‘Return to Giant’ documentary returns to Marfa for 25th anniversary

Photo courtesy of Warner Brothers Home Entertainment / Hollywood celebrities James Dean, Monte Hale and Bob Hinkle singing cowboy songs in the Hotel Paisano ballroom during the filming of Giant in 1955. Return to Giant, a documentary that captured first hand stories of the film being made, will celebrate its 25th anniversary next week with a special Marfa screening.

MARFA – It’s been a quarter of a century since the documentary Return to Giant captured the firsthand stories of those involved in the making of Giant in Marfa. To celebrate the anniversary, the documentary will play at the Hotel Paisano next week, with special guests in attendance to speak about the making of the epic Western film Giant over 65 years ago.

As many longtime Marfans will remember, in the summer of 1955, the Hollywood production of Giant embedded itself in the remote cattle town of Marfa, with director George Stephens telling the Hollywood Citizen-News he chose Marfa for its extraordinary scenery. “It has a natural beauty, with the broad sweep of the plains, the mountains in the background, and the striking white clouds against a blue sky,” he said.

Residents of Marfa were welcomed into the open set to watch the filming that summer, and around town, locals were abuzz as they met some of Hollywood’s greatest stars. “It was amazing to me that the movie makers and the little town of Marfa became intertwined that summer,” said Kirby Warnock, the director of Return to Giant. “There was no wall or barrier.”

Some locals even participated as extras, including Darlyne Freeman. As she tells it in Return to Giant, “Marfa was a booming little town back then anyway. We had close to 5,000 people and over 100 businesses here,” she said. “The ranching industry was the main attraction about the town, and we were pretty active back then. And there were lots of things going on but nothing like a movie.”

Photo courtesy of Kirby Warnock / The Hotel Paisano sits empty in Marfa in 1995, prior to being restored. The hotel considers Giant a part of its legacy, with rooms named after some of the stars and photographs from the making of Giant hanging on the walls.

While Marfa was a bustling cattle town then, by the time Return to Giant was made 40 years later in 1995, “most of the town was sitting empty,” recalled Warnock. He remembered walking up to the Hotel Paisano and snapping a photo of it as it sat empty and inactive. The Henry Trost-built hotel had famously hosted Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean during the filming of Giant, and, as recounted in the documentary, was where the stars would gather after dinner to hear actor and country musician Monty Hale play cowboy songs.

Warnock used to hear tales about the film while visiting his family’s generational ranch in Fort Stockton every summer while growing up, but it wasn’t until after organizing a screening of Giant for its 40th anniversary that he realized the stories behind the scenes were worth their own film.

“All these people were calling me telling their stories about Giant,” he recounts. “These folks weren’t getting any younger, so I figured we might as well film them while they’re alive.”

In the process, Warnock captured interviews with many locals who have since passed on. Marfa Mayor Fritz Kahl, rancher Clay Evans, County Judge Jake Brisbin and more make appearances on camera to share their stories of Giant. “I was blessed to capture their stories before they died,” Warnock said.

The project grew as Warnock filmed more interviews, and eventually he got hold of Warner Brothers, the production company behind the original film. The company was at first hesitant, but later embraced the documentary, purchasing it from Warnock. Return to Giant premiered at South by Southwest, aired on PBS and won accolades, and a slightly cut down version was even used by Warner Brothers as a bonus feature on their home video release of Giant.

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros Home Entertainment /
James Dean on the set of Giant.

In the 25 years since Return to Giant, much has changed about Marfa, which has become an art mecca with a lively tourism industry. “I’ll freely admit I don’t really understand a lot of the art stuff going on there, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad, it’s just different,” Warnock said. “That’s kind of the theme of Giant – change – from a cattle place to oil.” But even with changes, there’s still room in Marfa to remember the town’s earlier roots, and many still make the pilgrimage to see the town where Giant was made.

“The movie Giant is a big part of our history,” said Hotel Paisano General Manager Vicki Barge. Though many come through Marfa for the art, the national park or the Marfa Lights, Barge says, “We still have people coming because of the movie Giant. We certainly consider that part of our claim to fame.” The hotel has rooms named after the stars that stayed in them, and has large format photographs from the film’s production to remember the summer that changed Hotel Paisano and Marfa history.

On Thursday, June 3, the Hotel Paisano will host Warnock, special guests and attendees for a screening of Return to Giant. Memorabilia, memories and some home videos will be on display during the night, and the film will be played in its full, original 58 minute runtime, including three minutes of footage that was left on the cutting room floor by Warner Brothers. Throughout the “director’s cut,” Marfa residents and Hollywood stars alike reminisce about the summer Giant came to town.

Tickets may be purchased online at: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/return-to-giant-25th-anniversary-screenng-tickets-150032909471.