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7 Things We Learned About Texas from the Movies

Everything’s bigger in Texas, including the cinematic stereotypes.
Hell Or High Water Porch texas
By  · Published on March 11th, 2017

There are countless movies about and set in Texas, and collectively they show us a certain picture of the second-largest state in America. Many also specifically tell us or show us something about Texas that sticks in our minds, whether it’s true or false or exaggerated or a stereotype. Below are seven things that I think of when I think of the state, as an outsider who has physically visited the place many times but who has many more times virtually experienced a depiction of the place. Is there anything else you’ve “learned” about Texas from the movies (and maybe TV)? Is there anything that, as a Texan, you think the movies get terribly wrong? Share below.

1. There’s no basement at the Alamo

They say to remember the Alamo, and anybody who grew up in the ’80s does, thanks to Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and its famous fact about the landmark being without a subterranean floor. Poor Pee-wee Herman was not only lied to and traveled long distance to learn this fact, but he was also laughed at for even asking. The interesting thing is that today there are actually two basements at the Alamo, sort of, one under the visitor’s center gift shop where fudge is made and one under Alamo Hall.

2. Texans wear cowboy hats

If you want to spot the Texan in a movie not set in Texas, he’s the one with the cowboy hat. In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, you don’t need to be told the American suitor, Quincey P. Morris, is from Texas. Obviously he is, because he’s got that hat. Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy is clearly from Texas with his hat, too. Slim Pickens’s Major “King” Kong in Dr. Strangelove has a cowboy hat as he iconically rides that bomb. You bet he’s a Texan. “Cowboy” in Full Metal Jacket might not ever actually wear a hat in the movie, but the screenplay describes him as wearing one. Of course, tons of Texans in movies set in Texas wear the hat, as well.

3. Texans are always trying to move on

Git along, little dogies should be the motto of Texas, not for the literal ranchers moving their cattle across a pasture or way up to Missouri but for the temporal movement that has seen the state change so much over the last few centuries. The land has been famously ruled over by six flags/nations, and the image of the traditional Old West cowboys to the oil tycoon through to the modern more-muddled mix of what a (stereo)typical Texan looks like, it’s no wonder so many Texas movies are about characters rejecting what came before or just conflicting with elder generations. You find them in the cattle business-to-oil business story of Giant, the father vs. son and tradition vs. progress story of Hud, the kids against authority figures (and older kids) in Dazed and Confused, the fresh youths with big city dreams coming of age against the backdrop of the dying small town of The Last Picture Show, the generational shifts of power hinted at in the recent Hell or High Water. Texas is an ever-changing place, as recognized by the movies, though it’s surprising nobody ever makes sci-fi films imagining whatever its future might look like.

4. Friday nights are reserved for high school football

Everyone in Texas loves football, whether it’s the Dallas Cowboys, the college teams, or the local high school players, the last of which draw whole tons out on a Friday night. Actually, not all games are played under titular Friday Night Lights, and maybe the obsession with football of all levels seen in everything from the high school-set Varsity Blues and Dazed and Confused to Lone Star is neither found in all Texans nor is it exclusive to Texans. Still, there is a reason many of those high school teams play in venues bigger than some university stadiums in other parts of the country.

5. Cheerleading is a pretty big deal, too

While the main focus of the football games is what’s occurring between the end zones, outside the sidelines is another major athletic pastime for Texans: cheerleading. And the pressures that come with being on a squad, needing to be good enough to both fit in and stand out, seems to get to a number of those young women. And on the other side, as does the ego of being a part of such an elite group. Lifetime’s Fab Five: The Texas Cheerleader Scandal shows us one real squad that got out of hand with the power they had at their North Texas high school. Topping them are the cheerleaders of Sugar & Spice, also based on real people, who commit armed robberies. And when it’s not the girls themselves losing it, it’s their moms. Sure, it was only one woman desperate to get her daughter on a squad who inspired both Willing to Kill: The Texas Cheerleader Story and The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom, but there being two movies about the same true crime story made it look like a common thing.

6. True crime is a huge reality for Texas

It’s not surprising that the state of the Zapruder film and Bonnie and Clyde’s origins should be heavy with true crime stories, but the genre might dominate Texas’s cinematic representation a little too much. The majority of well-known documentaries set there include tales of murder and the death penalty, such as The Thin Blue Line, The Imposter, Into the Abyss (and the rest of Werner Herzog’s On Death Row series), and The Jinx, and then there are the dramas based on true crimes, like Bernie, JFK, The Town That Dreaded Sundown, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Murder in Texas, A Killing in a Small Town, Bed of Lies, and of course the aforementioned cheerleader-murdering mom movies. We could maybe count The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. You’d think everyone in Texas was either a murderer or eventually a murder victim.

7. You really don’t want to drive through rural Texas

Speaking of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, even though the movie is based on a killer in Wisconsin, the title unfortunately takes the Lone Star State down to imply the middle-of-nowhere rural parts of Texas in particular are bad places to find yourself in. Weird inbred hillbillies live out there and murder anyone who get lost along their way. Even without ridiculous chainsaw-wielding, human-skin-masked murders being real, though, there’s so much open road still in the state that you just never know. Maybe you’ll run into some troublemakers who’ll rape and murder your loved ones, a la the story inside the story of the recent Nocturnal Animals, or maybe you’ll just not be able to find a Whataburger for miles. Best to stick to the cities, of which Texas has a lot, and they’re mostly bigger than you think, too.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.