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Monday, April 19, 2021

In Market: ‘The Iron Orchard’ takes a long, wayward path to the screen

The film is showing locally at the AMC Palace downtown and at the Grapevine Mills 30. For more showtime information: go here.

It’s a great book and a great movie

And it was made by people like us

Fort Worth rolled out the red carpet on Wednesday, Feb. 20, for a movie premiere. It was not just any ol’ movie. It was the film version of a book, The Iron Orchard, steeped in Texas history with deep roots in Fort Worth. Oil-drilling deep roots, to be more precise.

The Iron Orchard, published in 1966, was written by one Tom Pendleton, a Fort Worth author with plenty of oil industry savvy. If you don’t know the name, don’t be surprised. Pendleton was the pseudonym for Edmund Pendleton Van Zandt Jr. of Fort Worth’s storied Van Zandt family, who lived much of what he wrote about in the novel. The book won acclaim with critics and the public.

The book tells the story of Jim McNeely, a young, brash (is there any other kind?) Texan in the late 1930s who heads to the oil fields of the Permian Basin to make his fortune. There are plenty of stones in his pathway – overbearing, if not ruthless, bosses who try to keep him down, powerful oilmen reluctant to invest in a fresh-faced kid. But he eventually finds success in the oil patch. And, like all in the oil patch, he loses it and finds misfortune as well. Over and over again. Meanwhile, he falls ass-over-tea kettle for Lee Montgomery, a married woman who eventually becomes his wife.

He also meets an assortment of characters who are likely based on people Van Zandt knew, including Dent Paxton, a Shakespeare-quoting oil man that most actors would kill to play.

It’s a tale as old as time, but it fit like an oil hand’s work glove in the rough and tumble setting of mid-century Texas.

For all the praise, the book was handicapped a bit by the fact that another Texas novelist also published an acclaimed book that same year. A fellow named Larry McMurtry saw fit to publish The Last Picture Show, another Texas novel, this one set in a fictional town that bore a striking resemblance to Archer City. Texas was getting all literary in 1966.

Iron Orchard was a co-winner of the Jesse H. Jones Award for best book of fiction by the Texas Institute of Letters. It shared the honor with McMurtry.

A few years later, in 1971, The Last Picture Show became an Academy Award-winning film. It would take a little longer – 53 years to be exact – for Iron Orchard to hit the silver screen. It wasn’t for want of trying. Paul Newman, Robert Redford, George Peppard and even Elvis and several other stars expressed interest or were attached to the property over the years.

It didn’t help that oilmen, to say nothing of Texas, became something of a punchline over the years. While Iron Orchard didn’t make heroes of the men and women who toiled for oil and its lucrative rewards, it didn’t play them for buffoons either. The men and women in Iron Orchard are flesh, blood and bone. They bend, bend and sometimes break, spilling tears and whiskey along the way.

About 10 years ago, filmmaker Ty Roberts, who grew up in West Texas and was the son of a land man, heard from his father, who had introduced him to the book, that a family friend had the rights.

“My grandfather and father worked in the west Texas oil fields so the story was near and dear to my heart,” he said. “I had always wanted to write a script or make a movie about the Independent west Texas oil man.

“The story tackles a lot — happiness versus ambition, the imbalance of the haves and the have-nots, love versus obsession, homosexuality in rural Texas and the balance of men and women’s “place” in a modern world — things I find as relevant today as back then. It’s a great reminder of how we have advanced and how far we still have to go,” he said.

Roberts hired a scriptwriter, Gerry De Leon, who, according to Thomas Van Zandt, son of the author and an actor, “cracked the code.”

It wasn’t easy. Coming in at over 300 pages, Iron Orchard has nuance, along with some bombast, in its heft. Van Zandt has a role in the film dispensing some oilfield wisdom.

Filming wasn’t easy. Described as a period epic on an independent film budget, star Lane Garrison (famous for Prison Break) recalled playing McNeely as a young, bright 20-something, finishing a scene, donning his “fat suit” and heading across the street to play the next scene minutes later as an aged, despondent McNeely. “It was a challenge, but it was worth it,” he said.

Garrison, who grew up in Richardson, identified with the characters moments after he received the script.

“My agent sent me the script. I read the first page and I called him back and said, ‘I’m in. I want to play this character,’” he said. His agent convinced him to read the rest of the script. Two hours later, he called them back. “I was even more in,” he said as he made his “red carpet walk” on Feb. 20 at the AMC Palace in downtown Fort Worth.

Most of the actors have a Texas connection of some sort. It’s a mostly homegrown product. The exception is Ali Cobrin as Lee Montgomery, the woman who captures McNeely’s heart. She’s from Chicago, but you’d never know it. Almost unrecognizable is Rooster McConaughey as YY Puckets, best known as the brother of Matthew and one of the hosts of West Texas Investors Club. Almost stealing the whole show is another refugee from West Texas Investors Club, Gil Prather, as Old Man Coker, who engages in a tobacco-spitting contest with McNeely.

Like the book, the film has picked up some awards along the way, including at the 2018 Austin Film Festival, the Dallas International Film Festival and the Lone Star Film Festival in Fort Worth. Check it out. It’s deserving and it’s almost like your friends and neighbors made a big-time feature film.

And they may make more, several of those involved are working on a film version of Twelve Mighty Orphans, the Jim Dent book of the same name about the Masonic Home Mighty Mites, a football team that was the pride of Fort Worth – and the country – in the dark days of the depression.

The Iron Orchard

The film opens Feb. 22 in Dallas / Fort Worth, Midland, Odessa, Lubbock, Big Spring and March 1 in Austin, Houston, San Antonio, Amarillo, El Paso, Corpus Christi, McAllen, Wichita Falls, Longview, Abilene, Burleson, Bryan, Temple, New York and Los Angeles.

Directed by Ty Roberts

Written by Gerry De Leon and Ty Roberts

Starring: Lane Garrison, Ali Cobrin, Austin Nichols and Lew Temple

Others involved in the production:

Houston Hill, producer

Hill is currently producing 12 Mighty Orphans with Santa Rita Film Co.

George Sledge, producer

Greg McCabe, executive producer

McCabe is a 33 year veteran of the oil and gas industry. Fittingly, his first motion picture as executive producer was The Iron Orchard, a film about a wildcatter in the harsh Texas oilfields in the mid-1900s. As a partner in Santa Rita Film Co., McCabe was also executive producer of Sister Aimee, a 2019 Sundance film selection. He is currently an executive producer of 12 Mighty Orphans, which is in pre-production.

Ryan Haggerty, executive producer

Haggerty also manages the real estate and oil and gas assets of a local family office. In addition, he is co-owner, along with his wife Regan, of RHR Capital, LLC a boutique investment firm out of Fort Worth. Haggerty is active in the community including being a member of the Fort Worth Stock Show Syndicate, the board of the Metropolitan YMCA of Fort Worth and the Ronald McDonald House.

Van Scott Folger, co-producer

Anne Fleitas, co-producer


TCU Press is re-releasing the book in March: https://www.tamupress.com/book/9780875657127/the-iron-orchard/


There will also be an audiobook version read by Thomas Van Zandt, Edward Van Zandt’s son.

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Robert Francis
Robert is a Fort Worth native and longtime editor of the Fort Worth Business Press. He is a former president of the local Society of Professional Journalists and was a freelancer for a variety of newspapers, weeklies and magazines, including American Way, BrandWeek and InformatonWeek. A graduate of TCU, Robert has held a variety of writing and editing positions at publications such as the Grand Prairie Daily News and InfoWorld. He is also a musician and playwright.

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