Judge Gordon Sullivan just hopes the Lone Star isn't Gilbert Gottfried.
An epic as big as the land that shaped it.
I've read (and largely enjoyed) several James Michener novels through the years, and Texas has the size and scope that's perfect for the Michener's brand of meticulously researched historical fiction. I was all set to take the small-screen adaptation Texas seriously—but then the DVD menu loaded up and what should I see but an airbrushed photo of Patrick Duffy looking like he belongs on the cover of a cheap paperback romance. Though it's impossible to take Texas seriously after such a sight, it does reveal the tension that keeps Texas from being great: though it wants to be an epic story of the fight for Texas to be apart from Mexico, it's ultimately too slick for its own good.
Narrated by Charlton Heston, Texas tells the story of the Texas revolution that severed the future-state from Santa Ana-controlled Mexico, and it largely focuses on the near-mythic men who were in charge of that revolution: Stephen Austin (Patrick Duffy, Dallas), Sam Houston (Stacy Keach, American History X), Jim Bowie (David Keith, An Officer and a Gentleman) and Davy Crockett (John Schneider, The Dukes of Hazzard).
I freely admit that I've read and enjoyed several Michener novels. However, I can't really tell you which ones. I know I read Hawaii for summer reading in high school, and there were several of his books lying around the house as I grew up, but for the life of me I can't remember if Texas was one of his novels that I read. Part of the problem is that my memory is hazy over a decade later, but at least part of the blame rests on Michener's shoulders. Though the specifics of each of his novels are very different—informed as they are by reams and reams of historical research—all the ones I encountered follow the same basic structure. He spends a few pages on the geological forces that shaped the area in question, then some time on what we know of the first inhabitants, and then the rest of the book is dedicated to following a multigenerational story across the most significant years in the area's history.
Texas wisely chooses to dispense with Michener's grand structure. The film starts with Stephen Austin's attempts to create a settlement in Texas that has special dispensation with the Mexican government, and follows him and the other famous Texans through their growing dissatisfaction with Santa Ana towards the eventual succession of Texas from Mexico.
For what it is, Texas isn't terrible. As a mid-nineties take on the TV Western, it's standing in the long shadow of the vastly superior Lonesome Dove but as a pretty potted version of Texas history that focuses on the great men behind the state's independence it could be worse. The cast are all game to play these towering, near-mythic figures, the (surprisingly high) budget allows for some nice shots of the Texas landscape, and the story moves pretty smoothly over the three-hour running time moving from significant event to significant event with some interpersonal shenanigans thrown in to catch the melodrama audience.
This DVD does the show a service as well. The 1.33:1 transfer is "newly enhanced" and looks pretty good, especially for a mid-nineties television production. The dusty, often brown Texas landscape is well reproduced here, with a decent amount of detail and good color saturation. The whole affair looks a bit too slick and/or shiny to really sell the historical setting, but that means this DVD transfer looks better than expected. Despite the three-hour runtime, Texas doesn't have any significant compression problems or digital artefacts. The stereo audio handles both the dialogue and the slightly bombastic score with balanced ease.
Extras are surprisingly extensive for this kind of product, though hardly groundbreaking. We get the show's trailer, an extended promo, and a short making-of featurette. Since Texas was a $12 million made-for-TV flick in 1994 it had a lot of hype, and it's nice to see that material included on this DVD.
The problem with Texas, though, is that it's redundant before it starts. It tells the same old story of Texas' heroic fight for independence, and while it's interesting at times to see the men behind the history, Texas spends too much time with the bigger picture that we all know from the history books instead of giving us insights into their characters. The overall look of the film—personified by romance-cover Duffy—is also a bit too slick, and distracts from the historical setting. I don't expect a major television adaptation to go too dark, but a bit of dirtying-up would have helped the show tremendously.
Texas is worth tracking down for fans of the actors or Michener's novel, but if you're going to invest three or more hours in a story of the settling of America then there are several other productions that deserve your time more. With that said, Texas isn't without its charms—especially the performances—and this DVD is solid enough to make it worth a rental for the curious.
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