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Pivotal Scene In 'Giant' A Complicated First For Mexican-Americans

Children Of Giant
James Dean lounges on the set of 'Giant' in Marfa with two local kids who appear in the film.

Sixty years ago, the movie Giant brought James Dean to West Texas for the last film he'd ever make. Giant introduced audiences to a tiny town called Marfa - and to aspects of the Mexican-American experience not yet seen on the big screen. Hector Galán, the director of a new documentary called Children of Giant, talked to Krys Boyd about the epic film's turning point. 

It starts with a Mexican-American family who sits down at a booth in a diner.

Over strolls the proprietor, Sarge, played by Mickey Simpson. "You're in the wrong place, amigo," he says to the man. Towering and brusque, Sarge moves to show the kind-faced trio out of the place.

The man, old and frail, opens his wallet. 

"Your money's no good here," Sarge says. 

Rock Hudson's character Bick is listening a couple booths back. He's there with his daughter-in-law, Juana, and baby grandson Jordy, who shares a lineage with both Sarge and the man being kicked out of the diner.

Bick speaks up, asks Sarge to be nicer. This doesn't go well. The two men throw punches for almost two straight minutes while the trills of "The Yellow Rose Of Texas" play in the background like a war march. 

(Poet Tino Villaneuva explains this with a painful clarity, acting as an announcer of sorts for the match in "Fight Scene Beginning.")

"[My father] would actually tell me stories, exactly like that, of not necessarily the fight scene, but being denied service,"  Galán says. Watch the trailer for his documentary:

The diner scene wasn't in Edna Ferber's novel, on which the film was based. Galán says he understands why Giant's director George Stevens decided to include it. 

"That's Bick Benedict's transformation ... in the scene he loses the fight, but basically wins the war."

The film's portrayal of Mexican-Americans was sometimes problematic. Take the heavy makeup. Elsa Cárdenas, who played Juana, has light eyes and fairer skin than you'd expect after seeing her in Giant. She told  Galán she cried when she saw what she and the other Latino characters looked like on film, afraid what the Mexican community might feel when they saw forced stereotypes in the place of real people. 

Listen to the full conversation with Hector Galán

Children of Giant airs on KERA-TV Friday at 9 p.m.

About Think

Think airs Monday through Thursday at noon and 9 p.m. on KERA 90.1, or on our live stream. Listen to previous episodes here

Lyndsay Knecht is assistant producer for Think.