OIL FIELD FILMS
Boom Town (1940) film poster
Movies about the discovery and production of oil are usually a subgenre of the Western and often take place in Oklahoma or Texas. From Boom Town (1940), with Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable, to Stars Fell on Henrietta (1995), with Robert Duvall and Aidan Quinn, the tale of the adventuring wildcatter is always a popular theme. Giant (1956) is the best known. Oil production films can start in the Great Plains and go anywhere in the world: Hellfighters (1968), Local Hero (1983), and the Imax production of Fires of Kuwait are examples. Oil field scenes and plot devices also appear in other films such as Cimarron (1931), Hud (1963), and The Last Picture Show (1971).
Since U.S. oil fields and movies are both about a hundred years old, they have coexisted and interacted. Speculators in oil and film know that the odds of bringing in a gusher or a blockbuster are about the same. A great monetary risk is involved; however, in the oil fields as well as the movie studios, the love of the game is supreme. The continuing players love the process and the romance of the search for big-time success.
From silent films to talkies and from black and white to color, oil has been a popular mid-American subject. It is part of the lore of the Plains pioneers. The movies often depict the cattle ranchers versus the sheepmen, farmers, trainmen, and finally oilmen. In many stories of later times (Hud, Stars Fell on Henrietta, and Oklahoma Crude, released in 1973), the rancher must find oil on his property in order to survive because the land has been fenced and the railroads have taken over from the cattle drives. Some of the land has dried up and been farmed out, and the Plains ecosystems have deteriorated. Oil will be the salvation of the entrepreneur and his family.
Women wildcatters sometimes take over as oil prospectors. In Tulsa (1949) Susan Hayward goes for oil to avenge the death of her cattle rancher father, and in Waltz across Texas (1982) Anne Archer is a modern-day geologist looking for oil and finding romance. In Lucy Gallant (1955) Jane Wyman plays the title role of a woman who finds success in selling expensive dresses to the women of an oil town. One line of gowns is even in the colors of oil. Charlton Heston is the love-interest rancher who becomes an oilman.
Since these films are Westerns, the men and women in the oil business are tough and aggressive, coming from strong pioneer stock. Because wealth is at stake, they are clever and conniving. They work hard and play hard at very high emotional levels of romance and adventure. Their fortunes may wax and wane with many highs and lows; however, they survive with great determination and effort. Oil is the black gold, which has a great attraction, and whether they are searching, drilling, hauling, selling, or putting out fires, it is always exciting on the motion picture screen.
Donald E. Staples University of North Texas
Graham, Don. Cowboys and Cadillacs. Austin: Texas Monthly Press, 1983.