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The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture


The natural features that have identified Oklahoma in motion pictures are unfortunately generic. The high plains, the prairie, the rolling hills with patches of trees in the folds, the rock outcroppings or mountains, the variously flowing rivers, and the big sky have all been represented in locations nearer Hollywood, California. The Oklahoma Kid (1939), The Man From Oklahoma (1945), and Oklahoma! (1955) made no use of distinctive and often historic sites, such as Robbers Cave, Black Mesa, Red Rock Canyon, the Glass Mountains, Beavers Bend, Turner Falls, or the remaining stands of the Cross Timbers.

Substituting locations continued to be the rule for major films in the latter half of the twentieth century. Stanley Kramer created his oil field for Oklahoma Crude (1973) in the hilly environs of Stockton, California. The creators of Far and Away (1992) preferred to film the opening of the Cherokee Strip in the less settled plains of Montana. Lockhart, Texas, stood in for the town of Sequoyah in the adaptation of Billie Letts's novel, Where the Heart Is (2000). But Twister (1996), for all its improbabilities, deserves credit for taking in the fields, the roads and rolling hills, and the skyscapes of north-central Oklahoma as it tracked the storm chasers.

Oklahoma has seemed most visually present in the "built environment" of structures set in open space, for example a tipi, a farmhouse and windmill, a solitary oil pumper, a derrick, or an oil field. A tornado, a dust storm, the resultant sand dunes, gaunt Great Depression faces, or the Alfred P. Murrah building wreckage can create an association with the Sooner State. Apart from these, the general images of the cowboy or Indian and their related icons—items of dress or weaponry, or horses—can signify Oklahoma, depending on the context.

Certain famous people have symbolized the character of the state in film, including Tom Mix, Will Rogers, and Ben Johnson, with Jim Thorpe and Woody Guthrie enacted, respectively, by Burt Lancaster in Jim Thorpe–All American (1951) and David Carradine in Bound For Glory (1976). Finally, Oklahoma is notably celebrated in song in both Oklahoma!, the title song of which became the state song, and three lyrics from Home in Oklahoma (1946): "Everlasting Hills of Oklahoma," "Home in Oklahoma," and "Hereford Heaven," the latter written by Gov. Roy J. Turner.

Historically, Oklahoma benefited from the fact that it was frontier shortly before the rise of film narrative in the early twentieth century. Early shorts, made by the Edison Company, focused on real cowboys and Indians doing the sorts of things audiences had enjoyed in Wild West shows. Driving Cattle To Pasture, Cowboys and Indians Fording a River in a Wagon, and Brush Between Cowboys and Indians (all 1904) ran no more than ninety seconds and were designed for Kinetoscope or nickelodeon programs. In 1908, probably inspired by Edwin Porter's The Great Train Robbery (1903), Deputy Marshal Bill Tilghman joined with his colleague John Abernathy and Chandler photographer J. B. Kent to make The Bank Robbery in Cache, Oklahoma. The cast consisted of the marshals, former outlaw Al Jennings, and Chief Quanah Parker, among others. Later, Tilghman called together many of the same personnel plus Arkansas Jack, once a Doolin gang member, forming the Eagle Film Company, to make The Passing of the Oklahoma Outlaw (1915) as accurately as possible.

Later Westerns, such as The Oklahoma Kid, Red River (1948), Hang 'em High (1968), and Lonesome Dove (1989), continued to emphasize the untamed or criminal elements in the territories, whether the characters were driving cattle, hunting outlaws, or attempting to make a home. John Ford's Cheyenne Autumn (1964), concerning the 1878 attempt to return to Wyoming, pioneered in showing sympathy for the American Indian victims of resettlement, though the film's setting is Monument Valley and Navajos were used as extras. Later, Arthur Penn's Little Big Man (1970) staged Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer's 1868 slaughter of the Cheyenne in the Battle of the Washita. The Oklahoma Kid, starring Humphrey Bogart and Jimmy Cagney as unlikely cowboys, joins William S. Hart's Tumbleweeds (1925), both versions of Cimarron (1931, 1960), and even Oklahoma! in portraying the process and conflicts associated with the closing of the frontier, ending the free-range livelihood of many cowboys. With the exception of Oklahoma!, those films and the more recent Far and Away stage what is probably the single most dramatic event in that closing, the land runs of 1889 and 1893. All versions emphasize the sheer mass of humanity, the variety of vehicles, from covered wagons to bicycles, and, to some extent, the fatalities that occurred en route or immediately afterwards. The Oklahoma Kid and Tumbleweeds deal most directly with the problems caused by sooners, who slipped in ahead of others, and by claim jumpers.

Both Cimarron films, Tulsa, and Oklahoma Crude portray the oil booms. The first Cimarron (adapted from the Edna Ferber novel of the same title) features more of the positive aspects, with Yancey Cravat's son becoming an engineer and Yancey dying to save dignitaries, including his wife, from an oil-field explosion; the second film version includes Wyatt, a friend who prospers at the expense of American Indians. Tulsa (1949) and Oklahoma Crude (1973) are concerned with wildcat operations at the beginning of northeastern Oklahoma oil development and with the pioneer entrepreneurial spirit of two women, played, respectively, by Susan Hayward and Faye Dunaway. Conflicts occur as big oil companies seek to purchase or force the sale of mineral rights. Tulsa explores how overdrilling and overproduction endanger good cattle land and threaten the long-term well being of the original landowners. Will Rogers plays a common man, suddenly oil rich, in They Had to See Paris (1929). Once in Europe, he is the perfect Innocent Abroad, while the rest of his family succumbs to the allure of Continental sophistication—until they come to their Oklahoma senses.

There are only a handful of films by and about Oklahoma's African Americans. Bill Pickett, an outstanding 101 Ranch cowboy, made two silent films, both released in 1921. The Bull-Dogger depicts the rodeo event he created; The Crimson Skull is a Western mystery filmed in Boley. Of three others, Black Gold (1928), filmed near Tatums, Midnight Shadow (1939), and Children of the Dust (1995), only the latter, starring Sidney Poitier and Michael Moriarty, earned favorable comments from critics. A Western, it opens with a massacre of Cheyenne and climaxes with conflict between a new black township and remnants of the tribe.

After the land run, the chief event that creates images of Oklahoma and Oklahomans is the Dust Bowl. The dust storms, dunes engulfing houses, and lines of overloaded jalopies on the road were etched in viewers' minds from The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936; often used for stock footage) and The Grapes of Wrath (1940). Although Grapes memorably perpetuated the "Okie" slur, the dispossessed Joads are anything but white trash. The other option for the dispossessed was to turn outlaw and crisscross the state, as seen in such films as They Live By Night (1949), Pretty Boy Floyd (1960), and Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Where the Red Fern Grows (1974) should be mentioned as a positive picture of Oklahomans who manage to hold on during the 1930s.

Ma Joad worried that her son could turn out like Pretty Boy. But in their enduring and essential optimism, the Joads link with the buoyant figures of Oklahoma!, embodying the best qualities of the American character in their values of hard work, fairness, and charity toward others. They exemplify Jefferson's yeoman farmers, "the People," capable of prospering if they are given a fair chance.

William Hagen


David L. Hudson, "Oklahoma's Pioneer in Film-making," Orbit [Daily Oklahoman], 1 October 1972.

Larry O'Dell, comp., Oklahoma @ the Movies (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Historical Society, 2012).

Frank Richard Prassel, The Great American Outlaw: A Legacy of Fact and Fiction (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993).

"Sham Bank Robbery," Cache Clarion and Indiahoma (Oklahoma) News, 21 August 1908.

Robert Sklar, Movie-Made America: A Cultural History of American Movies (New York: Random House, 1975).

Jack Spears, "Hollywood's Oklahoma," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 67 (Winter 1989–90).


The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
William Hagen, “Film Images of Oklahoma,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=FI004.

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