Remembering (Yet Again) the Alamo
By Cathy Schultz
Twelve movies. Thats 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.
Now for a new generation, a new Alamo film. This is not your fathers
Alamo. Or John Waynes 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, its
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 aint 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 its not engaging in petty debunking. The movies
message is that whatever their past actions or motivations, the
men at the Alamo displayed a bravery there that ennobled them. And
thats worth remembering.
Q. Why doesnt the films Alamo church look like,
well, the Alamo?
A. That distinctive central hump on the Alamos façade
makes it one of the most recognized buildings in the world. But
when the Alamo defenders died there, the hump didnt exist.
There was instead only a ragged wall, as accurately shown in the
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 camelegal
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
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 didnt
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
Q. Did Davy Crockett really die like that?
A. The manner of Crocketts death is, bar none, the most fiercely
debated topic among Alamo buffs. I wont give away the films
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 didnt 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