Texas Essentials: Movies
“To see you boys pay those bastards back with their own money? Well, if that ain’t Texan, I don’t know what is.”
Lawyer, “Hell or High Water”
In 2020 I published an article titled “Texas Essentials: Books”—a baker’s dozen of necessary books to read in order to understand “the heart and soul of the Lone Start state and the people who populate it.” Last Spring a couple of buddies and I traveled to the far West Texas town of Marfa, where, just off the main drag, The Hotel Paisano is located, where many in the cast and crew of Giant stayed during filming. One of the fellas had never seen Giant, which surprised me since he’s a Texas boy. Being a good friend, I of course gave him hell. He was a good sport and challenged me to put together a “must watch” list of Texas movies. So I did. This is that list.
Of course this is not the only list of Texas movies you can find. Texas Monthly put together a comparable list for their June 2011 edition. The “canon,” as it became known, was created by six movie insiders—two screenwriters and two film critics, a professor of film, and a theater owner. My list represents what I think are the best thirteen movies about Texas—the ones you should watch if you want to know something about the Lone Star state and Lone Star folks. However, before getting into the films themselves, you ought to understand what I mean by a “Texas” movie. Here are the rules I used to judge which films made the cut for this list of Texas movies.
The film must be fictional, not a documentary.
The film must be set in Texas, though not necessarily filmed in Texas.
The film must must reflect the true character of Texas and Texans.
The film must have been a theatrical release, not a television program (Dallas) or ministries. (Ugh! This means Lonesome Dove is off my list—though it gets my vote as the most Texcentric depiction put on film, regardless of the medium of release.) Because of the Covid-19 pandemic Netflix, Prime Video, and other streaming outlets for original releases are eligible.
The film has to be good—well written and acted, creatively produced, edited, and scored. (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre often shows up on best lists of Texas movies, more so because of its cult following and genre breaking introduction to slasher films than its quality. It’s just not very good, even though it was financed, shot, directed, and stared by Texans and in Texas.)
These films are presented according to release dates rather than a “Top Ten List.” Directors are included.
Red River, Howard Hawks (1948)
As a pure cattle drive movie The Cowboys and The Culpepper Cattle Company are better than Red River. (Neither is set in Texas.) But Red River is a better overall movie than The Culpepper Cattle Company and John Wayne’s portrayal of Thomas Dunson in Red River is more nuanced and complicated than is his depiction of Wil Andersen in The Cowboys. Dunson strikes all the notes often associated with Texans: bravery, muleheadedness, visionary, independent, and at times brutal. But you can hardly find a more iconic Texas theme than a man who builds a ranch out of a single cow and bull, and years later drives a herd north with a bunch of wild cowboys.
Red River stars John Wayne, Montgomery Clift, Joanne Dru, and Walter Brennan. The famous “Red River D” brand Wayne draws in the dirt was made into a belt buckle by Howard Hawks as a gift to his star. Wayne often wore the buckle in later movies.
Giant, George Stevens (1956)
Edna Ferber’s novel by the same title, from which the movie was based, was greeted with howls by many Texans because it, they said, painted an unattractive portrait of the people and the state. Nevertheless, when the cast and crew for the film descended on Marfa the townsfolk and Texans generally greeted them with a warm and affectionate “Howdy.” Today, no one raises much hullabaloo about the movie, except maybe that it’s too long, which it is. The first two-thirds of the film are enjoyable and interesting in its depiction of the interactions between a wealthy cattle baron, his rough and tumble spinster sister, and his eastern beauty pageant wife. Thrown into the mix is a rebellious young cowhand who’s gifted a patch of dirt on the ranch and strikes it rich in oil. You can’t get more Texan than cattlemen and oilmen—and the scenery is authentic Texas. As I said in my book review, Giant also “gives an unvarnished look at the relationship between Anglo-Texans and Tajanos, who for too long have been seen and treated as second-class citizens,” as the last scenes make clear.
Giant stars Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, and James Dean, his last; he died in an automobile accident before the film’s release.
The Searchers, John Ford (1956)
One of the most unique stories associated with Texas is the abduction of women and children by the Comanche. The most famous of these stories is the abduction of Cynthia Ann Parker, who grew up among the Comanche, married a chief, and became the mother of the greatest Comanche of all, Quanah Parker. The Searchers depicts the efforts of one man and his half-breed “nephew” to rescue his niece from Comanche captivity. Like Red River, this film required John Wayne to play a conflicted character—an antihero before Clint Eastwood made it iconic. Wayne’s Ethan Edwards is both heroic and racist. At first, he is willing to risk his life to avenge the murder of his family and bring his niece home. But as the years pass, his only thought is to rid his niece of a life he believes to be uncivilized—a common sentiment among Texans at the time.
The Searchers stars John Wayne, Jeffery Hunter, and Natalie Wood. A near perfect film, its major flaw is its location; filmed in Monument Valley, on the Arizona-Utah border that looks nothing like Texas.
The Alamo, John Wayne (1960)
Texas wouldn’t be Texas without the Alamo. It was the beginning of the Texas myth. What took place there in February and March 1836 was akin to the hero myths of Greek literature and the immortal three hundred who stood at Thermopylae. It makes sense that something so mythical is put on film. At least nine movies, from 1915–2004, have tried to capture the passion and history that took place there: Martyrs of the Alamo (1915), Heroes of the Alamo (1937), Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier (1955), The Last Command (1955), The Alamo (1960), Viva Max (1969), The Alamo: Thirteen Days to Glory (1987), The Alamo: The Price of Freedom (1988), and The Alamo (2004).
The most famous of these is John Wayne’s retelling of the Alamo story. Not as historically accurate as the 2004 version, Wayne’s movie is better written, directed, and acted. And the film score by Dimitri Tiomkin is magnificent. I watch it every Texas Independence Day, March 2, usually with my homemade Shiner Beer Chili and a longneck Shiner or Lone Star. Any Texan, especially native, who has never seen it must hold their Texas pride cheap and would be better off moving to Oklahoma or California.
The Alamo stars John Wayne, Richard Widmark, and Lawerence Harvey. Wayne shot the movie in Texas, on a ranch outside of Brackettville, where set designers created in full scale the village of San Antonio de Béxar and the Alamo mission. For a long time Alamo Village, as it was called, was open to visitors. Unfortunately, it no longer exists.
Hud, Marin Ritt (1963)
Based on Larry McMurtry’s first novel, Horseman, Pass By, the film Hud brings to the forefront what really is a secondary character in the book—or at least, he doesn’t come to the fore until later in the novel. Both, however, present an honest and difficult look at how precarious it was to exist as a small ranching operation in Texas in the 1950s. Like the family farm, the family ranch was virtually wiped away by larger, corporation concerns. And what is characterized in Hud, an outbreak of hoof-and-mouth disease, can break and bankrupt a small cattle outfit.
Hud stars Paul Newman, Melvyn Douglas, Patricia Neal, and Brandon De Wilde. Patricia Neal won the Oscar for Best Actress even though her screen time is less than twenty-two minutes. She is terrific.
The Last Picture Show, Peter Bogdanovich (1971)
Another film based on a Larry McMurtry novel. Considered by many critics as the quintessential Texas film (before Lonesome Dove, another McMurtry product)—written by a Texan, shot in Texas, and portraying life in a rural Texas town in the early 1950s. A coming of age movie, it is more Texcentric than Texan Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (which introduced us to another Texan, Matthew McConaughey) and more subtle and serious than George Lucas’s American Graffiti (which was about California anyway). The Last Picture Show is also a better film than those other two, and introduced us to a classic beauty: Cybill Shepherd. Ben Johnson won an Oscar for his portrayal of Sam the Lion, an award well deserved.
The Last Picture Show stars Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd, Ben Johnson, Cloris Leachman, Ellen Burstyn, and Eileen Brennan. Larry McMurtry dedicated his novel to his hometown of Archer City, where The Last Picture Show was shot.
Tender Mercies, Bruce Breseford (1983)
Few actors so embody their characters you cannot imagine anyone else portraying them in a remake. Robert Duval has been fortunate to identify with three such characters: Tom Hagen in the Godfather series, Augustus “Gus” McCrea in Lonesome Dove, and Mac Sledge in Tender Mercies, for which he won the Oscar. He depicts a used-up country and western singer, whose time as past. A lifetime of hard living on the road has landed Mac in a rundown Texas motel, drunk, and penniless, until he is rescued by a widowed mother and the local church.
Tender Mercies stars Robert Duvall, Tess Harper, Betty Buckley, and Wilford Brimley. It was shot in and around Waxahachie.
Friday Night Lights, Peter Berg (2004)
Next to the Alamo, the most iconic identifiers of Texas are longhorns and cowboys, oil and oilmen, and football. Of course the Dallas Cowboys—“America’s Team”—enjoys international fame, whether they are winning or losing (and they lose a lot these days), but that’s not what I’m talking about. Texas, more than any other state, is known for its high school football. To hear some Texans talk it is the fourth member of the Trinity, and the movie that captures that obsession and reverence better than any other football film is Friday Night Lights. Adapted from H. G. Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream, it focuses on the Permian Panthers of Odessa.
Friday Night Lights stars Billy Bob Thornton and Connie Britton. The popularity of the film spun off a television series, which my wife and twin boys, along with members of the McKinney High School Band were extras in one episode.
The Three Burials of Malquiades Estrada, Tommy Lee Jones (2006)
The most obscure of the movies on this list, The Three Burials of Malquiades Estrada is the second film directed by and staring Tommy Lee Jones. It is a modern western set in southwest Texas, exploring the brotherly-like bond between two cowboys, one Anglo, the other Mexican. The film deals with the complexities of illegal immigration and border enforcement—thorny topics in Texas. Jones, who translated Guillermo Arriaga’s original Spanish screenplay into English, gave the cast copies of Albert Camus’s novel The Stranger and told them to read it before shooting began. Both Camus’s novel and Jones’s film deal with the theme of isolation and what seems to be he absurdity of life.
The Three Burials of Malquiades Estrada stars Tommy Lee Jones, Barry Pepper, Julio Cesar Cedilio, and Dwight Yoakam. A majority of the film was shot on location at Jones’s Texas ranch.
No Country for Old Men, Ethan & Joel Cohen (2007)
Like The Last Picture Show, which drips with Texas in every syllable and scene, so does No Country for Old Men, though for completely different reasons. Small Texas town life, twangs and drawls (authentically delivered), and the expanse and desolation of West Texas are all present. Also present are Mexican drug cartels and hitmen—and one of the most blood chilling villains ever put on screen. Based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel by the same title, the only other villain who would haunt your dreams—and even the dreams of Anton Chigurh—is the Judge in Blood Meridian, another Texas placed novel. There is nothing lacking in this movie, except compassion and forgiveness, and is a worthy adaptation of the novel. In my opinion, the short speech by Ellis, played by Texan Barry Corbin, is a masterclass in writing and filmmaking.
No Country for Old Men stars Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, and Woody Harrelson. McCarthy set his novel in 1980 (and so does the film). Sheriff Bell (played by Jones) comments on the violence employed by drug-dealers: “Here a while back in San Antonio they shot and killed a federal judge.” In 1979, Federal Judge John Howland Wood was shot and killed in San Antonio by cartel freelance hitman Charles Harrelson, father of Texan Woody Harrelson.
Hell or High Water, David Mackenzie (2016)
Texan Tylor Sheridan has made a name for himself for his inventive storytelling with movies like Sicario (screenplay), Wind River (screenplay and director), and most recently the television series staring Kevin Costner, Yellowstone (creator, writer, and producer). But his Texas offering of Hell or High Water, about two brothers (one an outlaw, the other turned outlaw for the sake of his family) and two Texas Rangers (one Anglo, the other Mexican/Indian). Though shot in New Mexico, the movie is set in and around small West Texas towns like Archer City, Post, and Onley. The economic depression for many in those towns is accurately depicted, as is the sassiness of some Texas women.
Hell or High Water stars Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Gil Birmingham, and Ben Foster. Sheridan makes a cameo appearance as a cowboy driving a herd away from a grass fire.
The Highwaymen, John Lee Hancock (2019)
Texas has its share of dangerous characters, but few were as celebrated at John Wesley Hardin in the nineteenth century and Bonnie (Parker) and Clyde (Barrow) in the twentieth century. The thieving and murderous exploits of Bonnie and Clyde were well known to every American during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Dallasites, their home base was in Texas, but their crime spree spread as far as Missouri. On May 23, 1934, on a rural road in Beinville Parish, Louisiana, famed Texas Rangers Frank Hamer and Maney Gault, and a posse made up a Dallas policeman (to identify the two bandits) and Louisiana sheriffs, riddled the couple’s car with bullets, killing the pair. This gruesome scene is caught in all its bloody gore in the Netflix movie The Highwaymen. (See my review here.) Unlike most movies about the bandit lovers, particularly the 1967 Warren Beaty, Fay Dunaway film, Bonnie and Clyde, The Highwaymen doesn’t shy away from or attempt to gloss over the truth that both Bonnie and Clyde were coldblooded killers. It also concentrates its attention on the law enforcement efforts to capture or kill the two, including a couple of interesting scenes of Ma Ferguson, the governor at the time.
The Highwaymen stars Kevin Costner, Woody Harrelson, and Kathy Bates. The Dallas policeman, Ted Hinton, was a young man in 1934. Years later, after he retired from the police force, he and my father-in-law were members together of the Shriner’s Black Horse Patrol.
News of the World, Paul Greengrass (2020)
At first glance News of the World, derived from the novel of the same title by Paulette Jiles, doesn’t seem like a particularly Texcentric film—that is, if you’re unfamiliar with the strong German immigrant presence in the Hill Country of Central Texas and the unique history of captive children stollen by Comanche and Kiowa (a la The Searchers), and the reluctance of rescued captives to be returned to their natural families. Each of these themes is at the center of this movie. Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, formerly an officer in the army of the Confederate States of America, is living in Texas during Reconstruction—a time of political uncertainty and sectional violence. He happens upon a child rescued from Kiowa captivity and is persuaded to return her to her German family in Central Texas. Ensues a dangerous journey from the Red River to the Hill Country, as well as a father-daughter-like relationship between Kidd and Johanna.
News of the World stars Tom Hanks and Helena Zengel. This is the first (and thus far, only) western Tom Hanks had made.