Howdy friends and neighbors! I’ve spent the last week in Seattle, with today being when I am in transit home. I missed last week, I know, but to make up for it try this on for size: a review of a nine-year-old made-for-cable movie! It’s King of Texas, starring the one and only Patrick Stewart. The review itself is not entirely concerned with how good or bad the film is (it’s not very good) but investigating a strange intersection of Shakespeare, the genre history of the Western, and critiques of American expansion. Hooray!
The opening shots of the 2002 made-for-TV film King of Texas are in a sense misleading. A wide (as wide as you can get with full frame, anyway) view of the arid desert; a focus on the harsh, almost phantasmagoric inhospitality of the landscape, complete with corpses hanging from a gothic skeleton tree; suddenly, there emerges an actual human being — a close-up on the sweating, scowling face of a nameless man. You might think you’re watching a film in the style of Sergio Leone, who made shots like this his trademark, or you may at least think Texas is going to be simply a Leone imitation: a faux-Spaghetti Western, a tale set in a strange world where the American frontier is recast as an amoral comic book, with larger-than-life characters doing larger-than-life deeds.
But as I have said, these opening shots are misleading. King of Texas is not a Spaghetti Western, imitation or otherwise, but in fact falls in line with the Spaghetti Western’s antecedent, the Revisionist Western. Added to this is the fact that Texas is not just some made-for-TV Western conforming to a particular subgenre; it’s all of that and it’s a reimagining of Shakespeare’s King Lear. Keeping these things in mind can unlock a lot of the film’s more interesting aspects.
In a wholly personal judgment, I think Lear as Shakespeare wrote it is more suited (if anything) to a Spaghetti Western; it’s really a jumbled kaleidoscope of increasingly fractured and bizarre occurrences. There’s a staggering amount of major and minor characters, a winding and at times surprising plot, a quasi-supernatural storm, faked (and real) madness, the recitation of the names of a few dozen demons, a set of villains who, in the Spaghetti Western tradition, are wholly evil bastards seemingly just because they can be, and they are opposed by a group of good (really, less morally bankrupt but still highly flawed) people, all inhabiting a world that seems to have no particular moral plan or order. Lear could be adapted rather faithfully into this context.
The fact that King of Texas is not a Spaghetti Western, then, means that some work on the part of the writers and director has gone toward tailoring the original play until it fits rather snugly into the Revisionist Western mold. This, I think, is the cleverest aspect of the film’s production: it takes a story that can be (and often is) interpreted as amoral or nihilistic and, with what seems to be a minimum of jiggering given the re-setting, fashions from it a social and political point. Not that Revisionist Westerns are all about social activism, but they’re more closely attuned to what we think of as social activism. In the original Western, bad guys wear black hats and good guys wear white hats; Native Americans are savages and Mexicans are crooks; good always triumphs over evil; the sheriff marries the schoolteacher and they ride off together into the sunset as the United States of America brings order and civilization to lawless wilderness.
The Revisionist Western, as the name implies, casts a more critical eye toward the starkly black-and-white issues presented by its predecessor: ‘good guy’ and ‘bad guy’ aren’t really helpful terms, but ‘antihero’ is; sex, if present, is blunt and unromantic, swapping out the schoolteacher for the prostitute; the Indian and Mexican are victims of systematic oppression, theft, and violence; good and evil don’t really seem to exist, much less have an opportunity to go head-to-head, and if the protagonist (usually an outlaw of some stripe) doesn’t die at the end, then he probably only survives to see the end credits by selling someone else out.
King of Texas falls into the realm of the Revisionist Western, then, for multiple reasons, one of them being its decisions in regard to the actual Lear character. There are, broadly speaking, two ways to read Lear: a comically capricious blowhard, a mad king who spends a significant amount of the play naked, or a once-great man who is losing his dignity and sanity as he ages. In the former reading Lear is merely an object of spectacle; in the latter his actions and selfish desires provoke dislike, but his situation inspires sympathy — he is an antihero. Texas chooses this latter route, and Patrick Stewart plays the analogue John Lear with stuffy dignity and moments of grandfatherly warmth in between bouts of childish, impetuous shouting.
But impetuousness is not, in fact, John Lear’s greatest failing, and though it is an important character flaw, it is not the one the film brings to our immediate attention. I’ve already described the opening scenes and its corpses hanging from trees; this is our introduction into the film’s world, but Lear is nowhere to be seen. Instead we meet a silent but obviously angry man who shows up a few scenes later at a party Lear is throwing — the man, it turns out, is a Mexican landowner named Menchaca and the hanged men from earlier are in fact his men. He berates Lear for having them killed, but Lear insists the men were trespassing on his land and he had the right, a claim with which Menchaca takes issue. It’s made abundantly clear that the majority of Lear’s land was seized from Menchaca’s father and other members of the Mexican gentry prior to the Alamo, and though Menchaca still owns a hacienda to the south of Lear’s ranch the property lines are more than a bit muddy. The only thing keeping true conflict at bay is a treaty Lear and Menchaca’s father agreed to following their altercations, and the fragility of the bond demonstrated here does not bode well for Lear’s choice to cede responsibility of his holdings to his daughters.
But he does, and in predictable King Lear fashion things spin out of control pretty quickly. His oldest daughter Susannah and her brother-in-law Highsmith (the ciphers for Goneril and Cornwall) make it known early on that they desire more than the land Lear has bequeathed them — Menchaca’s remaining property is sitting idle to the south, ripe for the taking. This is where Texas most clearly diverges from the Lear formula (other than, of course, being set in post-Alamo Texas) and, I think, where as an adaptation or re-staging it is at its most intriguing. In Shakespeare’s play, after Lear divides the throne between Regan and Goneril, the strife is mostly isolated — Britain bears the brunt of the old king’s mistake as the new rulers squabble and vie for power. To set things right, help must come from outside: the exiled daughter Cordelia and her husband the King of France must invade.
In King of Texas, this is situation reversed: Lear’s successors are still squabbling and scheming, but they are the ones who stage an invasion, in this case of the land owned by Menchaca, the France analogue. In other words, military action is not a solution to the chaos but rather an effect of it — a very powerful shift, because John Lear has made himself an important figure through wars with Mexican landowners and finally, as the movie hints, during a harrowing but victorious stand at the Alamo. Violence — specifically warfare and violence for personal gain — is John Lear’s great sin.
Comparatively, Shakespeare gives his own Lear little to work with. He is certainly not opposed to violence — he kills Cordelia’s executioners before his own death and rather offhandedly claims, “I have seen the day, with my good biting falchion, / I would have made them skip” (V.iii.333-334). The point here isn’t that violence is bad, but rather that Lear used to be badass. The discovery of Poor Tom in the storm does more to underline how he has failed morally: “I have ta’en / Too little care of this. Take physic, pomp. / Expose thyself to feel what wretched feel, / That thou may shake the superflux to them / And show the heavens more just” (III.v.37-41).
So Lear realizes that while he’s been living the good life as a king, he’s let a lot of people go on suffering. That’s interesting, but it’s not the overarching interest of the play; what we get from this exchange is not “Lear should have taken care of the poor” but “Lear has realized that without his status he isn’t much different than a beggar.” There may be another past mistake — Goneril and Regan hate Lear, and maybe they have a reason, but given their personalities and actions it doesn’t seem likely they resent him for not combating poverty. Nevertheless, other than pride, being an uncaring ruler is the only concrete fault attributed to Lear in the text.
In King of Texas, Susannah’s land-grab acts as a parallel for John Lear’s own faults — he’s reared a child who is willing to treat others (including Lear himself) as ruthlessly as he has. Likewise, Lear’s epiphany comes not during the storm — he spends most of that time simply being crazy — but during the actual siege of Mechaca’s hacienda, when Claudia/Cordelia is killed by a stray bullet. He finally sees warfare — the thing that has made him great — as something horrible and pointless; the grotesquerie of fighting over land hits home. This is why King of Texas is a Revisionist Western: it exposes the traditional ideas of the Old West and early Western films, revealing that expansion and Manifest Destiny are ultimately a brutal, immoral, and absurd business.