Giant was the 1956 film adaptation of Edna Ferber’s epic novel of the same name. Ferber’s 1952 best seller was about an enterprise reportedly modeled after the legendary King Ranch of south Texas. The film tells the story of a ranching family (the Benedicts) in Texas, along with their romances and conflicts, set in the early to the mid 1900s. The project was bankrolled by Warner Brothers with George Stevens as director. The script was adapted by Fred Guiol who had worked with Stephens before. Original music was composed by Dimitri Tiomkin, who already had amassed a lengthy and impressive resume even by 1955.
The studio assembled a strong cast of actors including Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean, Carroll Baker, Chill Wills (thought to be the only Texan among those on this list), Mercedes McCambridge, Jane Withers, Sal Mineo, Dennis Hopper, Rod Taylor, Earl Holliman and Elsa Cardenas. A good bit of the Texas filming was done on location in Marfa along with additional filming in Valentine.
(Image credit: Warner Brothers, Inc.)
Marfa was chosen over other Texas locations for the bulk of the shooting. An oil well, the facade of a ranch house and other structures were built. A number of locals were hired to be extras in the film, or to assist in other ways. Stevens allowed local people to come to the location to watch the process, and many did.
The facade of the ranch house was shipped in by rail and assembled on a local ranch some twenty-one miles out of town. It was only a shell lashed to telephone poles anchored in the ground and consisted of three walls that provided a view of the front and sides. It had no interior and interior scenes were shot at the Warner Brothers studio in California. For many years, the facade of the ranch house could be seen from the roadway, but eventually was allowed to deteriorate and fall apart.
Not all of the “actors” were human. One was a one-ton Brangus bull by the name of Snuffy. One of the plot tangents was that Rock Hudson’s character was trying to improve the ranch’s herd by bringing in a more hardy breed of cattle. Snuffy, a mixed breed animal, part Angus and part Brahman, was rented from the ranch of Raymond Pope of Vinita, Oklahoma. Snuffy was renamed King Tut for the film. Raymond Pope was a cattleman who had cross bred Brangus for a number of years. Reportedly, Snuffy/King Tut even needed a stand in, since even though he only had short exposure in the final cut of the film, he would refuse to stand after the lengthy takes. Pope made personal appearances with Snuffy after the film was released.
After filming was completed, Stevens edited it for almost a year before its theatrical release in 1956. Actor James Dean would be lauded for his role as handyman/oilman Jett Rink. Giant was Dean’s third film where he would have a starring role following Rebel Without a Cause and East of Eden, both released in 1955. He was just beginning to become known as a leading actor. Dean was born Marion, Indiana. He briefly lived in California before returning to finish high school in Indiana. Dean attended college and began working in theater and taking acting lessons. He had finished his part of the filming in Giant and was on his way to a racing event in California when his Porsche Speedster collided with another vehicle at an intersection near Cholame, California. A passenger survived but Dean sustained fatal injuries and was pronounced dead on arrival at a nearby hospital on September 30, 1955.
The film premiered in New York City on October 10, 1956 and had its nationwide release about five weeks later. Shot on a budget of over five million dollars, it easily earned more than this amount in film rentals on its initial release. The following spring, it was nominated for ten Academy Awards and received one Oscar for Best Director. It remained Warner Brothers highest grossing film until the 1970s when it was overtaken by The Exorcist.
For a number of years, Giant was the most significant event to happen in Marfa. The town also received a bit of notoriety in the early 1980s when a thoroughbred race horse was named Marfa. As a colt, Marfa had some early success and appeared on its way to compete in the Kentucky Derby. Owned by Clarence Scharbauer, Jr, and foaled April 24, 1980 out of Foolish Pleasure and Gray Matter, Marfa was trained by Wayne Lukas and raced until he was three years old. After retiring from racing, Marfa sired twenty-four stakes winners including Farma Way which had winnings of $2.8 million, more successful than Marfa had ever been. Marfa died in 2001.
Since the filming of Giant, a number of other films have been shot in the Marfa area including No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood and Fandango. In the latter film, five college friends from the University of Texas make a pilgrimage of sorts to Marfa to see the facade of the ranch house from Giant before they are to ship off to Vietnam. These three films are likely the best known to date, but an amazing total of over four dozen films now list Marfa among their filming locations.
Giant is celebrated for bringing to light racial discrimination against those of Mexican descent, also a major theme in Ferber’s novel. A documentary called Children of Giant was filmed to discuss racial issues. In the production, released on PBS, appears George Washington Valenzuela who had previously sung the National Anthem as an extra in the original film Giant. Also released on PBS, Texan Kirby F. Warnock filmed his documentary Return to Giant, narrated by Don Henley, which provides interesting insights into the making of the film. If you are a fan of this film, it would be worth it to obtain a copy of Warnock’s documentary, currently offered as a special feature of some enhanced DVDs of the film.
Plot themes include the cycles of ranching, the use of land for oil and gas production as opposed to ranching, the effects of privilege and poverty on relationships, the impact of wealth on individuals, family legacy, family infighting, social change, racism and racial tension, romance and jealousy. In short, there is likely something for everyone. Even now, more than sixty years since its release, the film still seems relevant. Giant has a lasting legacy in film and will be remembered for its high quality and for the timely themes that it presented.
© 2018, all rights reserved.