Welcome to Intelligent Travel's latest column, written by John Ur, which will map out some of the best movie sites across the 50 states. Every week, we’ll look at a state (or portion of a large state) and find the best landscape cinema for you to experience before embarking on a trip of your own.
West Texas stretches on for miles and miles...and miles.
Driving from El Paso southeast towards Big Bend National Park, I imagined at least 15 different pastimes I would enjoy more than driving through western Texas. The most drastic visual picture on that landscape was the gas station where we stopped in Alpine. Beyond the asphalt lies plains and rolling hills, and more plains and more rolling hills.
To understand the vastness of Texas, you must realize that is the largest state in the lower 48, about 100,000 square miles larger than California. For an East Coast boy raised in New Jersey, a state about 1/30th the size of Texas, the idea that I would drive for 6, 8, 10, 12 hours and not pass through at least four other states was daunting. Even more daunting would be to try to identify the landscape and feel of the entire state in one post. For this reason, I’ll just focus on West Texas here. More specifically, Big Bend Country.
Recently, there were two films based in West Texas that I believe hit the nail on the deserted region’s head. The Coen brothers' current masterpiece, No Country for Old Men, though gripping and gruesome in its drama, opens with some of the best lonesome shots of this area that is largely dominated by the Chihuahuan Desert. The hills in the opening sequence are poked with cacti and low-growing shrubs. The sun, unfiltered by trees or clouds, batters the dry soil and any who dare to roam below. According to a recent interview with the Coen brothers, the only Texas locations were shot around Marfa. The rest of the film was shot in Las Vegas (New Mexico) and Mexico. Paul Thomas Anderson's recently released period epic, There Will Be Blood, was also shot around Marfa.
Interestingly enough, the other film that I would recommend seeing also stars Tommy Lee Jones, a Texas native and resident, who pulled double duty as director. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada takes place mostly in West Texas as two men and a corpse make a journey south to Mexico. It includes scenes in Big Bend National Park, which I would argue is a hidden jewel of our national park system.
As Pete Perkins (Jones) takes the body of Melquiades Estrada back to Mexico, he and Mike Norton (played by Barry Pepper) cross the Rio Grande through Santa Elena Canyon (pictured, right) which is a great one-hour hike in the Park (just don't cross to the Mexican side here or you'll have some park authorities to answer to!). With mountains and rivers leaping out of the desert and beautiful weather stretching late into the fall and early winter, Big Bend can be visited at off-peak travel times to get a true sense of the isolation there and witness the otherworldly landscape.
Looking for other films about or shot in Texas? Check out this list from Pajiba.com (though it was compiled in 2006 and also left out Lonestar). The Texas Film Commission maintains a list on their site as well. Other great West Texas movies you'd like to recommend? Leave us a note in the comments below.
Photos: John Ur