Film and TV

The New Tom Hanks Western Is Set Partly in an Unrecognizable Dallas

Tom Hanks and Helena Zengel in News of the World, Hanks' first Western.
Tom Hanks and Helena Zengel in News of the World, Hanks' first Western. Universal
In his over 35 year-career as every dad’s favorite actor, Tom Hanks has played historical figures —  from Ben Bradlee to Walt Disney — wooed mermaids, saved Private Ryan, solved crimes with dogs and played “Chopsticks” on a larger-than-life piano. Yet, at the age of 64, Hanks has done a new film in a genre that he’s never explored before: the Western.

Yes, Hanks is best known to a certain generation as Woody the Cowboy from the Toy Story series, but surprisingly he’s never appeared in any films in the Western genre before. This changes with Hanks’ latest film News of the World, an awards-buzzy drama that has a major Dallas connection.

The film, which began its exclusively theatrical run over Christmas, stars Hanks as Civil War veteran Jefferson Kyle Kidd, who travels between cities in the American South reading the events of the world’s newspapers. After encountering an abandoned child named Johanna at the site of a massacre, Kidd reluctantly agrees to transport the girl across the trail to a Union checkpoint where she can be returned to her family.

Of course, because this is a Tom Hanks movie, it’s not spoiling anything to say that Kidd ultimately has to do the right thing and embark on a slightly longer journey in order to reunite the innocent girl with her family. Their adventure leads the pair to many cities, including Dallas, and it’s not exactly the most flattering depiction to ever grace the silver screen.

From the moment Kidd and Johanna arrive in Dallas, they’re taunted by a crowd uninterested in national news who remain unflinchingly loyal to the Confederacy, despite the fact that the war is long over. There’s a sigh of contempt from the crowd gathered to listen to Kidd’s reading of a press release about President Ulysses S. Grant — the allusion to the “fake news” decriers of today is less than subtle.

Dallas continues to be a place where ex-Confederate sympathizers are common, with the aftermath of hate crimes visible to Kidd as he attempts to covertly transport Johanna to safety. Some of the film’s nastiest characters, a band of ex-soldiers who now make their way as kidnappers, attempt to buy Johanna from Kidd, leading to one of the most exciting sequences in the film.

It has all the makings of a classic gunfight; three men corner Kidd and Johanna within the Dallas wilderness and begin engaging in a shootout. What makes News of the World unique is that it is unflinching in its dedication to being accurate to the era, and as a result, you don’t see the sort of rapid fire shooting that Hollywood Westerns like Tombstone or The Magnificent Seven would have. Instead, the process of aiming, loading, and collecting stray ammo is a much more methodical process, but one that feels just as exciting.

The explosive end to the segment of News of the World set in Dallas is only the beginning of the film’s adventure — Texas cities like San Antonio play a major role as well. However, it’s the Dallas scenes that emphasize the themes of how a post-war nation continues to hang on to old battlefields, and the impossibility of progress when one side is still caught up in the same battles.

Kidd, like all the characters in the film, has lost much as a result of the war, and as he travels across the nation delivering news, he finds a country that he doesn’t fully recognize. As much as it's a story about America in the 1870s, News of the World is geared toward today’s climate.

Dallas is one of the select few cities with showings of News of the World, which remains in theaters until its digital debut on Jan. 15.
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Liam Gaughan has been covering film and television since before he had a driver's license, and in addition to the Observer has been published in, Schmoes Know, Taste of Cinema and The Dallas Morning News. He enjoys checking classic films off of his watchlist and working on spec scripts.