Among the many Western adaptations of King Lear, King of Texas is one of the straightest, acknowledging the debt in its opening credits, and casting Patrick Stewart as John Lear, head of one of the largest cattle ranches in the newly independent Republic of Texas And yet, while it mostly follows the plot points (and often the dialogue, appropriately adjusted to the nineteenth-century American setting) of Shakespeare’s play, King of Texas is also is own beast, a reflection on American identity at a formative stage in the drawing of the country’s internal and external borders, and the frontier justice that formed it.
Lear decides to split his ranch between his three daughters, the older Susannah (Marcia Gay Harden) and Rebecca (Lauren Holly) and young stay-at-home Claudia (Julie Cox). But when he invites his daughters to win their bit of the land by telling him how much they love him, Claudia refuses to participate in the fakery, and leaves to go and stay with her lover, Menchaca (Steven Bauer), a Mexican who has kept his territory at the foot of the state as a concession at the end of the war. Lear splits his land between Susannah and Rebecca, but Rebecca’s reckless husband Highsmith (Patrick Bergin) has ambitions on Menchaca’s land and quickly begins plotting to use his new-found power to finish off a war he feels is incomplete.
The post-war setting is important in giving texture to the film’s political narrative. Lear lost a son in the war, and his love for that son is part of what drives the resentment of the two older daughters about their own relative neglect. But Lear’s contentment with the ceding of the land to the Mexicans offers an interesting commentary on the division of his own land; for all the talk of unifying the state and consolidating Texan land, Lear is happy to draw borders within it and to allow for autonomy. The encroach of his madness is shown by him becoming lost on his own land as he tries to find his way from Susannah’s house to Rebecca’s, and this sense of disorientation is juxtaposed with Highsmith’s clear-sighted sense of the need for more conquest. This is not to say the film approves Highsmith’s worldview; more that an America built on an obsession with property is doomed to failure from overreach or being overwhelmed.
There’s also a racial inflection to this version of Lear in the Fool/Kent figure, Rip (David Alan Grier), a slave who survived the Alamo and who accompanies Lear. Rip is no jester, but a plain-talking man given extraordinary licence to speak truth back to his master, and who is the cause of resentment in others, notably the film’s Oswald figure who, when Rip refuses to listen to his instruction not to drink from a trough, lashes Rip to a tree and whips him. Lear stepping in to rescue his man thus nicely combines the different kinds of protective instinct that Shakespeare’s Lear exhibits towards his loyal servants, but also here has an added sympathetic edge in showing Lear as the only person in the film willing to make an active stand against racism. The film disappointingly doesn’t take the potential for a critique of racism further – Rip is the only African American man in the film, and fits neatly into the stock figure of the loyal servant, with his race largely ignored by narrative and characters for the rest of the film, but in combining the Kent and Fool figures Rip is at least given more agency within the narrative, acting to get a warning to Claudia about the planned assault on Menchaca’s territory.
The Gloucester subplot is included for no obvious reason. Loyal Henry Westover (Roy Scheider) is a grizzled veteran with two sons, wastrel Thomas (Liam Waite) and clean-cut Emmett (Matt Letscher). Emmett, however, is the one with an evil moustache, and surely enough turns out to be the bad egg, working with an outlaw to steal Henry’s castle and spin a yarn that it was Thomas’s doing. After Thomas is turned out, Emmett hooks up with Rebecca and then Susannah to support the assault on Menchaca. Aside from the lingering focus on the blinding scene, in which Rebecca turns her grief at Highsmith being shot into taking Westover’s second eye herself, this whole storyline feels weirdly secondary, included out of duty to the source. By removing Thomas’s ‘Poor Tom’ disguise, Thomas effectively plays no role, instead simply returning to the ranch to look after his father; while Emmett gets shot during the climactic battle at Menchaca’s ranch. There’s a broad, TV movie-quality moral lesson about disloyal family members here, but it feels peripheral and underdeveloped.
Far better is the work done by Stewart and the women playing his daughters. It’s always strange to hear Stewart speaking with an American accent, but he brings a quiet gravity and occasional flashes of temper to his Lear. He’s quickly irrational, turning to accusations of betrayal following only the least bit of resistance, yet also turns to his daughters for childlike comfort. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Stewart is at his best when Lear is vulnerable. During his madness he wanders almost meditatively after an eagle he sees flying; when the Menchaca ranch is attacked, he meanders through the gunfire in his robe, calling plaintively for a halt. It’s a thorough arc from the tough patriarch who shows no mercy to cattle rustlers to the pitiful man needing help, and Stewart elevates the material considerably.
But the Goneril and Regan figures perhaps get the most complex treatment. Harden’s Susannah, in particular, is richly drawn. She’s married to a man, Tumlinson (Colm Meaney), who is a good man but so wedded to the law that he has no flexibility. She initially shows her father nothing but respect, but her turning point comes after she tends to her man, beaten by Lear, and argues with her father who responds by smashing her dishes. Susannah subsequently moves out of the female-coded space of the kitchen into the male-coded space of the courtyard, carrying a rifle and single-handedly shouting down her father and his men, reminding them that she owns the ranch and pays their wages now. With that flex of economic muscle, Lear’s men all desert him and Lear rides off into the night. Susannah subsequently uses her power to become more overtly aggressive in her dealings, arranging her minions to suit her needs and showing pleasure in the power she wields in her machinations. When she is confronted with the bodies of Lear and Claudia and her husband telling her ‘You did this’, all she has to say is ‘It needed doing’, before she rides off on a horse, only to be shot down from a distance.
Rebecca is more sympathetic – less sharp than her sister, more instinctive. The initial protestations of love are split between the eloquence of Susannah and the ‘feeling’ of Rebecca, but initially it is Highsmith and Susannah who plot the attack on Menchaca. Rebecca has to work harder to add her views, but it is when Highsmith is shot and Susannah turns her screams into a vengeful mutilation of Westover that she really comes into her own. But until this, she seems genuinely torn. Her rejection of her father is more about her unwillingness to leave her husband than her willingness to sever ties with Lear, and she weeps as Lear heads out into the storm. Lear’s rigid insistence on alliances, and the games played by the other figures, all work to Rebecca’s disadvantage here, forcing this fundamentally weak figure into a position where she is dependent on others.
The film stutters as it reaches its conclusion, with the somewhat anodyne shootout leading to Claudia being killed off-screen by a stray bullet, followed by Lear walking into a geographically confusing space outside of the main shootout area to kneel down with her and die himself. The radical decision is to have the Goneril and Regan characters held to account by the Albany figure for their crimes against their father, but the loss of the Edgar/Edmund showdown and of the deeper characterisation of Lear’s supporters shows here as the plot seems to merely wrap up. Nonetheless, and especially as a pairing with Broken Lance, it’s a fascinating reminder of the potential of the Western for reinterpreting Lear, even with the time and budget constraints of a television film.