Texas Giant: New Documentary Focuses on Film’s Legacy

Modern Tejana's take on Children of Giant on PBS

Giant is a Texas classic. It’s one of those enormous films that secured its place in movie history (and on the AFI top 100 movies) by combining the glamorous illusions of Hollywood storytelling with the sometimes grim reality of American life.

The story (to pardon the cliché) was as big as Texas. So, it seems fitting that a documentary that explores its legacy, focus not on the three stars (Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Husdon and James Dean) but on the people, the Tejanos, who set the stage for the film’s understanding of life in mid-century small-town Texas.

Children of Giant is filmmaker Hector Gálan’s journey through the making and legacy of the film some 60 years after it was first released. Giant, based on Edna Ferber’s novel, told the story of the Benedicts, a powerful ranching family in Marfa, but it also took an unblinking look at the dichotomy of what it meant to be Texan for people like the Benedicts and, too, for the larger population of mostly poor Mexican-Americans. It pulled few punches in its depiction of outright racism, and those social norms and lines drawn in the sand that are not to be crossed.

Elsa_Past_1cropGálan went back to Marfa to interview those who lived through Giant. Some had been cast as extras, others as members of the crew, and others simply remember the impact the film made on their young lives.

They lived in a society divided, where restaurants could, and did, discriminate against Mexicans. It was the Jim Crow south, after all, and Marfa was a place where even the cemetery was segregated. So meeting James Dean, or seeing Elizabeth Taylor (arguably the world’s biggest star of the time) was an unbelievable occurrence. It was something out of the normal realm of possibility when even getting served at the local diner was unlikely.

Residents had to toe a fine line – meeting expectations to act American while being punished for being Mexican. They lived in a place that asked them to bury their heritage, literally. Some recall one morning, when a 7th grade teacher asked her students of Mexican descent to write Spanish words on slips of paper, put those papers in a small box and burry the box on the school grounds. This was life.

The film openly explored that racial tension and heartbreaking inequality.

Elsa_Current_2That’s not to say that the film’s depictions of Mexicans were always on point. Actress Elsa Cardenas, from Mexico, was cast to play Juana, the Mexican-American wife to the Benedict’s son. A light-skinned actress with sparkling green eyes, Cardenas was covered in dark makeup to fit the idea of what a Mexican looked like.

In another instance, resident Joe Cabezuela, who would be an extra on the film, told his mother he was going to be in the movie Giant his mother ran out and bought him brand new clothes. But that’s not what the filmmakers wanted to see, he remembers. They didn’t want to see scrubbed up children in their Sunday best. They wanted barefoot children, women in long black braids, and men who worked in the dirt.

On the set of GiantThrough Children of Giant, Gálan reveals that while the movie gave townspeople a peek into the excitement of movie-making, it gave viewers their first taste of Texas. And, what they saw was grand, and real. Giant painted an indelible portrait of a mythic place and of two peoples, both Texans and both deserving of having their stories told.

Children of Giant was the opening film of Cinefestival, the San Antonio Film Festival. It’s also the season opener of PBS’ VOCES, Friday, April 17.

Lead image courtesy of Richard C. Miller

Historic image of Elsa Cardenas courtesy of Courtesy of the George Stevens Collection

Image of Elsa Cardenas present day courtesy of Galan Productions.

© 2015 Modern Tejana LLC, All Rights Reserved

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