Tracing Texas’ Place in Cinematic History

What is American cinema without Texas? There would be no Richard Linklater, Robert Rodriguez, Wes Anderson, or the other great filmmakers of Texas history. No inspiration for the countless Westerns made during the Golden Age of Hollywood.

“In a broad way, [Texas film] reflects a spirit of independence and a strong unique voice,” says Rebecca Campbell, CEO of the Austin Film Society.

That spirit of independence manifests in many forms throughout cinematic history. There is something distinctly alluring about the Texas of myth — an idealized sense of American independence and intrepid ambition. In recent decades, this same spirit is evoked by artists who have found freedom in a different kind of cinematic expression, from the wild escapades of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde to the quirky, toned-down emotional explorations of naturalistic “mumblecore” movies like Linklater’s Slacker.

Below, we trace Texas’ significant contributions to film history through nine classic movies that have also shaped the identity of the state that inspired them.

Almost Hollywood

Texas’ film history goes back almost to the birth of the medium itself. Gaston Méliès, brother of pioneering filmmaker Georges Méliès — whose A Trip to the Moon is considered one of the cornerstones of early cinema — believed Texas would be a great place for making films, citing advantages like a climate and locations similar to Hollywood, and opened a studio in San Antonio.

One of his most notable productions was the silent film The Immortal Alamo (1911). Although the film has been lost, its popularity at the time (and historical inaccuracy) demonstrates the allure Texas held on the American imagination from cinema’s earliest moments. Sadly, Méliès’ dream of a Texas Hollywood wouldn’t last. By the 1920s, he had moved his production company to California.

The Myth of the West

Many of the classic films set in Texas weren’t filmed there. Utah’s Monument Valley stood in for the Texas West in John Ford’s The Searchers; a Hollywood back lot reimagined Texas in Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo. On the silver screen, the idea of Texas became a stand-in for a broader exploration of the American project.

Texas history encapsulates many themes central to the American Western. It was in Texas where settlers, minded by federal troops, pushed across the open landscape in the name of progress and civilization. Outsize characters — from gunmen like Doc Holliday to lawmen like Judge Roy Bean — personified the Wild West. Texas was the Wild West, and Western movies not only helped to define its character, but also exported the mystique and allure of the Lone Star State around the world.

Giant (1956)

While many Golden Age films were set in Texas and filmed in LA, Giant is notable for decamping to the real, majestic backdrop of West Texas to set its epic tale. Still one of the most iconic films set in Texas, Giant helped put tiny Marfa on the map. On location: The once unknown Marfa.

Texas History of Film

Hud (1963)

Based on Larry McMurtry’s novel, this stirring tale of struggle and heartbreak, generational friction, and youthful ambition tells a story central to the difficult and rugged life that defined the Texas frontier. On location: Shot in the Texas Panhandle, many of the exteriors were filmed at the Goodnight Ranch.

Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

Arthur Penn’s groundbreaking film about the West Dallas outlaws who became America’s first romantic tabloid antiheroes was notable for its ambitious camerawork and depictions of extreme violence. On location: Shot throughout North Texas, one famous scene in which Bonnie and Clyde hide out in the woods was shot in the Trinity Forest in Dallas.

The Last Picture Show (1971)

Larry McMurtry, that towering figure of Texas letters, wrote novels that inspired two of the films on this list. Peter Bogdonovich’s adaptation of McMurtry’s novel is a haunting depiction of small-town life and a simmering tale of adolescence, longing, and loneliness. On location: Archer City serves as the backdrop for the novel and the film.

Paris, Texas (1984)

Raised on Hollywood Westerns imported to postwar Germany, Wim Wenders made an epic American road movie infused with European sensibility in what is perhaps his greatest feat. Adapted by Dallas native L.M. Kit Carson, Paris, Texas opens in the untamed openness of Big Bend and ends in the crowded confusion of Houston, completing an existential journey and love story that doubles as a pitch-perfect depiction of modern Texas. On location: The film’s mysterious opening was filmed on some of the empty, haunting roads around Terlingua.

Slacker (1990)

Richard Linklater’s film didn’t just capture Austin at the beginning of the 1990s, it captured an American mood and helped launch a new generation of filmmakers while establishing Linklater’s singular voice. On location: Slacker is a document of the Austin that once was, and seeking out its settings throughout the capital city is a somewhat frustrating exercise in rediscovering Austin’s vanishing landscape.

Rushmore (1998)

Wes Anderson, one of today’s most prominent filmmakers, emerged on the scene with Dallas-based Bottle Rocket. But Rushmore demonstrated a more mature iteration of his unique style and tone that would become one of the most acclaimed and imitated in contemporary cinema. On location: It all goes down at North Shore High School in Houston.

The Tree of Life (2011)

There is no filmmaker quite like Terrence Malick, an impressionist whose films double as love stories and philosophic ruminations on the nature of time and the meaning of human life. He’s at his best with The Tree of Life, a story that blurs the lives of an ensemble of characters against an evocative depiction of mid-century Texas. On location: Much of the story of the young boy growing up in Texas takes place in a shady Waco neighborhood.

Boyhood (2014)

Richard Linklater deserves two spots on the list if only because he has managed to redefine cinematic genre twice. Boyhood is unlike any other film ever made, shot over a decade and tracing the lives of its characters through a moving and unforgettable childhood in Texas. On location: The film’s final scenes take place in Santa Elena Canyon in Big Bend National Park.

The New Faces of Texas Film

Texas’ cinematic history is not just of the past. These are four names keeping our filmmaking tradition alive.

David Lowery. The Dallas native has made a name for himself with gritty neo-Westerns like Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and with the instant Disney classic Pete’s Dragon.

 

Keith Maitland. Maitland’s film about The University of Texas tower shooting earned him an Emmy, in part for his unique and effective incorporation of animation into documentary filmmaking.

 

Yen Tan. The Austin filmmaker has quietly built a reputation as a master of emotional subtlety and heartrending drama, particularly in his latest film, 1985.

 

Augustine Frizzell. Frizzell burst onto the scene with her directorial debut, Never Goin’ Back, a coming-of-age comedy set in Garland in the 1990s.

 

Discover Texas’ old-fashioned movie house revival here

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