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FILM LIST
The Alamo
Alexander
All the King's Men
The Aviator
Cinderella Man
Cold Mountain
DaVinci Code
Finding Neverland
The Great Raid
Hidalgo
Jarhead
King Arthur
Kingdom of Heaven
Kinsey
Last Samurai
Master and Commander
Memoirs of a Geisha
Motorcycle Diaries
National Treasure
The New World
Oliver Twist
Passion of the Christ
Pride and Prejudice
Ray
Troy
Vanity Fair
Walk the Line

 

Remembering (Yet Again) the Alamo
By Cathy Schultz

Twelve movies. That’s the number of feature films Hollywood made about the Alamo through 1960. Not even Gettysburg or D-Day got so much Hollywood affection.

Yet after 1960, Hollywood seemed to lose interest in the Alamo. Historical and political currents shifted, and its story began to seem passe (at best) or racist (at worst) at least to non-Texans. Alamo films, pitting noble white Texans against villainous Mexicans, became embarrassing reminders of an era when American audiences uncritically cheered while watching white heroes battle "uncivilized" brown or red people.
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Now for a new generation, a new Alamo film. This is not your father’s Alamo. Or John Wayne’s for that matter. Not only is it more politically sensitive, but in giving us a variety of perspectives on the conflict, and by presenting flawed, human heroes, it’s also more historically accurate. Here are some answers to questions viewers may have.

Q. The movie says Jim Bowie was a land swindler, and that William Travis deserted his wife. Say it ain’t so!
A. All true. And Davy Crockett came to Texas for less than altruistic motives. And Sam Houston? He drank too much.

The movie accurately depicts these men not as the larger-than-life legends they became, but as the imperfect men they actually were.

But it’s not engaging in petty debunking. The movie’s message is that whatever their past actions or motivations, the men at the Alamo displayed a bravery there that ennobled them. And that’s worth remembering.

Q. Why doesn’t the film’s Alamo church look like, well, the Alamo?
A. That distinctive central hump on the Alamo’s façade makes it one of the most recognized buildings in the world. But when the Alamo defenders died there, the hump didn’t exist. There was instead only a ragged wall, as accurately shown in the film.

So, when did the hump get added? In 1850, after the U.S. Army took over the compound and renovated the church. But not to make it into a shrine, but instead, a warehouse. Leave it to the army.

Q. Why were so many Americans in Texas if it belonged to Mexico?
A. Mexico wanted more settlers in its sparsely populated Texas region. With rather startling naivete, they decided to invite citizens from their notoriously land-hungry neighbor to the North to emigrate there. Bad idea.

The plan was that American settlers would move in, become Catholic, give up slaveholding, and swear allegiance to Mexico.

Only the first happened. Americans came. Then more came—legal and illegal immigrants alike. Before Mexico put the brakes on, the Texians (Anglo-Texans) outnumbered the Tejanos five to one.

Q. What were the Texan settlers fighting for?
A. Lots of things. Some wanted an independent Texas because General Santa Anna had abolished the 1824 Mexico Constitution in a power grab. Others hoped to make Texas part of the U.S. Some fought for personal gain; others for adventure. One ugly, though very common motive was maintaining the "right" to own slaves, which Mexico was denying them.

Q. Whose side were the Tejanos on?
A. Both. And neither, as the film sensitively shows. A few stayed loyal to Mexico, but most despised Santa Anna. Some like Juan Seguin elected to join forces with the Texians in the Rebellion.

But most Tejanos had a healthy suspicion of the American settlers’ intentions. "Santa Anna only wants Mexico," one Tejano shrewdly observes in the film. "These lowlifes want the whole world."

Q. Was Santa Anna really that nasty?
A. He was worse. He had clawed his way to power through intrigue, betrayal, and brutality, and had himself declared dictator in 1835. As a military commander, he consistently overruled his own generals in demanding the execution of all surrendering Texan rebels. This was reinforced soon after the Alamo fell, when he ordered the execution of 350 Texas soldiers who had surrendered at Goliad.

Q. Billy Bob Thornton plays Crockett as a soft spoken, wry adventurer, a bit abashed by his own legend. Is that accurate?
A. Not really. Crockett was a swaggering braggart in an era that celebrated such men. His tough, rough, frontiersman persona didn’t just happen; he helped create it, particularly with his autobiography. That best seller was filled with tales of Davy hunting bears, Davy killing Indians, and Davy beating all comers. All the press worked. For many of his compatriots, he was the quintessential American man.

Q. Did Davy Crockett really die like that?
A. The manner of Crockett’s death is, bar none, the most fiercely debated topic among Alamo buffs. I won’t give away the film’s depiction here, except to say that the filmmakers diplomatically give a nod to the various contested theories, then surprise us with their own unique and unexpected twist. Well done.

Q. Did Jim Bowie invent the Bowie knife?
A. No, but he made it famous. Bowie became a frontier legend after a celebrated fight in Mississippi, where he fatally stabbed his opponent despite being shot twice and stabbed three times himself.

Whether or not he ever fought another knife duel after this (historians debate that) is perhaps beside the point. He didn’t have to. The image was everything. That, and the knife.

Q. Where to get more information on the Alamo?
A. One of the best-written histories is A Line in the Sand by Randy Roberts and James Olson.

4/11/04 Joliet Herald News


Travis, Crockett, and Bowie calculate the odds. Did showing their flaws hurt the film's boxoffice?


Dennis Quaid (Sam Houston) in a "Heigh-Ho, Silver!" moment.


© 2004 History in the Movies
cschultz@stfrancis.edu