The Alamo

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Today marks the anniversary of the last full day of the siege of the Alamo in San Antonio de Béxar, Texas. In the predawn hours of March 6, 1836, the centralistas of General Antonio López de Santa Anna stormed the fortified mission and killed every defender inside. The Battle of the Alamo has been the subject of films since the silent era—the first Alamo movie appeared in 1911—and there have been a number of well known, large-scale productions, including 1960's epic starring John Wayne. Today, I want to look at what I think is an underrated, overlooked classic: 2004's film directed by John Lee Hancock, The Alamo

No, I only wear [the coonskin cap] when it’s extra cold. The truth is, I only started wearing that thing because of that fella in that play they did about me. People expect things.
— David Crockett

The history

Texas, originally a Spanish-controlled region of New Spain, remained sparsely populated for a long time. By the early nineteenth century, first the Spanish and then the independent Mexican government tried to encourage migration to Texas to create a buffer zone between the heart of Mexican territory and French- and then American-controlled Louisiana. These efforts only began to show significant results with the recruitment of American empresarios—literally "entrepreneurs," men granted rights to settle land and recruit people to emigrate there.

Jason Patric as Jim Bowie and Jordi Mollà as Juan Seguin in  The Alamo

Jason Patric as Jim Bowie and Jordi Mollà as Juan Seguin in The Alamo

In 1822 Stephen F. Austin brought 300 "Anglo" families from the United States to Texas and settled them along the Brazos River. The Anglos quickly grew to outnumber the original Spanish-descended inhabitants, the Tejanos; by 1830, there were over 30,000 Anglo Texians as against the 4,000 or so Tejano natives. Immigration continued, predominantly from the United States—which was in the grip of a series of economic panics and the burgeoning but as yet unnamed concept of Manifest Destiny—but from Europe as well. Immigrants had to swear loyalty to the government of Mexico, practice Catholicism, learn Spanish, and settle lawfully. These policies were widely ignored. Anglo settlers entered Texas illegally and squatted on land they claimed illegally. The Mexican government worked to slow what appeared to be a de facto Anglo takeover of Texas. In 1829, Mexico outlawed slavery, which Anglo slaveowners skirted by having their slaves sign lifetime indentures; in 1830, the Mexican government attempted to restrict immigration. It did not work. Anglo settlers, who now felt entitled to land in Texas, felt affronted, convened to protest the new restrictions, and viewed the Mexican government with distrust.

The Texians' suspicions were only heightened with the ascension of Santa Anna as president of Mexico. Santa Anna, who revealingly styled himself "the Napoleon of the West," was a centralista. He repealed the Constitution of 1824 and moved forward with a program to centralize Mexico's formerly decentralized federalist government. Among his goals was the abolition of local militias in favor of a regular Mexican army on the Napoleonic model. Texians, both Anglo and Tejano, with a robust tradition of self-defense borne of living on the frontier, refused to comply. 

The final assault on the alamo, from  Texian Iliad , by Stephen Hardin

The final assault on the alamo, from Texian Iliad, by Stephen Hardin

The revolution began on October 2, 1835 with the Battle of Gonzalez, where a squadron of centralista cavalry attempted to confiscate a small cannon used by the Gonzalez militia. Under the "Come and Take It" flag (a classical allusion, by the way), the Gonzalez militia put the centralistas to flight with two cavalrymen killed.

What would otherwise have been a skirmish between 250 men had large effects: the emboldened Texians met in congress to discuss the situation, with some already arguing for independence from a foreign government that would not respect its prior constitutional arrangements with them, and Santa Anna prepared to march into Texas to subdue the rebels. Suspicious that the rebellion was backed by the notoriously acquisitive United States, Santa Anna decreed that any foreign-born people aiding the rebels would be considered pirates and summarily executed.

The Texians assumed Santa Anna would have to wait for the harsh winter of northern Mexico to pass before he could move his main force against them. They were wrong. Santa Anna, again consciously modeling himself on Napoleon, force-marched his starving, ragged men into Texas and surprised the rebels. Their first great confrontation would come in San Antonio de Béxar, where the Texians had fortified a long-abandoned mission with the largest concentration of artillery pieces west of the Mississippi. Santa Anna laid siege for thirteen days before storming the mission and slaughtering the defenders.

The film

As I mentioned above, 2004's Alamo is by no means the first film to depict the events of the Texas Revolution or the Battle of the Alamo. But it is the most detailed, accurate, well-acted, and well-produced. 

Billy Bob Thornton as David Crockett and Patrick Wilson as William Travis

Billy Bob Thornton as David Crockett and Patrick Wilson as William Travis

The film's director and co-writer, John Lee Hancock, is a native Texan, and brought a deep love of the state to the production. While proud of the story of the Alamo and its heroic defense, Hancock wanted a scrupulously fair and accurate film, unlike, for instance, the 1960 John Wayne version, which was really a thinly disguised anti-Communist parable. Furthermore, Hancock doesn't just tell the story of the Alamo; he elected to follow up the ill-fated siege and massacre with the Texians' victory over Santa Anna at San Jacinto, showing the audience that the deaths of the Alamo's defenders were not in vain.

The film follows three major narrative tracks: Sam Houston and the political side of the Texian struggle; Santa Anna and the centralista side; and the Alamo's defenders, the most prominent of which are William Barret Travis (Patrick Wilson), militia commander Jim Bowie (Jason Patric), and recent arrival from the United States Congress, Tennessean David Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton). The three narratives converge on the Alamo and, once the mission has fallen and its defenders wiped out, conclude with Houston facing Santa Anna and defeating him. Astonishingly for a film that lasts just over two hours, all three of these tracks have enough time to breathe.

The film was exorbitantly expensive, with a budget of around $100 million. Hancock's production team built a full-sized recreation of the Alamo mission and the town of San Antonio on a 51-acre set in a climatically accurate tract of land near Austin. Every known defender of the Alamo was specifically cast rather than relying on batches of background extras, and uniforms, equipment, civilian clothing, and anything else that might appear onscreen was created for the production with precise period accuracy.

The film is technically brilliant. Dean Semler, the cinematographer, filmed The Alamo as a gorgeous western period piece, with beautiful sunsets and location scenery. This film is also one of the earliest Hollywood uses of the Spydercam system; watch in particular for a virtuoso shot in which the viewer is fired from one of Santa Anna's cannon, soars over the siege lines and the outskirts of San Antonio, and over the walls of the Alamo. Carter Burwell, the Coen brothers' go-to composer, wrote the score, a beautiful assortment of Spanish- and Scots-Irish-inflected theme music. The action scenes are well-executed, make visual sense, and accurately reflect the period. And what is more, even though we know what the outcome must be, they're exciting.

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The acting is excellent across the board. The stars acquit themselves well, especially Thornton as a Crockett living in the shadow of his own legend after a failed congressional career, and Wilson as a young officer—26 at the time—with something to prove. (Compare Laurence Harvey's sneering middle-aged martinet in the John Wayne version; there's no contest over which is the more believable, fully realized human being.) Even the small parts, such as Edwin Hodge as Travis's slave Joe, get little moments of their own. A handful of scenes in which Joe and Bowie's slave Sam (Afemo Omilami) talk with each other about their servitude are particularly good.

In his review, the late Roger Ebert summed up the film's dramatic strengths well: 

Conventional wisdom in Hollywood is that any movie named "The Alamo" must be simplistic and rousing, despite the fact that we already know all the defenders got killed. . . . Here is a movie that captures the loneliness and dread of men waiting for two weeks for what they expect to be certain death, and it somehow succeeds in taking those pop-culture brand names like Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie and giving them human form.

Unfortunately, The Alamo flopped at the box office. It received widespread negative buzz before it opened, and had the misfortune of opening against The Passion of the Christ, which retook the number one spot for Easter weekend. The Alamo ultimately made back about a quarter of its budget, and it still hasn't been released on Blu-ray.

Even fourteen years later, I talk to people who hate—or seem to remember hating—The Alamo, and I honestly can't understand why. Perhaps some of its was the Bush-era media hostility to anything even remotely patriotic, even if the patriotism in question was to the Republic of Texas. But to return to Roger Ebert, he opened his print review with this: "The advance buzz on 'The Alamo' was negative, and now I know why: This is a good movie." I'm with Ebert.

The film as history

The Alamo is, with a handful of others, my beau idéal for historical films. It's engaging, well-written, well-acted, the costumes, props, and sets all look great, and the filmmakers obviously cared about the history for its own sake, not for the purposes of a presentist political or social agenda (cf. Ridley Scott's "historical" films).

Billy Bob Thornton as David Crockett, carrying his rifle and wearing a reproduction of a waistcoat now on display at the alamo shrine

Billy Bob Thornton as David Crockett, carrying his rifle and wearing a reproduction of a waistcoat now on display at the alamo shrine

I've found repeated viewings of The Alamo immensely rewarding. The film is packed with detail, much of which isn't even given direct attention. The result is a density of period detail that sells its authenticity without drawing attention to itself. It's confident but not flashy. Among numerous historical tidbits are the discovery among the slain of the body of Grigorio Esparza, a Tejano defender of the Alamo, by his brother, a soldier in Santa Anna's army, David Crockett's bloodcurdling reminiscence of a massacre from Jackson's Indian wars, small items of Cherokee design carried by Sam Houston, and one brief shot of a bagpiper playing in the Alamo during the siege. All of these details are factually supported.

But while the movie gets a lot of nice, small details right, its depiction of larger themes is what gives it its value as a historical film. American expansion, American political ideals grounded in federalism and representation, slavery and the legal fiction of indentured servitude, the relationship between and among Anglos and Tejanos, Santa Anna's grandiosity and tyranny, Southern codes of honor and dueling (watch every interaction between Travis and Bowie), and especially the fragile new society arising on the edges of civilization in Texas are all well depicted in The Alamo and enrich the drama of the story playing out in the siege. The film also gives good attention to the Tejanos, who are almost entirely omitted in other versions, and hints at the interesting relationships between Anglos and Tejanos (Bowie's dead Tejana wife plays a crucial role as his health fails, and Tejano hero Juan Seguin is given plenty of screentime with Houston). I find that a class of average students, properly primed by the lectures up to this point in American history, not only enjoy the story but get a lot out of this movie.

There are inaccuracies and liberties. The most prominent is the Alamo itself, which the production designer, in an otherwise 99% accurate set, scooted forward so the iconic facade would be visible from anywhere else in the compound. Others are minor and don't harm the film's value: the actor playing Santa Anna, for instance, is about twenty years too old, but his performance is wonderful, a detestable mixture of charm, bravado, and towering rage. But most of the film's inaccuracies arise from mere condensation and streamlining to fit the story into about two and a half hours. For example, repeated meetings between the Alamo's defenders and Mexican messengers are condensed to one initial meeting, and Santa Anna's Easter Sunday massacre of prisoners at Goliad is omitted entirely.

At least some of the negativity the film attracted stemmed from its treatment of Davy Crockett ("He prefers David," we are reminded in the film). Crockett is depicted as captured and murdered in cold blood on Santa Anna's orders rather than going down in a blaze of glory in a stack of Mexican corpses a la John Wayne. Stephen Hardin, one of the film's historical advisers (see below), thinks that some viewers misinterpreted the scene as showing Crockett having surrendered. If he's correct, that's a problem with the viewers, since our penultimate glimpse of Crockett shows him and a handful of his surviving American volunteers fighting hand-to-hand in the Alamo chapel.

Furthermore, Crockett is only depicted wearing his iconic Fess Parker garb once, in what amounts to a PR appearance. (See the quotation above.) Thornton's Crockett is a wonderful character, and offers a window into a world in which public image already matters and can be used by aspiring politicians thanks to the democratic turn of American politics. The film opens with him attending a play based on the exaggerated stories of his early life on the frontier, and follows him as he encounters and tries not to let down fans who have heard those stories. I think the character of Crockett offers a case study of the film itself, an example of the ways legend informs fact, and the ways audiences are sometimes disappointed with the truth, no matter how heroic the truth is.

More if you're interested

Like a lot of the other topics we've explored as part of Historical Movie Monday, the historical literature on the Alamo is huge. What makes it interesting is the extremely narrow focus of the subject and the massive contributions by amateurs, who have both helped clarify the historical record and muddied the waters. There is a lot of stellar research and a lot of folklore. I'm going to recommend three books with an excellent standard of historical research. 

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The first, and my favorite, is Texian Iliad, by Stephen L. Hardin. This is an excellent military history of the Texas Revolution, from Gonzalez to San Jacinto, that covers both the Texian and Mexican sides well and includes excellent maps and illustrations of uniforms, clothing, and gear based on solid research and evidence. It's also well-written. Hardin served as one of the film's historical advisers and his commentary track on the DVD is well worth listening to.

More novelistic in its approach is The Blood of Heroes, by James Donovan, which focuses on the Battle of the Alamo specifically. H.W. Brands, prolific author and biographer and professor of history at UT Austin, has a readable history of the Texas Revolution called Lone Star Nation, which begins with Stephen Austin's Anglo settlement of Texas and provides a great deal of context for the events of the Revolution and the creation of the Republic of Texas.

Finally, William C. Davis, another prolific author and a familiar face for anyone who watched the History Channel when it still showed historical programming, has Three Roads to the Alamo, a massive triple-biography of Crockett, Bowie, and Travis. Davis's work is always well-written, carefully researched, and balanced, so Three Roads offers an arresting and detailed picture of the world from which these three figures emerged to die together at the Alamo.

Next week

Next week I'm beginning Medieval March in this series with the 1958 Kirk Douglas romp The Vikings. Stay tuned!