Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Alamo


In Texas, when I went to school, the entire 7th grade history class was devoted to The Great and Glorious Lone Star State. It was taught from a silly little comic book that, for all I know, is still in use in the 7th grade, because when I visited the San Jacinto Monument in Houston with my dad a few years back we saw a copy of it in a display case, and Dad said they used the same book when he was in the 7th grade.

So I know a little about Texas history.

Actually, I doubt that little book is still used. It was biased, no question. So now, in 2004, I was far from sure about the accuracy of the history I was taught. I mean, the Battle of the Alamo has been hotly debated since the day it ended, and there’s been some revisionism. It wasn’t emphasized to us, for instance, that one of the things the Texians were fighting for was the right to own slaves, outlawed in Mexico. There are historians who argue loudly that David Crockett tried to surrender there at the end. Estimates of Mexican dead range from no more than 200 right up to 1600. What with Hispanics gaining recognition and political clout in Texas, the Mexican side has been told much more sympathetically, as I discovered on my last visit to the Alamo, earlier this year. That’s all well and good.

There have even been attempts to rehabilitate that murderous poltroon, General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, and that’s where I draw the line in the sand. Remember the friggin’ Alamo! sez I.

Anyway, I did a little reading of the best current thinking on the subject after I saw this movie, to check my memory. Sure enough, nobody has suggested that Crockett survived the battle long enough to figuratively spit in Santa Anna’s eye and get bayoneted for his insolence.

Gee, where do I begin?

First, calling this movie The Alamo is not really accurate. It begins roughly with the formation of the Republic of Texas, and ends with the Battle of San Jacinto. The Alamo is the centerpiece, sure, but more accurately one might call it … oh, say The Birth of a Nation, maybe. Uh … well, that title’s been taken, and the associations are not pleasant. Maybe Texas! Or The Texians. But, taken as an account of how a handful of former Americans and rebellious Mexicans wrested Mexico’s largest province from the sort of strutting dictator all of the Americas below the Rio Grande has been burdened with for hundreds of years, this movie falls miserably short. A multi-part TV series might have handled the story better. And it should have begun with the siege of Bexar, when the Texians took the Alamo and sent the Mexicans packing. As it is, events are too compressed to make sense. The scenes of the legislative meetings seem detached from everything else. There is lots of declamation, lots of heat, lots of screenwriterly pomposity.

It’s too bad, because this movie’s intentions are good. They spent $90 million, and made one of the largest and most historically accurate outdoor sets ever built, including not only the Alamo compound itself (correctly showing it without the hump that was added later), but the nearby town of San Antonio de Bexar. They wanted to get it all right this time, according to the director.

But historically speaking, they screwed the pooch. The temptation to hype the material was too strong. It is true that Bowie and Travis didn’t like each other, true that there were conflicts as to who would command, true that Travis was young and inexperienced … but if the two men had said the things the screenwriter has them saying to each other in this film, in 1836, it would have ended with pistols at dawn. Bowie loved to duel.

No way the Mexicans “crept up” on the Alamo before dawn while all the sentries were sleeping. I watched these scenes, of row after row of troops stepping off as a unit, soundlessly, with no commands whatsoever, and I just sighed. Plain stupid.

Also, the Mexicans weren’t waiting at their barricades as the Texians charged across the fields of San Jacinto. They were sleeping in their tents: Siesta time, 3 PM. Sam Houston took a huge chance, attacked before Santa Anna was ready, and 18 minutes later it was over and Buffalo Bayou ran red with blood, almost none of it Texian.

And the whole movie is too damn solemn. Sure, they were facing certain death, but few of the scenes played true to me. In this movie, nobody in the Alamo ever smiles. 13 days, and not one smile. Crockett tells a story of an Indian massacre he was involved in, and the young troops look solemn. Not a racist among them. Not one shout of “Yeeee-haw!!! Serves ‘em right, damn redskins!” which is how most of them would have reacted in that day and age. I didn’t buy Jim Bowie as a brooding, muttering Marlon Brando type. I frankly liked Laurence Harvey as Colonel Travis in John Wayne’s hokey 1960 The Alamo better than this mope they got to play him this time. I just hate it when movies insist on putting characters with modern sensibilities into historical settings. People thought fighting was glorious back then. Most white men didn’t like Indians; most of the men at the Alamo had certainly fought with Caddo and Comanche, no quarter given, awful atrocities on both sides.

The best I can say about Billy Bob Thornton as Crockett is that he was interesting. This portrayal is a far cry from the coon-skin cap hillbilly of my youth, and is certainly more accurate, but not convincing. Like everybody else, he broods a lot. One thing I did like, and a lot of critics didn’t, was his first reaction when arriving at the Alamo. Looking puzzled, he says, “I thought the fighting was over.” And why shouldn’t he? Mexico had surrendered the town and the compound a few months earlier. It was winter, and Santa Anna was not expected for quite a while, certainly not until Houston and Fannin could bring up troops from Goliad and other places.

And while we’re at it, if we’re going to cover the whole early history of Texas, which seems to be the intent here, why leave out Goliad? Nobody outside of Texas has ever heard of it, but more men died there than at the Alamo, 400 prisoners of war executed after surrendering honorably, on Santa Anna’s orders. If anything, the fighters at San Jacinto were more pissed off about Goliad than about the Alamo. The Alamo defenders knew they were going to be killed to the last man. James Fannin’s men expected to be treated according to the rules of warfare of the day, which did not include killing prisoners. It was a disgrace.