“The Iron Orchard”

 

            There have been many adventurous men who have made and lost fortunes in the West Texas oil fields.  Jim McNeely (Lane Garrison) has done both.

            Jim begins with the shirt on his back and the resolution in his gut.  It's 1939, and he's just a field hand.  The rookies they call “boll weevils,” but since Jim didn't really have any place else to go, he stuck it out.  The men had their own brand of roughneck inititation, but Jim survived it, or at least long enough to get a good whiff of oil derrick fever.  He marries Lee (Ali Cobrin), the good-looking brunette who would give him a ride to the country store on Saturdays.  Together, they scrimp and save enough to buy some cheap land and start a wildcat rig and hope for the best.

            We all know Jim's story needs success to propel it forward, but prosperity comes with a price.  Eventually, Jim has a falling out with the people around him who got him to where he is, including his best friend.  He even succumbs to the seduction of an old flame, Mazie (Hassie Harrison), because, well, it felt like some sort of vindication.  But he loses Lee because of his dalliance, and when she leaves, so does his luck at the oil patch.  It doesn't take many dry wells for the whole house of cards to come crashing down, despite the fancy house, the shiny new car, and the swanky country club membership.  And maybe the happy ending is just being able to recover some equilibrium and dignity in the midst of so much loss.

            This movie has a genuine feel to it, particularly in the 1930's barracks.  But the transitions are choppy.  We're not sure how, exactly, we went from field hand to tycoon so rapidly.  And Jim never does seem to overcome his hustler image.  Somehow his extreme self-reliance and personal discipline in the beginning seem to contradict his lack of moral fiber later, although he certainly wouldn't be the first successful man to fall victim to his own hubris.  Mazie makes a convincing floozie, but it's unclear why Lee dumped her first husband for Jim.  There's a certain awkwardness to all of their relationships that's beyond initial nervousness.  Somehow none of them seem really comfortable with each other, and so the viewers aren't, either. 

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association