Giant, Reata, and Marfa, Texas

A location can be a magical place if it’s for one of your favorite films. Houses, main streets, old barns, historic sites—all make memorable locations. But what about a facade? That three-sided, empty structure that is built on a movie set? 

It’s not real. It’s just a facade. But facades can become mythical and legendary. Two of the most famous movie facades have been of iconic houses—almost movie characters in themselves. One is Tara of “Gone with the Wind” fame. The other is from a movie I re-watched recently on TCM. It is Reata, the huge gothic Victorian facade built for the movie “Giant.” 

“Giant,” based on the sprawling family saga by author Edna Ferber, is the story about Texas cattle rancher Bick Benedict and his rivalry with Jett Rink, his former ranch hand who becomes an oil tycoon. Directed by Georgie Stevens, the 1956 movie stars Rock Hudson as Bick, Elizabeth Taylor as his wife Leslie, and James Dean as Jett Rink.

Another “Giant” star? Reata—the Benedict family ranch and home. The mansion looms large over the Texas landscape, dominating it, and taking on a somewhat intimidating presence as it sits on the dusty plains, surrounded by cattle, sage, tumbleweed, and blazing sun. The sprawling mythical mansion serves as the grandiose backdrop for the turbulent saga of love, greed, and ambition depicted in the movie. With its towering columns, sweeping verandas, and expansive grounds, Reata captures the wealth and power of the wealthy Texas cattle rancher.

But…as I said, Reata is not real. It’s just a facade. 

Reata as it appeared in the 1956 movie, “Giant.”

Now, I have spent a good amount of time in West Texas; but that was many years ago and, probably, never to be repeated—and I don’t remember traveling along US Highway 90 between Marfa and Valentine. So, for this blog, I am an armchair traveler, too. Something about this deteriorating facade really interests me as well as its physical place on the Texas landscape for the past 70 years or so. 

Ruins of Reata in 1968

Located west of Marfa, Texas, on private property (the Ryan Ranch), the facade was left where it was built for the film’s shooting by the land owners as a visual reminder of the movie. Constructed for $100,000, it was 83 feet wide with a tower that was 64 feet tall. People who traveled the highway could clearly see it standing regally on the flat Texas horizon. Over the years, passersby also witnessed its slow and eerie deterioration—into a Reata skeleton.

Ruins of Reata in 1996

Today, in 2024, Reata is nothing more than bits of wood, plaster, and rusty nails laying on the ground. As someone once said about West Texas, “Nothing rots around here; it just gets old and falls down.”

With little left of Reata, several pieces of pop art stand along US Hwy 90, 5 miles west of Marfa, to commemorate the location. Erected October 2018, the plywood tribute by artist John Cerney is titled “Giant Marfa.”

California artists John Cerney’s art of Rock Hudson, James Dean, and Elizabeth Taylor commemorates the “Giant” location west of Marfa.

Alas, to see this iconic movie location, you must travel to Marfa. This small West Texas town is about 60 miles from the Mexican boarder and nearly three hours by car from El Paso. To get to the Reata facade location, take US 90, heading west from Marfa towards Valentine for about 17 miles. The Reata ruins will be on your left hand side. Keep your eyes open!

Two other nearby “Giant” filming sites that you might want to find are the town of Valentine, where the Mexican village scenes were filmed and “Little Reata,” the piece of property that was willed to Jett Rink and where he struck oil.

James Dean as Jett Rink sits atop his windmill at Little Reata in “Giant.”

Little Reata is not as well known as Reata, but easier to spot as you travel along the highway. To get to Little Reata, travel west from Marfa on US 90 a few miles toward Valentine. Scan the barren landscape on the right-hand side of the road and look for the familiar windmill. According to some internet info I found from a couple of years ago, the two poles that held the original Little Reata sign in place still stand. Jett Rink’s famous windmill, which is also intact, is about 20 yards behind that. As with Reata, this is private property. A barbed wire fence separates it from the road. Hopefully, the blades of the windmill are not falling down as I write.

Remnants of the “Little Reata” set from Giant.

If you would like to spend the night in Marfa, try the El Paisano Hotel. This 1928 Spanish Colonial-style building on the National Historic Register served as the base of operations for the cast of “Giant” during the two-month location filming.

Two other movies shot in the Marfa area, both in 2007: “No Country for Old Men” and “There Will be Blood.”

Anyone who drives US 90 through Texas and spots these locations of antiquity, please leave me a comment to tell me what you found!

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