‘All the Pretty Horses’ used Cadillac Bar, Helotes Ranch, Scottish Rite Cathedral as sets for film starring Matt Damon and Penélope Cruz


Billy Bob Thornton’s 2000 adaptation of “All the Pretty Horses” is an ideal “saw the movie but never read the book” movie.

The Cormac McCarthy novel on which it is based caused a sensation in 1992. Best-seller and National Book Award winner, it transformed McCarthy from an admired but obscure author into a household name.

It’s also a book that probably went unfinished on many shelves. The story is simple: a 16-year-old from a herding family in San Angelo leaves with a friend to find work and go on an adventure in Mexico. Like a hero in a myth, he finds paradise on a vast ranch and hell in a prison in Saltillo before returning to earth somewhere north of the Rio Grande.

But McCarthy’s styling can be tricky, especially for a bestseller book.

Thornton’s version, which was filmed in Texas and New Mexico, gave moviegoers a helping hand that was not available to readers. A narrator sets up the story at the beginning, while the novel asks readers to piece it together. Born cowboy John Grady Cole (Matt Damon) doesn’t see his place in a changing Texas after WWII. When his mother sells the family ranch after his father’s death, he leaves for Mexico.

McCarthy doesn’t use quotes or a lot of attribution when writing dialogue; in the movie, of course, it’s always clear who’s talking. And there are subtitles for those who don’t understand Spanish; the dialogue in the book is not translated.

Much of the dialogue in the film comes straight from the book, which could hardly be improved. In place of McCarthy’s poetic descriptions of the vast landscape of West Texas and the mountains of Mexico are cinematographer Barry Markowitz’s southwest panoramas based on John Ford’s films.

In the strange world of cinema, the Mexican scenes for “All the Pretty Horses” were shot in Texas while the Texan scenes were shot in New Mexico.

Director Billy Bob Thornton chats with local media on the set of “All the Pretty Horses” at the Cadillac Bar in San Antonio on April 12, 1999.

Staff archive photo

In the book, John Grady travels to San Antonio to see his estranged mother, an actress who appears there in a play. On a cold winter morning, he stops in a snowy Travis Park and reads the newspaper in the lobby of the Menger Hotel. This trip does not appear in the film, although the San Antonio area was a filming location.

The Gallagher Headquarters Ranch in Helotes has replaced the Mexican ranch where John Grady finds work and falls in love with the wealthy owner’s daughter (Penélope Cruz). The ladies’ lounge in the city center Scottish Rite Cathedral was dressed to play at a restaurant in Zacatecas where John Grady and the young woman last meet. Another scene was shot at the Cadillac Bar.

Where to see it: Broadcast on Starz; for rent on streaming services such as Vudu and Amazon

By all accounts it was a high profile project, Thornton’s first for a major studio (co-produced by Columbia Pictures and Miramax) after his groundbreaking feature film “Sling Blade”. The screenplay was by Ted Tally, who won an Oscar for “The Silence of the Lambs”, and Damon was on a streak that included “Good Will Hunting”, “Saving Private Ryan” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley”.

But even while filming in San Antonio in April 1999, Thornton seemed to have doubts about the project.

“I have to listen to a bunch of studio stuff every day,” he told Express-News writer Larry Ratliff. “We don’t want a red horse, we want a black horse.

“I just said, ‘No, forget that. If you want a dark horse, you come and make the film. “

John Grady Cole (Matt Damon) and Alejandra (Penelope Cruz) get acquainted in "All the pretty horses"

John Grady Cole (Matt Damon) and Alejandra (Penelope Cruz) meet in “All the pretty horses”

Van Redin / Miramax Films

It turned out that the film hadn’t caused a sensation. It opened at No.8 on Christmas Day 2000, behind three other new releases: “Cast Away”, which topped the box office, Nicolas Cage’s film “The Family Man” (No.3) and another film made in-SA, “Miss Congeniality” (No. 4). In total, it made about $ 15.5 million, or less than a third of its announced budget of $ 57 million.

Thinking back to the film a few years later, in an interview with Venice Magazine, Thornton once again pointed out the studio.

The movie was about “the end of the West,” he said, “and they started turning it into a love affair with an airbrushed poster designed to seat 14-year-olds. “.

If the producers really wanted teens to see the movie, maybe they would have insisted on teens playing the lead role. Even though they were kids, Damon and Henry Thomas, originally from SA, were too old to play John Grady and his mate Lacey Rawlins. (Lucas Black, Thornton’s “Sling Blade” co-star, was closer to the target as a wayward child who joined them on their ride south.)

It is clear that these characters as written by McCarthy were boys when they entered Mexico, if not when they returned. But maybe it only matters if you are reading the book.

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