In the early 1980s, Disney struggled to become relevant and in the process decided to gamble on several live-action films that weren’t the kinds of projects the Mouse House were known for making, chief among them Tron (1982), Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983), and Tex (1982). The latter film was an adaptation of the popular S.E. Hinton novel of the same name. Her first four Young Adult novels (The Outsiders, Rumble Fish, Tex, and That Was Then This Now) were all set in and around Tulsa and struck a chord with young people because they refused to talk down to their intended audience. They also dealt with the class conflict between rich and poor kids in a way that not many other authors were doing at the time. Her novels featured worlds inhabited mostly by teenagers with an emphasis on the intense friendships between them as well as the friction between siblings in an unflinchingly honest way. At first, Disney picking up the option for Tex seemed like an odd move as the book took a frank look at two brothers trying to stay together with very little money and each one heading off in different directions. However, it did fit in with the current regime’s desire to think outside the box and the end result was a smartly written, well-acted slice-of-life tale of regular folks just trying to get by.
Tex McCormick (Matt Dillon) is a rebellious teenager who would rather spend time with his horse Rowdy then waste time in high school where he’s flunking out anyway. He lives in a modest house with his older brother Mason (Jim Metzler) who’s trying to scrape together enough money to go to Indiana University and play basketball. Their mother is dead and their father (Bill McKinney) is a deadbeat, spending most of his time on the road working rodeos. It seems like the only reason Tex stays in school is to hang out with his best friend Johnny (Emilio Estevez) and flirt with his beautiful sister Jamie (Meg Tilly).
The film refuses to sugarcoat the tough times Tex and Mason endure as they try to survive on their own. For example, Tex comes home to find that Mason sold his horse and he understandably flips out. There’s an almost scary intensity to their fight as we realize just how hard it is for them to make ends meet and how Mason has to make difficult choices for the both of them. Director Tim Hunter expertly captures life for young people in the Midwest at that time. We see Johnny and Tex goofing around at the local county fair and yet Hunter tempers this by having the latter go see a psychic. The director doesn’t treat it like some kind of joke, but rather an eerie foreshadowing of things to come.
Hunter does a nice job of portraying Tex’s day-to-day life in a naturalistic way that is reminiscent of films from the 1970s. There is nothing flashy about his direction as he wisely gets out of the way of the actors and lets them do their thing. As a result, he gets some wonderfully grounded performances out of his talented young cast with the relationship between Tex and Mason as the heart of the film. This is due in large part to the solid screenplay by Hunter and Charles S. Haas, which features realistic dialogue and scenes that feel like we’re intruding on these characters’ lives.
For a brief time, Matt Dillon was the go-to actor for Hinton adaptations, appearing in The Outsiders and Rumble Fish (1983). With Tex, he shows versatility at an early age, playing a vastly different character then he would go on to portray in the aforementioned films. While those were very stylized takes on Hinton’s novels, Tex wisely opts for a much more grounded approach, which is appropriate for the subject matter. Dillon had the brooding good looks that made him a teen idol at the time, but he delivers a strong, Brando-esque Method performance as a teen trying to do all the typical things someone his age does, while facing some pretty harsh realities.
Jim Metzler is excellent as older brother Mason who is torn between quitting school and getting a job to support Tex, and getting a scholarship to Indiana University in order to get out of their dead-end town. He’s been forced to grow-up fast, much like Darrel in The Outsiders (1983) who dropped out of school in order to support his younger brothers. Mason may ride Tex about going to school and staying out of trouble, but he sticks up for him, like when Johnny’s father (Ben Johnson) stops by to question Tex about getting his sons drunk the night before.
Tex is a potent reminder of how good Emilio Estevez was early on in his career, appearing in memorable efforts like The Outsiders and Repo Man (1984). He has a minor role as Tex’s best friend and he plays well off of Dillon – a rapport they would have in their next film together – The Outsiders. Meg Tilly is quite good as Tex’s tomboyish love interest. Jamie is armed with a caustic wit, which she uses to flirt with Tex. Like him, she’s going through changes and has a lot to sort out, which leaves their potential romance up in the air.
While making Over the Edge (1979) with Matt Dillon, the young actor asked screenwriter Tim Hunter if he’d adapt one of S.E. Hinton’s novels as they were his favorites. In fact, many of the kids cast in the film were fans of her books. Intrigued, Hunter read a copy of Tex while it was still in galleys. After a string of commercial failures, Disney wanted to try something different. Hunter knew that the studio were going in this direction and approached them with Tex and asked to direct. As luck would have it, at the time Disney vice president in charge of production Tom Wilhite was determined to hire young, inexperienced filmmakers with talent.
In 1979, Hinton received a phone call from Disney expressing an interest in adapting her novel Tex into a film. Initially, she wasn’t interested in the studio adapting one of her novels. “I thought they’d really sugar it up, take out all the sex, drugs and violence and leave nothing but a story of a boy and his horse.” Wilhite personally visited with Hinton and convinced her that the film would be faithful to her book. She agreed to option her book, but only under the condition that her beloved horse Toyota be cast as Tex’s horse in the film.
If Hinton had any other reservations about the project, they went away when she met with Hunter, the film’s director who also planned to co-write the script. They got along famously and she took him around Tulsa, showing some of the actual locations used in the book. At first, she wasn’t convinced that Dillon was right for the part of Tex, especially after their first meeting, which left her unimpressed, but there was no questioning his commitment to the role. Dillon arrived two weeks early so that Hinton could give him riding lessons. In addition, she helped scout locations, cast actors and rewrote bits of dialogue during filming.
Disney originally looked at Stockton, California to shoot Tex, but Hunter lobbied for Tulsa and convinced the studio to shoot there. Principal photography began on May 11, 1981 on a $5 million budget. The film received good reviews. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, “There is more to this movie’s story, but the important thing about it isn’t what happens, but how it happens. The movie is so accurately acted … that we care more about the characters than about the plot.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin praised Metzler’s performance: “In a much less flashy role, Mr. Metzler is equally impressive; if Mr. Dillon’s Tex gives the movie its glamour, Mr. Metzler’s Mason gives it backbone.” People magazine praised Dillon’s performance: “Tex, in which his face shows the play of thought in fresh, unexpected way, raises him to the level of a young Paul Newman. Dillon, now 18, finds humor and honesty in the role with a disarming lack of guile.” However, Disney dropped the ball in marketing Tex and it didn’t do well at the box office. It went on to be selected for the New York Film Festival, which prompted Disney to re-release it in selected theaters where they hoped word-of-mouth would give it a second life.
While the problems Tex and Mason face may not be earth-shattering in the grand scheme of things, they are to these characters and the film really captures how everything seems like life or death at that young age. These are not easily solvable problems and it is refreshing to see that in this day and age. Tex flew in the face of previous Disney films by refusing to sugarcoat the real world problems its characters faced. It also demonstrated, yet again, Hunter’s affinity for the trials and tribulations of teens, which he would continue to explore with his next film River’s Edge (1986).
Farber, Stephen. “The ‘Oddball’ Who Brought Tex to Disney.” The New York Times. October 10, 1982.
Farber, Stephen. “Directors Join the S.E. Hinton Fan Club.” The New York Times. March 20, 1983.
Hinton, S.E. Some of Tim’s Stories. Speak. 2009.
Wooley, John. Shot in Oklahoma: A Century of Sooner State Cinema. University of Oklahoma Press. 2011.