Ever since its publication in 1966, Tom Pendelton’s novel “The Iron Orchard” has been embraced as a cult favorite by many movers and shakers in the Texas oil industry — and, of course, by many more who thrill to accounts of success and excess in that storied realm — largely because of its brutally authentic yet unmistakably sympathetic portrait of a West Texas wildcatter who traverses a dramatic arc of rags to riches to really bad behavior.
Not surprisingly, there have been a few previous attempts to adapt the book into a Hollywood-huge movie. (Paul Newman and George Peppard were among the names floated for those unmade epics.) But, appropriately enough for a tale about a maverick oil man in the Lone Star State, it has taken an independent production outfit and Texas-tied filmmakers to finally bring the project to the screen. After a tour of regional festivals, the project opened first in its home state Feb. 22, with plans to gradually expand to other markets.
Attractively filmed by DP Mathieu Plainfosse on location in Midland, Odessa, Austin, and several other Texas locations, “The Iron Orchard” is the sort of labor of love that required the pinching of pennies and the kindness of strangers. Actor-turned-director Ty Roberts, working from a script he co-wrote with Gerry de Leon, reportedly got maximum bang for the limited bucks in his budget with the help of local businesses in communities where period-appropriate hotels, automobiles, and other items were made available, and real-life Texas oilmen made their own generous contributions to the movie’s production values by lending humongously expensive oil-drilling equipment for use in key scenes. All of which doubtless proved invaluable to filmmakers striving to persuasively enhance a narrative that spans from 1939 to the mid-1950s.
The narrative itself, however, is not without its bumpy stretches. “The Iron Orchard” is satisfyingly involving and entertaining as a whole — call it “Giant Lite” and you won’t be far off the mark — and the performances are sufficiently compelling to ease a viewer through some abrupt and elliptical transitions. There are times, however, when you may find yourself wishing the producers had chosen to adapt Pendelton’s 384-page novel into a limited-run series rather than a 112-minute film.
(It should be noted, by the way, that “Tom Pendelton” actually is the pen name of the late Edmund Pendleton Van Zandt Jr., son of a prominent Forth Worth family, who used an alias partly because he feared offending the Texas oil industry notables who were customers of his family’s bank.)
Lane Garrison propels the film with his vibrant performance as Jim McNeeley, a poor but ambitious young man who’s firmly rebuffed by the well-to-do family of Mazie (Hassie Harrison), the alluring beauty he loves, and more or less banished to the oil country of West Texas in 1939. McNeeley stubbornly strives and gradually thrives, refusing to be beaten down (literally or figuratively) in the initially hostile environment, and relentlessly pushing himself to rise from a back-breaking job as an oil-field worker to a risk-taking career as a Texas wildcatter.
Along the way, he woos and weds the similarly discontent Lee (Ali Cobrin), who’s inconveniently married to another man — but not for long — when they first meet during his hard-scrabble days in West Texas. He also befriends Dent Paxton (Austin Nichols), an improbably sophisticated oilfield veteran who becomes a confidant, business partner and, on more than one occasion, calming influence for the brash McNeeley.
Unfortunately, it comes as little surprise when McNeeley ultimately, inevitably, betrays both of his most loyal intimates, as he is driven by past slights and ravenous appetites. Early on, Lee’s father — an effective cameo by Ned Van Zandt, son of the novel’s author — warns her that “oil men want respect — it’s like a disease.” But that’s not enough to fully prepare her when, after they move to a lavish Fort Worth home where her husband can lord it over the folks who dissed him way back when, she discovers him reconnecting with the once-elusive (and currently gold-digging) Mazie.
Dent is treated even worse when he attempts to talk McNeeley out of a risky maneuver that might cause collateral damage to a desperate co-conspirator. Indeed, McNeeley’s cruel and savagely homophobic response to Dent, a closeted gay man, ignites the most discomforting and dramatically potent scene in all of “The Iron Orchard.”
Whether McNeeley is boldly pitching deals with richer and more established oil men, or clawing away at last best chances to avoid the disgrace of bankruptcy, Garrison strikes the perfect balance of cocksure swagger and not-so-quiet desperation while offering a credible and creditable portrayal of a man forever on the verge of plunging into the abyss because of the same instincts that initially fuel his ascent. He and supporting players Cobrin and Nichols help to make “The Iron Orchard” an absorbing story, even if you wind up wishing more of that story had been told.