The 37th annual CineFestival kicked off Saturday night in a “Giant” sort of way. The crowd quickly filled up the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center‘s theater for a reception and world premiere screening of Hector Galan’s new documentary, “Children of Giant.”
The film chronicles an intriguing story of how the classic, award-winning 1956 movie, “Giant,” was made and its impact on those involved, the town of Marfa, and the American movie-making scene. Former San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros provided narration for “Children of Giant,” as he has done for some of Galan’s previous documentary programs about Latino history and culture. Cisneros was present for the screening, as were Galan and CineFestival director Jim Mendiola.
“Giant,” based upon Edna Ferber’s novel, is a sprawling epic that spans generations. But at its core is a trio of powerful characters, played then by equally powerful Hollywood stars: “Bick” Benedict, head of a wealthy Texas ranching family (Rock Hudson); Bick’s wife Leslie Lynnton, formerly an East Coast socialite (Elizabeth Taylor) who learns to assert herself into her new world; and ranch hand Jett Rink (James Dean) who pines for Leslie while dreaming of finding his own fortune.
Much of “Giant” was filmed in and around the West Texas town of Marfa. Many locals were extras in the movie. A production crew built Victorian-style mansion facade, which depicted the Reata mansion, home to the Benedicts and their ranch that measured more than half a million acres. Galan’s documentary opens and closes with shots of the ruins of the Reata mansion set, now just a wooden frame and piles of rubble surrounded by miles of desert.
Like the novel, the movie “Giant” is known for its portrayal of racist attitudes that Anglo-Americans held against Mexican-Americans, and the forms of social segregation that Hispanics endured pre-modern civil rights era. Early in the plot, Bick and his sister, Luz, treat Mexican ranch workers condescendingly, which upsets a socially aware Leslie. Leslie becomes more aware of the plight of local Mexican-Americans through her encounters with Jett, who early on shows her the conditions in which the Mexican workers live. Leslie even tends to one of the young Mexican children, Angel Obregon.
With the passage of time and the arrival of social changes around him, Bick wises up and improves his treatment of Mexican Americans, especially after his son Jordan (Dennis Hopper) marries a woman of Mexican descent, Juana (Elsa Cardenas). Bick finally turns a corner when, toward the film’s end, he ends up in a diner with his family, which now embraces Juana and includes a Hispanic grandson. This angers the diner owner, who also sees a separate trio of Mexicans enter his establishment and threatens to eject them. An argument between Bick and the diner owner turns into a fistfight, a fight that Bick loses physically but winds up a winner in his family’s eyes, because he stood up for them in the face of prejudice.
Contrasting scenes that reflect racial disparity of the time include a huge, jubilant turnout for an Anglo member of Bick’s family who returns home from World War II. An adult Angel Obregon enlists with the U.S. Army, but is killed in action. His remains in a flag-draped casket return home to a sobering atmosphere, where only a handful of Mexican-Americans are present for Obregon’s military funeral. But Bick pays his respects in person. In another scene, staff at a hotel insults Juana even though she is visibly present with Jordan Benedict.
Even movie practices, back then, could be seen now as insensitive. Warner Bros., the studio behind “Giant,” insisted the actors playing Mexicans-Americans be darker on film to distinguish themselves from their Anglo counterparts. Artists applied dark makeup to Cardenas’ face in preparation for her scenes.
Galan’s film contains vintage photos, amateur movies and letters from cast and crewmembers who recalled their interactions with Hudson, Taylor and Dean, and how the movie production unfolded around Marfa. A few pictures show Dean smiling and posing with locals; perhaps the most powerful image being of him, in movie set attire, sitting on the ground with two young Mexican-American children.
Even now, there are remnants of segregation in the Marfa area, as “Children of Giant” explains. The movie “Giant” included a local cemetery where Anglo individuals were buried separately from Mexican/Hispanic individuals, divided by a fence. Only recently have the property owners relocated the fence to provide more space for the burial of locals, particularly Hispanics.
“Children of Giant” also briefly talks about efforts to preserve the Blackwell school, a historic Hispanic schoolhouse that was in operation from 1889 to 1965. It was there that students ensured racism from teachers. Students continuing to speak Spanish, specifically, angered Anglo teachers. One teacher had once demanded student Joe Cabezuela, now an advocate for preservation of the schoolhouse, to return to Mexico if he was to keep speaking Spanish. Cabezuela recalled that he simply responded to the teacher he had never been to Mexico, that was he was born in the states.
The teachers also symbolically tried to “eliminate” Spanish vocabulary by literally burying in the ground a small coffin-like box. The box contained pieces of paper on which the students wrote Spanish words and phrases. Recently, locals excavated the box for removal.
Audience members laughed, gasped and even cheered during parts of “Children of Giant.” Following the screening, Cisneros said he remembered the level of excitement people had when “Giant” first premiered in his childhood. But he then was not able to comprehend the more serious subplots and social commentary.
“I remember it had such spectacular character, but I didn’t realize all the nuances. I think the social commentary is very correct in its analysis,” Cisneros said. “Now I want to read the book.”
Cisneros said both “Giant” and “Children of Giant” can help a contemporary audience relate to a difficult time in Latino culture and history.
“I’m proud to be associated with this work. I’m happy Hector thinks I can lend my talents and contribute to something special,” he added.
Galan called the director of “Giant,” George Stevens, a visionary. Stevens was a filmmaker who enlisted with the Army during WWII. He saw firsthand the horrors that the Nazis carried out in concentration camps. That experience, according to “Children of Giant,” compelled Stevens to consider future cinematic works that explored issues such as racism. “Giant” would be one of those works and by far his largest.
“As I started to see (“Giant”) later, I saw more of the issues (racism, sacrifices made by Mexican-Americans). I tried to balance both of those here,” Galan said. Galan and his colleagues spent three years putting together “Children of Giant.” Already researching the topic of segregated schools and the growth of Mexican-American culture early in the last century, Galan found out about the Blackwell school and its role in the history of Marfa and in “Giant.”
Keep tabs on essential San Antonio news with our FREE daily newsletter
“The movie was reflective of what was happening at the time. I was able to correlate the two (historical trends),” he added.
“Children of Giant” will premiere on television April 17 as part of the PBS series “Voces.” Galan said he has not yet gotten official feedback from anyone in Marfa about “Children of Giant,” but he plans to show the film there.
“I have to see what happens when they see the movie in Marfa,” Galan said. “I hope the powers that be will be moved and will tear down that cemetery fence. It’s a reminder of the separateness.”
The variety of feature films, shorts and other documentaries in this year’s CineFestival continue through Feb. 28 at the Guadalupe Theater. Visit www.cinefestivalsa.com for more information.
*Featured/top image: CineFestival director Jim Mendiola (left) was among those attending a party following the world premiere of the documentary, “Children of Giant,” on Saturday at the Guadalupe Theater. The movie kicked off the 37th CineFestival. Photo by Edmond Ortiz.