Stephen F. Austin State University

Texas Oil in the Movies (August 2016)


By Judith Linsley

We're familiar with Texas oil movie stereotypes: the maverick wildcatter who makes (and loses) a fortune, the struggling farmer who strikes oil on his land and thwarts the ruthless banker, the veteran drillers who daily risk death, and the loyal wife who stands by her husband. Truth to tell, they're often based on real people and events.

Take the wildcatter. In the movie "Giant," Jett Rink (James Dean) is the poor ranch hand who mortgages everything to drill a well on his land. Just as he's completely broke, a huge gusher roars in and he's rich.

Pattillo Higgins and Anthony Lucas sank all their money into unsuccessful wells at Spindletop, near Beaumont. When Lucas finally borrowed enough money to drill one last well, he and his crew nearly gave up several times, but something or someone-like Lucas' loyal, determined wife Carrie-convinced them to continue. Just like Jett Rink, they got a gusher-the Lucas Gusher on January 10, 1901.

"The Stars Fell on Henrietta," features a grizzled wildcatter, Mr. Cox (Robert Duvall), who "divines" oil with an oil-finding cat. The poor farmer (Aidan Quinn), and his wife (Frances Fisher), are about to lose their land to the bank when Cox starts drilling on it. He hires a veteran roughneck, "Roy," (Billy Bob Thornton) to be his crew.

Cox overcomes seemingly impossible obstacles, but then a gas blowout and fire threaten complete destruction. He extinguishes the fire by exploding nitroglycerin, and minutes later the pipe shoots through the top of the derrick, followed by a plume of oil. Everyone rejoices, even the banker, who will get his money back either way. Mr. Cox takes his money and later loses it searching for more oil.

Compare: the Lucas Gusher also shot pipe through the derrick, then spouted oil. After the oil boom ended, wildcatters Pattillo Higgins, Anthony Lucas, and John Galey, continued their quest for oil strikes. And like Cox and Roy, the Hamill Brothers, drillers of the Lucas Gusher, improvised numerous problem-solving inventions.

What about the rags-to-riches stories? Lige Adams, who lived on the mound at Spindletop, leased land to David Beatty, who drilled the second gusher in the field. Others, disgusted at oil-soaked crops and livestock, sold their land at enormous profit.

The movie "Hellfighters," loosely based on the career of noted oilfield firefighter Red Adair, is set long after Spindletop, but it reminds us of the horrendous dangers posed by early oil field fires. A train passing by the Spindletop field in March 1901 started a huge fire when sparks from its smokestack landed in a lake of oil. Workers set a counter-fire, and as the two gigantic walls of flame roared toward each other, the vacuum created between them sucked oil from the lake into the air that "ignited in giant fireballs that exploded high above the ground." The flames finally came together in an earth-shattering explosion, killing the flames, much like Mr. Cox's nitroglycerin.

All this just proves that even the best-or worst-movie lore can sometimes be based on facts.

Judith Walker Linsley, Ellen Walker Rienstra, and Jo Ann Stiles, Giant Under the Hill: A History of the Spindletop Oil Discovery at Beaumont, Texas, in 1901 (Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1902); Judith Linsley, "The Lone Star State's Oil Mythology Continues," Beaumont Journal, May 24-30, 2006. Photograph from Souvenir, Beaumont, Texas, 1903 (Dallas: Jones Advertising Company, 1903).