Edna Ferber wasn’t the greatest writer in the literary pantheon, but in “Giant” she created the template for a movie that became the iconic treatment of the high-flying, risk-taking Texas oil business; even the TV series “Dallas,” as wildly popular as it was, couldn’t entirely displace George Stevens’ lumbering 1956 epic in people’s minds. The classic status of the movie is not remotely threatened by Ty Roberts’ “The Iron Orchard,” an ambitious but blowsy tale that gushes out not so much Texas tea as Hollywood cliché.
Actually what the movie, an adaptation of a 1966 novel by Edmund Van Zandt, Jr. (published under the pseudonym Tom Pendleton) that was loosely based on his own family history, tries to be is a sort of oilfield “Citizen Kane,” focusing on the rise and fall of a young man out to conquer his West Texas world despite his lowly background. The fellow is Jim McNeely (Lane Garrison), who arrives at a Permian Basin facility of the Bison Oil Company in 1939 to join the construction crew there—a miserable job, made more so by the brutal treatment he receives from most of his low-life co-workers
The reason why this clean-cut but depressed guy has taken such a rotten job is explained in some awkward flashbacks: he was in love with beautiful Mazie Wales (Hassie Harrison), but her snooty mother (Shelley Calene-Black), a grande dame of Fort Worth society, told him he wasn’t good enough for her daughter. Taking the rejection badly, he takes the gig partially to debase himself, but also to earn the cash that he can use to work his way up the oil business ladder—or pipeline, if you prefer.
He succeeds, though not without having to prove himself against the cruel crew chief (Gregory Kelly), and saves enough money to get into wildcatting. He also gains a wife, Lee (Ali Cobrin). She’s actually married already, but unhappily to the company engineer, and it doesn’t take much for her to fall into Jim’s arms. (In fact, their romance is glided over in a few stilted scenes before she decides to go off with him.)
Jim’s one of those ambitious sorts whose false bravado persuades investors to back his ventures—though they’re not quite as risky as they might be, because he’s befriended Barry (Allan McLeod), a geologist with a knack for identifying promising drilling sites. Before long McNeely Oil is riding high, and Jim and Lee have broken into the Fort Worth society that had previously dismissed him. Of course, his change of fortune also reintroduces him to Mazie, and he proves an unfaithful husband, with sad consequences for his marriage.
Nor do his business dealings continue their upward trajectory. He overextends himself badly, and ultimately is deep in debt and unable to raise the funds he needs to stay afloat. His desperate efforts to push his final well to come in before he’s totally bankrupt have dire consequences. Can he be redeemed?
As this hackneyed narrative progresses, Roberts provides McNeely with a supportive friend who watches his ups and downs with increasing concern—Dent Paxton (Austin Nichols), who might be compared to Joseph Cotton’s Jed Leland. (He’s of course given a big disillusionment scene toward the close.)
You have to admire Roberts’ chutzpah in trying to bring a period piece like this to the screen on a limited budgeted, and his craft crew obviously worked hard to get the details right. Some of the music choices, to be sure, are anachronistic, but Mars Feehery’s production design, Juliana Hoffpauir’s costumes and Mary Goodson’s set decoration are impressive, though they never achieve a truly “lived in” look. (The classic cars, for instance, look as if their owners’ protective sheets had just been removed.) Mathieu Plainfossé has contributed lustrous widescreen cinematography.
The important elements, however, are subpar. Whatever the virtues of the book might be, Gerry De Leon’s screenplay is rife with clumsy transitions and jejune dialogue, accentuated by Roberts’ lackluster direction. And the performances don’t help. Garrison makes Larry Hagman look like a master thespian; his shifts from hero to villain are laughable, and his drunk scenes worse. The others are less problematic, and there are some amusing cameos (like Gil Prather as the Gabby Hayes-type fellow who gives McNeely his first lease); but under Roberts’ dead hand many of them appear to be more interested in wearing the costumes without doing them harm than in creating credible characters. (Of course, that doesn’t apply to the guys wearing the grubby garb in the oilfield scenes at the start.)
One would actually like to support ambitious independent projects like this one, which was shot in West Texas—Midland and Big Spring—as well as Fort Worth and Austin. In terms oil men like those depicted here would have understood, however, “The Iron Orchard” turns out to be a dry hole.