms, Cybill Shepard, and Ben Johnson, really speaks to the Texanist, who himself grew up in a small Texas town, albeit a much less dusty and desolate one.
No Country for Old Men (2007), the crime thriller adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy book directed by Joel and Ethan Coen and starring San Saba native Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, and Javier Bardem as the unforgettable drug cartel hitman Anton Chigurh.
Red River (1948), the grand Howard Hawks cattle-driving western starring John Wayne, Montgomery Clift, Walter Brennan, and Joanne Dru, which has Wayne in one of the darkest roles of his career.
The Searchers (1956), another iconic John Wayne western, this one based on the 1836 Comanche abduction of young Texan Cynthia Ann Parker, that casts Wayne in the darkest role of his career. Note: Although an Iowan by birth, the Duke was posthumously dubbed an honorary Texan by the state legislature in 2015.
Tender Mercies (1983), the stirring Horton Foote-penned story of down-on-his-luck (mostly due to “the bottle”) country singer Mac Sledge, who is played to a T by another honorary Texan, Robert Duvall. Little-known fact: Duvall wrote a number of the songs and did all of his own singing for this story of love and redemption in quiet rural Texas. And he’s actually pretty good at both tasks.
Hud (1963), the screen adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s first novel, Horseman Pass By. Paul Newman, as Hud Bannon, clashes with his stand-up rancher father, Homer Bannon (Melvyn Douglas); confuses his nephew, Lonnie Bannon (Brandon deWylde); chases the family housekeeper, Alma (Patricia Neal); and generally makes for an impeccable cowboy rounder in this anti-western western.
Blood Simple (1984), the brilliant neo-noir crime thriller that launched the careers of writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen (who, for two guys from Minneapolis, seem to have a real feel for Texas, though the lege has not yet seen fit to grant them honorary Texanhood). This one has more twists and turns than a Hill Country highway.
Bonnie and Clyde (1967), the action-packed biographical drama that follows the lives and bullet-ridden deaths of Texas’s first couple of crime, played by Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, who were considerably more glamorous than their real-life counterparts.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), the platonic ideal of the low-budget horror genre, staring the platonic ideal of the mentally disturbed serial killer that has since become a staple of the horror genre, the murderous chainsaw-wielding cannibal known as Leatherface. (Spoiler alert: The “leather” is of the human flesh variety).
If you rented or streamed or bought yourself a copy of each of those movies and snuggled up with a barrel of popcorn and binged on them over the course of a long weekend, you’d go a long way toward becoming something of an expert on your newly adopted home—albeit an expert who thinks there’s a whole lot more horse riding and homicide going on here than there actually is.
But since this column is called “The Texanist,” not “Five Experts Who Aren’t the Texanist,” your loyal dispenser of fine advice will, for no extra charge, make ten recommendations of his own. Yes, yes, you only requested ten Texas films that every newly minted Texan should see, not twenty, but again, this column is called “The Texanist,” not “The New Guy in Town Who Asked the Texanist a Question and then Tried to Tell the Texanist How to Do His Job.” So, let’s pop another Texas-size tub of corn and make this a double decuple feature. Here are ten also-must-sees and should-probably-sees.
Friday Night Lights (2004), the film inspired by the book that also inspired the TV show (and, apparently, another movie due sometime in the not-too-distant future) that showed the world that high school football in Texas is so much more than just high school football.
Urban Cowboy (1980), the unlikely John Travolta vehicle that launched Debra Winger’s career and brought Texas honky-tonk culture and mechanical bulls to the masses.
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005), a classic of the “modern borderlands crime drama western” genre, directed by and starring San Saba’s very own Tommy Lee Jones.
The Wild Bunch (1969), the gritty, star-studded (William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, Warren Oates, and Ben Johnson), Sam Peckinpah western that’s memorialized this very month in a brand-new book by Austin author and Texanist friend W. K. Stratton.
Selena (1997), the musical (“Bidi Bidi Bom Bom”) biographical drama covering the tragically short life and career of the up-and-coming Lake Jackson-born Tejano star, Selena Quintanilla-Pérez, portrayed with surprising fidelity by the Bronx-born movie star Jennifer Lopez.
Lone Star (1996), the John Sayles-directed drama that brought us Texas sheriffs, corruption, murder, and Matthew McConaughey showing off some very nice acting chops a good decade or so before the McConnaisance was even a thing.
North Dallas Forty (1979), the adaptation of the novel written by Dallas Cowboy-turned novelist Peter Gent that offered a thinly veiled look at the raucous seventies-era Cowboys and showed the world that professional football in Texas is so much more than just pro football.
Bernie (2011), the Richard Linklater-directed film based on a 1998 Texas Monthly story by the Texanist’s inimitable colleague Skip Hollandsworth that reminds us that in the right hands Texas crime and criminals can be so damn entertaining.
Fandango (1985), San Antonio-born writer-director Kevin Reynold’s comedic drama debut, starring young Kevin Costner, young Judd Nelson, and young Sam Robards, that shows us that West Texas road trips are sometimes silly, sometimes poignant, and always fun.
The Alamo (1960), the historically suspect telling of one of the most pivotal moments of the Texas origin story that cast John Wayne as Davy Crockett, Richard Widmark as James Bowie, Frankie Avalon as a young Alamo defender, and Seagoville native Chill Wills as a Tennessee beekeeper. Not everybody loves it (especially the factcheckers), but every Texan has seen it. And, in furtherance of your assimilation, so should you!
A couple of these flicks may not (spoiler alert) be the greatest examples of filmmaking you’ve ever seen, but, rest assured, each of them, in its own way, is a mighty monument of memorable entertainment that elucidates the potent mythos—the good, the bad, and the ugly (which, incidentally, is the name of another very fine movie that, alas, takes place not in Texas but in territories that eventually became our neighboring state of New Mexico)—behind the strange new land into which you’ve put down stakes. These movies remind us of who we were, or are, or who we thought we were, or who we think we were, or are.
Whatever the case, the Texanist hopes you enjoy all twenty of these movies—and a few more to boot (the Texanist’s editor is partial to Dazed and Confused, Hell or High Water, and, probably because it stars Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Anita Ekberg, and Ursula Andress and has a cameo by the Three Stooges, 4 for Texas).
And, again, welcome to Texas.
Have a question for the Texanist? He’s always available here. Be sure to tell him where you’re from.