The first gusher in Texas erupted over Spindletop, Beaumont in 1901 and took prospectors and engineers two full days to cap. By day ten, Spindletop produced 38 million gallons of oil which covered the prairieland in a thick, black lake. It was a dramatic scene that marked a dramatic twist in the state’s fortunes, as Texas suddenly found itself the owner of an oil reserve greater than that held by the rest of the US and Russia combined. However, the discovery of Texan oil would be of minimal value unless markets of consumption were established to partner it. Subsequently, cities, industries and road geographies powered by petrochemicals developed rapidly in Texas, as oil obligated and bankrolled the growth of a new modern Texan environment. Finding ways to extract, refine, transport and use oil would occupy the state for the years to come, relocating and redeploying many of its citizens, overhauling its landscapes and fuelling the modernisation which would transform Texas into its current state. The first oil boom lasted until 1945 and by the end of the decade David McComb notes that Texas, “passed the median line of rural to urban … and then remained on course afterward to become an almost completely urban state.”1
Examining the environmental impact of oil, Timothy Clark notes that, “it has widely degraded environments, both immediately in oil spills and in global phenomena such as global warming, the development of pesticides, the plastic infestation of the oceans, and the destructive effects of automobiles.”2 Having recently faced the unprecedented conditions of a ‘deep freeze’ in February 2021, a developing environmental crisis in Texas is now being widely linked to global warming and the insidious effects of a Texan oil industry that has grown rapaciously since the turn of the 20th century. Cinema’s representation of rural environments that have been transmuted and degraded by an emerging US oil industry has come under close scrutiny in recent years, with Paul Thomas Anderson’s There will be Blood (2007) stimulating much interest in the subject. This article will adopt a historical and geographical framework, addressing earlier examples of the oil movie and analysing how oil redefined the environmental make-up and cultural identity of Texas throughout the first half of the 20th century. Moreover, it will delineate how cinema was used to work through this intense period of upheaval. I will survey a variety of films released throughout the silent cinema and studio system era, including Mr Potter of Texas (Leopold Wharton, 1922), Flowing Gold (Joseph De Grasse, 1924), Boom Town (Jack Conway, 1940) and Giant (George Stevens, 1956), all of which convey unease with oil’s creation of sudden, exuberant wealth, its culture of conspicuous consumption, the mass modification of the state’s landscapes and the exchange of Texas’s traditional rural values for those of cosmopolitanism and a capitalist agenda. These films were released contemporaneously with a number of canonical westerns set in Texas, many of which have provided the state with its most iconic images and all of which have tended to misrepresent the state as an unspoilt natural arcadia or an inexhaustible land of plenty. When the Texan land frontier closed toward the end of the 19th century and the state’s mythical terrain of the open range passed with it, a new resource frontier promptly took its place. Oil and natural gas were added to the state’s already sizable productions of cotton and timber, as great swathes of land were drilled, stripped and broken down into profitable commodities.
In the age of oil, the natural environment in Texas has often been regarded as little more than a standing reserve only intended to supply the material needs of human progress. Hinton and Olien observe that by the end of the 1940s, rural environments in over 80 percent of the state’s counties had been modified with oil drilling facilities.3 A number of the movies that come under close analysis in this article highlight uncertainties concerning the environmental cost of oil, as the loss of undeveloped countryside has sent shockwaves through the state’s cultural identity. Texan oil movies constitute a much less iconic body of films than the Texan western and subsequently have received far less attention. With the exception of Giant, there has been a dearth of critical analysis of these films. I will respond to David Ingram’s urge for “a pluralistic eco-aesthetic which can find value – cognitive, emotional, and affective – in a wide range of films.”4 My analysis will clarify how these films engage with important aspects of Texas’s environmental history and mobilise a range of subtle state-specific ecocritical ideas, laying ideological foundations for contemporary works of cinema, such as the aforementioned There Will be Blood, which have demonstrated an even more pointed environmental sensibility. It seems to me that achieving a rigorous understanding of how environmentalism has featured in Texan oil cinema is a core component of what Gunter and Oelschlaeger deem to be the state’s most pressing challenge as the 21st century progresses, that being “the building of a way of life that draws from the land without degrading it or impairing basic ecological process.”5 My analysis will take the form of an overview rather than close readings of individual films, this being the most effective means for establishing longer-term historical narratives and broad environmental trends within this cycle of movies.
Oil’s First Feature
In 1922, fiction film documented oil wealth in Texas for the first time with Leopold Wharton’s Mr. Potter of Texas. Wharton’s film chronicles Sam Potter (Macklyn Arbuckle) who arrives in Texas poor but has soon made his millions by drilling for oil. Potter provides fiction film with its first evocation of a Texan oil mogul. Countless reiterations of the oil tycoon have firmly imprinted the Texan archetype in the cultural imaginary, so much so that in the minds of many a wealthy Texan is most likely an oil baron. Sticking closely with Potter throughout, Wharton’s film pioneers the cinematic interrogation of the Texan oil nouveau riche. Throughout the early ‘wildcatting’ years of Texan oil, anybody and everybody clamoured for a piece of the biggest free-for-all since the gold rush, arriving from all corners of the state and nation. Wildcatters, finance company representatives and labourers of every description formed a heady and unstable mix in the early boom towns of Texas. Potter is a personification of this particular milieu, his character being an amalgam of several Texan types: a hardy westerner, a suave southern gentleman and a powerful oilman. Bizarrely, one moment Potter is seen dressed in his splendid attire and holding doors, while the next he is seen fist-fighting and scrabbling around in the dirt. Contradictions involving Potter’s character are indicative of uncertainties concerning the figure of the oil mogul and oil culture in general. The earliest Texan oil movies, including Mr. Potter of Texas, held a mimetic relationship with an industry in its formative stages. These films were exploratory, experimental and speculative, with each providing its own best guess of who or what an oil mogul might be and, crucially, what oil’s ramped-up activities might mean for the environmental make-up and collective identity of Texas.
At a later stage in Wharton’s film, Potter is falsely accused of a crime and must travel to England and Egypt to clear his name. In a short space of time, he is seen to transition from rural poverty to a more cosmopolitan existence in Texas, eventually leaving the state altogether and traveling the world’s cities. In part, this journeying can be attributed to the geographically expansive nature of silent cinema, which often sought out exotic destinations as a vicarious mode of ‘tourism’. However, it is oil that takes Potter out of the Texan countryside and on his travels, the implication being that the oil industry has the potential to relocate people from rural to urban settings and facilitate class mobility. What can be said of Potter with a degree of certainty is that both he and his lifestyle are to be envied, as oil is seen to transform his existence for the better. Evidently, scepticism surrounding the negative effects of oil had yet to seep into cinema’s consciousness. Thus, the oil movie of 1922 tentatively begins the process of examining the changes that the commodity brought about in Texas and arguably does so with a clear degree of naivety.
Mr. Potter of Texas is based on a novel of the same title by Archibald Clavering Gunter (1888), which in turn is based on the history and myth of Texan rancher Sammy Potts. Potter begins the novel with only a small holding but eventually boasts, “five hundred acres of land, and fifty thousand head of cattle (…) an opera house and a railroad (…) the metropolis of Pottersville!”6 As this excerpt suggests, the latter phase of Potter’s empire building entails his rise as a feudal lord and the construction of a city that boasts everything of the urban east. The novel indicates that even before the discovery of oil, there were some who fantasised about the grandest scales of industrial and urban expansion on the Texas plains. Wharton’s film is a radical adaptation of Gunter’s text and does not retain its interest in the state’s shifting environmental conditions. However, a keen interest in this subject and the ecologies of oil speculation would increase as the oil movie cycle developed. The first rigorous attempt to examine the ethical implications of Texan oil comes with another silent piece, Flowing Gold (Joseph De Grasse, 1924), which tells the tumultuous story of a family who find oil beneath their west Texas ranch. Suddenly thrust into the strata of Texas’s oil elite, the family squanders much of its wealth on lavish purchases and then is temporarily divided by a disagreement over what to do with the remaining money. Finally, the family is nearly conned of its dwindling fortune and reduced to poverty once more, as De Grasse spins an efficient allegorical yarn addressing Texas’s unpreparedness for its newfound fortune.
While Mr. Potter of Texas champions the individualism of the wildcatter, Flowing Gold sets a more cautious tone and sees a nuclear family almost torn apart by oil, as their simple countryside values are polluted by the excesses of oil money. This downfall is preempted when the family first finds oil oozing through their farmland’s soil. The camera tracks alongside overjoyed members of the family who wallow in pools of oil. It then halts on the mother who clasps her hands in prayer, thanking the heavens for such an unexpected change in fortune. This ignores the many verses in the bible cautioning against materialism7 and God’s instruction to tend to his garden.8 Like the earth of their homestead, the family and their rube country clothes quickly become covered in oil, as De Grasse visually alludes to the beginning of a ‘crude’ transformation in the Texan countryside. With the family’s farmland now thoroughly polluted and useless for anything but the extraction of more oil, this scene provides the oil movie cycle with its first genuinely ecocritical moment. Here, the environmental effects of oil’s surfacing are made readily apparent, as a rural Texan landscape is found to have been extensively polluted by the sudden arrival of the commodity.
With the family’s profligate spending, conspicuous consumption and hapless interactions with crooked conmen, De Grasse’s film also illustrates that the kinds of social problems associated with city life entered into the countryside alongside the wealth of oil. However, it is not until the years of the studio system that urban spaces began to appear in the oil movie cycle. Though the Texan city and its reliance on oil would eventually be well represented by cinema and television, this position would be reached in incremental steps. In 1940 Warner Bros and director Alfred E. Green remade Flowing Gold and though the studio system version also adopts a west Texas oil field for its setting, it does so in order to tell a quite different story. A wanted tough guy arrives in Texas and befriends a local wildcatter, only for the two men to be divided by a shared love interest and their competing attempts to bring in a nearby well. Unlike the rural outcrops of the original, much of Green’s version takes place in a hastily thrown together boom town, the ramshackle materiality of which appears to be imbricated with loose morals and an urge to make quick cash. Though Green’s boom town is not entirely dissimilar to the ‘spit-and-sawdust’ agricultural settlements that the western genre favoured, it is clearly in the process of being transformed to suit the purposes of the oil industry. Inevitably, the oil wells on the town’s outskirts are the most obvious sites of development, as prairies which only a short spell previously would have shown no signs of modern development are found to have been embellished by large constructs of steel and timber. These images constitute a new direction for the Texas oil movie, as Green’s film documents the conversion of rural environments into man made industrial geographies.
Mr. Potter of Texas and both versions of Flowing Gold encompass narratives in which members of a poor rural demographic suddenly accumulate vast sums of money, embodying the American dream and its proximity to a nightmare. US cinema repeatedly used narratives of this kind during the earlier oil movies, which amounted to a process of mythmaking. The biggest winners throughout the oil boom were not individual wildcatters or local landowners, but large out-of-town oil companies. Half of the state’s total oil production was controlled by ten large companies by 1920.9 Operating under names such as The Sun Oil Company, Gulf Oil Company, The Texas Oil Company and The Humble Oil Company (later renamed Exxon, an umbrella company which currently owns Esso and Mobil), these firms held a tightening grip on every stage of oil exploration, extraction and refinement, from the laying of pipelines to the construction of massive permanent storage facilities. Drilling was often subcontracted to smaller regional companies, who in turn hired their own local employees. The real narrative of the first Texas oil boom, though not nearly as dramatically encapsulating as Hollywood’s favoured story of the lone wildcatter, is the rise of these companies. Similarly, though these films established a trope of rural folk enjoying rags-to-riches advances, in reality the transformation of countryside communities was much less glamourous, as Texan agricultural workers found themselves steadily re-deployed by these same companies as a blue-collar workforce that was made to endure backbreaking labour in the toughest of conditions.
The Oil Movie and the Texan City
MGM’s star vehicle Boom Town (Jack Conway) was also released in 1940 and belatedly acknowledged the oil industry’s transformation from the informalities of wildcatting to the era of the large oil companies. It examines this transition through the rise and fall of its central protagonists, Big John McCasters (Clark Gable) and Square John Sand (Spencer Tracy). The two men travel far and wide in search of wells, their quest taking them from the boom towns of Texas to South America and then on to California, as Conway’s film takes the familiar concept of the jet-set oil mogul into new and exotic territories. McCasters’ fortunes and power fluctuate throughout the film and each time his oil wealth spikes he engages in an affair, as the spoils of the trade threaten to ruin his marriage. When McCasters identifies his first oil well early in the film and optimistically exits a rural West Texas boom town laden with drilling equipment, his horse and cart are backdropped by towering steel rigs and great plumes of smoke, all gesturing toward his future in the vertical and atmospheric spaces of the big city. In latter scenes, McCasters diversifies into oil distribution and establishes a head office in the lofty heights of a New York skyscraper. His office’s design is contemporary to the point of appearing futuristic, with a minimalist semi-circular desk backdropped by the twinkling lights of Hollywood’s modern metropolis par excellence. The walls of his office are embellished with photographs of the Texas oil fields which initiated McCasters’ illustrious career, as well as the mounted horns of a Texas longhorn steer. Amongst other things, McCasters seeks social validity in New York, but, as his office’s decor implies, he cannot leave his rural past behind. The office scenes derive from the staging of New York and Texas as places that are poles apart, one being highly cosmopolitan and the other comparatively provincial. Though McCasters’ photographs of Texas oil fields document the modernising of the state’s countryside environments, these images nevertheless remain rooted in rural locales and fail to acknowledge oil’s expansion of the state’s urban centres. This is a common omission among all early oil movies, which collectively offer little acknowledgement of the Texan city’s oil-perpetuated growth.
It should be noted that there is nothing historically or geographically inaccurate about cinema’s tendency to represent rural Texan spaces that have been modified for oil extraction. Texan oil was discovered in countryside locations and the state’s first operations were essentially tacked-on to pre-existing ranching and agricultural communities. Undeveloped tracts of land were modified for drilling, while many ranchers and farmers switched to a more lucrative vocation. US cinema represented the first phases of this transition very well, particularly the earliest years of the gusher age when the transformation of the countryside landscape and rural cultures was most dramatic. Though these films framed oil’s social effects as a phenomenon that was fundamentally linked to a wealthy and cosmopolitan way of life, they neglected to spotlight the Texan cities rapidly developing alongside the oil industry. Houston’s history gives the clearest indication of the intense urbanisation that Texas oil catalysed, as the city experienced a 555 percent growth in population during the three decades that followed Spindletop. Expanding in tandem with the industry as the state’s ‘oil capital’, Houston is now one of the biggest cities in the US and houses the world’s largest concentration of refineries and oil storage facilities.10
Kirkpatrick Sale notes that from the Civil War until the beginning of World War II, cultural, economic and political power typically resided in a group of powerful cities in the northeast of the US.11 After this time, slowly a rival complex of urban centres became established, based in the Southern Rim of the US.12 Sale highlights Dallas and Houston as cities that were transformed in this period, evolving from small rural cities into major commercial centers that were among the most affluent in the land.13 Though Houston and Dallas grew exponentially throughout the 1940s, Texan big cities were not widely understood at this time as being places of significant economic and political influence. Throughout this period, Hollywood undoubtedly played its part in maintaining a myopic view of the south and demonstrated an overwhelming preference for the iconic urban locales of New York and Los Angeles. While Boom Town clearly has a greater awareness of how oil’s big business financing works and who it works for, and even follows the industry’s money into a big city, that city is not in Texas. By the time New York is reached, Texas only exists in the film’s diegesis as a rural ‘place memory’ frozen within McCasters’ photographs. Donald Graham describes McCasters as a “a fine prefiguration” of Dallas (CBS, 1978-91) protagonist J.R. Ewing.14 A crucial difference between the two is that McCasters achieves success in New York and not Dallas, nor for that matter any other city in the Lonestar state.
Environmentalism and Giant
The ecological implications of Texas’s modernising come to a head in Giant (1956), as director George Stevens pits the values of ranching and the oil industry directly against one another, in what is surely cinema’s most influential representation of the changes rung out in Texas as a consequence of oil. Premiering in 1956 at Dallas’ Majestic Theatre, Giant set new attendance records in Texas for an opening week, while the commercial success of the film quickly transformed into a cultural phenomenon which permeated all areas of Texas life. High school football brass bands added the film’s theme tune to their repertoires and the music soon became one of the state’s unofficial anthems. When John Connally successfully ran for the position of state’s governor in 1961, he acknowledged Giant as his favourite film and played its soundtrack at his campaign rallies.15 In early scenes, an impoverished orphan named Jett Rink (James Dean) is seen to endure childhood abuse from a wealthy family of ranchers, the Benedicts. Years later, Bick Benedict (Rock Hudson) has taken control of the Benedict family’s cattle empire and is left dumbfounded when his deceased sister wills Jett a small portion of the Benedict holding. After some effort, Jett successfully extracts oil from beneath his plot and is instantly transformed into an ultra-rich oil tycoon. Jett then prevails upon Bick to drill the rest of the family plot. Without a next generation Benedict willing to succeed him in managing the ranch, Bick reluctantly agrees. Bick is plagued throughout the film by a sense of lost legacy. This begins with his son dying during World War II and is compounded following the ill-fated decision to convert the family’s idyllic ranch, Reata, into an industrial drilling site.
When Stevens read the Edna Ferber novel on which Giant is based, the director saw the potential to make “a Southwestern Gone with the Wind … a drama about human nature that was set against the inexorable forces of historical change in America.”16 A period of intense upheaval is registered in the film through the outbreak of World War II, the generational loss of the conflict and the industrial restructuring of the US during the postwar period. Giant also effectively acknowledges changes which were specific to Texas, examining the transition from ranching and agriculture into the oil industry and then the implications of the first oil boom coming to an end. Giant effectively switches between a range of socio-political scales, as everyday life in a small community is shaped by the actions and interactions of a few highly influential locals, as well as by the fluctuating state of the national economy and events occurring in distant corners of the globe. Change is also registered on a geographical level, as rural environments are subjugated to the demands of the oil industry. Scenes set on the Benedict ranch were shot on location in Marfa in west Texas and capture the panoramic views of the region breathtakingly, with the family’s grand mansion representing the only vertical form in cinematographer William C. Mellow’s wide-angle camerawork. This changes when Jett and Bick erect their drills later in the film, as Marfa’s countryside landscapes are violently disrupted. Looming metal constructs upset the balance of the image, divide Marfa’s horizons and impose a manmade materiality on what was previously an unspoilt rural environment. Bick’s decision to repurpose Reata and destroy the family’s countryside land becomes symbolic of wider environmental degradation in Texas. Oil extraction, pipelining and refinement led to the mass-modification of natural environments. Added to this, the industry produced harmful emissions when oil was converted to kerosene, adding to the pollution levels caused by the consumption of petrochemical fuels. In every regard, oil posed a very real and direct threat to the integrity of the natural world. Thus, Bick’s choice to convert his rural land into an industrial drilling site is loaded with state-specific implications and carries within it an entire history of environmental decision making in the state of Texas.
Before being drawn into the industry, Bick bemoans oil as a filthy business that marks the end of the state he knows and loves. The Texas that Bick identifies with is grounded in the values of ranching, family and community, all of which oil threatens to dismantle. When Jett first strikes his gusher, he is showered from head to toe in oil. He drives in a jalopy to the Benedict mansion where he strides onto the porch and attempts to manhandle and kiss Bick’s wife, Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor). Following his sudden upturn in fortune, Jett immediately considers himself the rightful owner of everything he desires and boldly stakes his claim, leaving oily foot and handprints on the mansion’s white steps and Leslie’s dress. As is the case with Boom Town, the wealth and power brought about by oil are equated with the objectification of women, the corruption of family values and a broader sense of moral dissipation. An enraged Bick punches Jett back down into the dirt, which the audience can infer is where a poor ranch hand belongs.
In later scenes, Stevens finally locates the Texas oil movie in the Texan city. Jett opens a hotel in Austin, the seat of political power in Texas, where every glass, tanker, towel and bed sheet is monogramed with Jett’s initials, J.R. (the writers of television series Dallas likely referenced this when naming their own protagonist). The hotel’s gala night is a catastrophe, as a heavily intoxicated Jett orders his waiters not to serve a Mexican guest. Bick, who is seen to intervene in racially motivated attacks on several occasions throughout the film, later challenges Jett to a fight. Seeing that his adversary is too drunk to defend himself, Bick pulls the shelves of Jett’s wine cellar to the ground and leaves. Jett staggers back up to the hotel’s dining room to discover his guests have left. As he sinks into the head seat of the table alone, it is clear that for Jett – just like the jet of oil that initiated his ascent – whatever goes up must come down. Bick is also left forlorn in the film’s final scenes, as Reata’s transformation leaves a scar on both the countryside and his conscience. Bick really does love his land in early scenes and when he laments its loss in later stages, so too does the film’s audience.
My analysis of the oil movie has shown that the early years of Texas oil saw a proliferation of films which performed the perfunctory task of establishing a cohesive set of formal and thematic tropes. These films met an urgent need to acknowledge oil’s sudden impact in all areas of Texas life and subsequently had a hasty, thrown-together feel. However, just as the chaotic years of wildcatting eventually gave way to a more accomplished industrial era, orchestrated by the big oil companies, the Texas oil movie soon developed from its rough, formative stages into a polished and familiar film cycle. This transformation had to do with the growth of Hollywood’s own big companies and the studio system’s refinement of the core forms of US cinema, the Texas oil movie being a small but nevertheless important example. Stevens builds on the foundations provided by antecedent oil movies and examines the social and environmental implications of Texas oil with a depth that (in my view) has not yet been matched in cinematic history. Bick, Jett and the film’s other central characters provide paradigmatic examples through which the effects of oil on life in Texas are measured. The implications of oil seem to be resoundingly negative, as the pursuit of oil wealth sees relationships, empires and landscapes blindly torn apart. Graham goes so far as to claim oil to be the “villain of the piece”, finding it inexplicable that a film about oil’s obliteration of traditional Texan values is so popular amongst Texans.17 However, I see no reason why a film which clarifies the problems of oil should not resonate with Texans. If anything, the reverse is true. In helping the state’s residents confront and process the industry’s negative effects, Giant has proven to be one of cinema’s most poignantTexas films.
Giant acknowledges that the growth of the oil industry obligated the development of rural environments and inflicted considerable damage on the natural world. The vast majority of Texans were either poorly informed of this, or for those in the know, were willing to tolerate it because of the economic and political perks that came with the industry’s expansion. Nonetheless, it is a compromise which has cut to the very heart of the state’s identity. Giant provides its audience with an emotionally charged cultural space in which to engage in a process of mourning for the rural environments that have been degraded by oil’s industrial growth. The success of Giant in Texas indicates that the upheaval brought about by this process constitutes a reality that the state’s citizens have felt the need to reflect on. It is precisely this kind of unflinching self-reflection that the current environmental crisis in Texas calls for. Much like Bick, the state cannot retract its deal with the devil and have back its unspoilt environments.
- David McComb, The City in Texas (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2015), p. 1. ↩
- Timothy Clark, The Value of Ecocriticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), p. 92. ↩
- Diana Davids Hinton and Roger M. Olien, Oil in Texas: The Gusher Age, 1895-1945 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002), p. viii. ↩
- David Ingram, “The Aesthetics and Ethics of Eco-Film Criticism,” In Ecocinema Theory and Practice, ed. Stephen Rust et al. (London: Routledge, 2013), p. 58. ↩
- Pete A. Y. Gunter and Max Oelschlaeger, Texas Land Ethics (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997), p. ix. ↩
- Quoted in Donald Graham, Cowboys and Cadillacs: How Hollywood Looks at Texas (Austin: Texas Monthly Press, 1983), p. 56. ↩
- Ecclesiastes 5:10, Acts 4:32, Matthew 19:21, Mark 8:36, Luke 12:15, Hebrews 13:5, Proverbs 11:4, Colossians 3:5 etc. ↩
- Genesis 2:15. ↩
- Roger M Olien, “Oil and Gas Industry,” The Texas State Historical Association Handbook of Texas Online, accessed December 8, 2020. ↩
- “Historical Population: 1900 to 2017 City of Houston,” City of Houston, accessed January 8, 2020. ↩
- Kirkpatrick Sale, Power Shift: The Rise of the Southern Rim and its Challenge to the Eastern Establishment (Toronto: Random House, 1975), p. 5. ↩
- Ibid ↩
- Ibid, 8 ↩
- Graham, Cowboys and Cadillacs, p. 58. ↩
- Ibid, 64 ↩
- “‘Giant’ Press Kit,” Press Kits, Collection 42, Box 131, Folder 14, University of California, Los Angeles, Charles E. Young Library Special Collections, p, 3. ↩
- Graham, Cowboys and Cadillacs, p. 62 ↩