Saturday, August 24, 2019

The Alamo and Movies

Making a movie about the Alamo has always been very difficult.  First, the director has to ignore all the of the facts of the real story, for no one wants to watch a movie in which the heroes are fighting primarily for the right to own slaves.  

Yes:  While the defenders of the Alamo had many grievances, their primary concern was the government of Santa Ana was enforcing the Mexican law that outlawed slavery.  At the time of the battle, Stephen Austin was in Mexico trying to secure an extension to the ten-year indentured servitude that Texas had been granted in an effort to slowly end slavery.  Had Austin been successful, it is extremely doubtful that the Battle of the Alamo would ever have occurred.

So, the director of every Alamo movie has to ignore the fact that the defenders may not have been….well....the good guys.  This still leaves the small problem of putting 185 men inside an adobe fort for twelve days (during which absolutely nothing, important or unimportant, happens), followed by a swift conclusion (the outcome of which every moviegoer already knows and expects).  It doesn't help that the actual battle was brief and was fought in the dark, an hour before sunrise.

These problems are why the vast majority of the many, many movies about the Alamo filmed over the last century have been economic failures.  Even John Wayne’s massive epic was both a critical and economic flop.  Only Walt Disney was able to really make a profit with a movie made over six decades ago.  The most recent release, produced by Ron Howard and starring Billy Bob Thornton, lost $146 million.  

None of the movies tells us very much about the real Alamo, but they do tell us something very real about who the viewers were and what they would pay to see. 

Martyrs of the Alamo (1915).  Produced by D. W. Griffith, this is almost a duplicate of Birth of a Nation, which came out the same year.  Produced during the First World War, the theme is very easy to understand:  Mexico has lured American settlers to Texas, promising them the freedom of a republican form of government.  The idyllic life of the pilgrims is shattered when Santa Ana seizes power as a dictator.  

In case there was any doubt that the Mexican President is evil incarnate, the intertitle tells us he is "An inveterate drug fiend, the Dictator of Mexico was also famous for his shameful orgies." (Intertitles are the explicatory cards used between scenes in silent films to further the story.)

Don’t watch this movie, watch the remake:  Mel Gibson in Braveheart follows the same plot.  The good townspeople are willing to put up with some abuse from the foreign army occupying their land, but finally rebel when the evil soldiers abuse their women.  Just like in Birth of a Nation, the brave men must use violence to defend the honor of their women.  

This leads us to the only obvious conclusion:  D. W. Griffith must have been the most sexually insecure man in the nation.

Of the Alamo, you will learn that every single defender of the Alamo wore a coonskin cap, that one of the slaves was Douglas Fairbanks in blackface, and that the real hero of the Alamo was “Silent” Smith, who escaped from the Alamo in a secret passageway that for some reason none of the other defenders could use.  

Ignoring the sexual insecurities of Griffith, the movie fits in well with America’s views about the war being fought in Europe, a war against tyranny and fight to make democracy safe.  

Heroes of the Alamo (1937). Unique among all of the Alamo movies, this film centers around Captain Dickinson and his wife, almost ignoring the Bowie, Crockett, and Travis who are the heroes of most of the other movies about the Alamo.  The Dickinsons are good honest settlers who who are being ignored by an evil dictator who is unconcerned with the needs of the simple farmers who make up Texas.  

The settlers are simple people, striving to make a living despite the actions of an uncaring and distant government—a message that was easily accepted by a hungry nation during the Great Depression. 

With very little action until the last scenes, Heroes of the Alamo seems to drag endlessly with long scenes of dialog.  The studio seems to have simply used the entire cast of a nearby western movie to create this movie, substituting muskets for the Winchesters.  This is the only Alamo movie in which you are likely to find the settlers using covered wagons.

Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier (1955).   This is probably the most widely seen version of the Alamo movies and is arguably the most profitable of all the Disney movies.  If asked, most people still believe that Davy Crockett died at the Alamo swinging his favorite rifle, Betsy, as depicted by Fess Parker in this movie.  

Filmed during the height of the Cold War, this is a movie about an independent man, fighting for what he believes is right, fighting for a cause even though he knows the odds are hopeless.  The men who died at the Alamo are fighting for a cause greater than themselves.

The Alamo (1960) This was John Wayne’s masterpiece, and it provides ample evidence for why he is remembered as an actor and not as a director.  While the set and the costumes of the Mexican army are fairly accurate, there are almost no words to express how dreadfully horrible the plot is.  

I wish I could ask John Wayne why he decided that the movie should end with his character, Davy Crockett, blowing up the Alamo Chapel after the battle is lost.  Since the chapel is the only part of the old fort actually still standing….It just seems odd.

Wayne’s Alamo is a jingoistic call to arms, where the defenders are the epitome of all that it means to be an American man, fighting against injustices at any cost.  The only slave here belongs to Jim Bowie, who magnanimously grants his freedom just before the final battle.  Predictably, the slave chooses to stay and die with his former master.  In reality, Bowie did not free his slave, who survived the battle (remember, the Mexican Army was in Texas to free the slaves), and wisely chose to avoid talking about the true events of the battle for the rest of his life.

The Alamo (2004).  This is the most recent film version of the Alamo story and while the critics hated it (and it lost an enormous amount of money), it is my favorite...if only because it is still the most historically accurate of the movies.  Sadly, since we are talking about Hollywood movies, this is an honor akin to being the world’s tallest midget.   

There are several indications that the movie wanted to be accurate.  Slavery and indentured service contracts are mentioned, however briefly.  Obviously, sometime during filming, there must have been a dawning realization that overturning the cherished Texas myths might prove to be financial suicide.  Nevertheless, this movie may be as close to an accurate account as we are likely to ever see.

In the vast majority of Alamo movies, the ending is usually the death of Crockett, and this movie is no exception.  Throughout the movie, Billy Bob Thornton’s character is trying to come to grips with living a normal life while his public persona has grown to mythic proportions.  
Whenever Crockett’s coonskin cap is shown, this is the signal that Crockett is confronting the dichotomy of his two identities.

Like Crockett, I, too, have a conflict. As a Texan, I was brought up hearing about the heroic defenders of the Alamo, and I have made countless trips through the old mission.  While I love the story—I do own countless books and almost a dozen different movie versions about the battle—I long to see just one historically accurate version in a movie.

But, if such a movie is ever released, I'm pretty sure I’ll never be able to see it in Texas.

1 comment:

  1. I wonder how many of the defenders at the Alamo, like soldiers for the Confederacy actually owned slaves or even thought they were fighting to preserve slavery? Of all the Confederate states, Texas probably was the least invested in the institution of slavery. Sam Houston to his eternal credit, resigned as governor rather than go along with secession. He wasn't the only one. There are family rumors of some of my ancestors conducting guerrilla operations against the Confederacy. More irritations than anything significant, but indicative that not everyone was enamored of slavery.