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Remember the Alamo: The Persistence of Myth

A vivid memory from my childhood is a birthday party in which my wish for Davy Crockett merchandise was granted. I trotted off to a small Texas Panhandle school with Davy Crockett lunch box, coonskin cap, buckskin shirt, and replica of Crockett's musket, affectionately named "Ole' Betsy." Until late in the evening, I would reenact Crockett's last stand at the Alamo; a most unusual childhood game culminating in the heroic fantasy death of myself and my playmates. Of course, we all insisted on portraying the defenders of the Alamo, while the Mexican forces of General Lopez de Santa Anna remained only imaginary characters.

I was totally invested into the mythical America created by Walt Disney's version of the Davy Crockett. Courageous Anglo pioneers had to wrest the West from treacherous Indians and Mexicans in order the preserve the region for American liberty and freedom. This simplistic 1950s Disney history lesson was supplemented by John Wayne's epic film The Alamo; as well as a cartoon Texas history textbook--originally sponsored by the Mobil Oil corporation during the late 1920s but still in use during the 1960s--whose pages were dominated by racial caricatures of tall Anglo Texans and short, swarthy Mexicans.

The experience of the civil rights movement, Vietnam War, breakdown of the post World War II consensus, and an advanced degree in history convinced me to put away my childish notions regarding the Alamo. With the release by Touchstone Pictures of director John Lee Hancock's 2004 version of The Alamo, the Disney Corporation offers evidence that the corporate giant is also capable of some intellectual growth and development. Hancock's film offers a far more complex portrait of the Texas struggle for independence than that offered by Fess Parker as Davy Crockett during the 1950s.

The current Alamo film continues to focus upon the defenders of the Alamo exemplified by the triumvirate of Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton), William Travis (Patrick Johnson), and Jim Bowie (Jason Patric). Nevertheless, the filmmakers recognize that there is more to the story than these three men. For example, the fact that the forces within the fortress included Hispanics who supported Texas independence is often overlooked in Alamo mythology. Hancock's The Alamo acknowledges the role played by Juan Seguin and the Tejanos, or Texas Mexicans, but they are relegated to a supportive and somewhat passive status; reminiscent of how Hollywood films such as Mississippi Burning place African Americans in a secondary position for the civil rights movement. The story of the Tejanos and their betrayal by Anglo Texans would make for an interesting film.

The Alamo also provides a broader cultural perspective in the treatment of its Mexican characters. Mexican residents of San Antonio are shown in a sympathetic light as they seek to avoid being caught in the crossfire of the two armies. The Mexican soldiers are not all depicted as fanatical warriors bayoneting the Texans. There is an effort to show young Mexican soldiers dying tragically and bravely for their country. Several Mexican officers are treated as honorable and dignified characters; although one who tends to engage in hero worship of Crockett is a bit much.

Nevertheless, the only Mexican who is really developed in the film is the rather diabolical figure of General Lopez de Santa Anna (Emilio Echevarria), who is depicted as arrogant, vain, cruel, cowardly, and lustful. Santa Anna's historical legacy does not necessarily deserve a more revisionist treatment, but focusing upon the general/dictator does not allow for a broader survey of the Mexican side. As the film suggests, Santa Anna was quick to execute those who rose in rebellion against him, but he also conscripted many poor young Mexican peasants into the army that assaulted the Alamo. Telling the story from their point of view would certainly provide a unique perspective. Instead, the Mexicans and Santa Anna are presented as the more powerful force against a ragged bunch of Texans, who lack the uniforms, firepower, and numbers of the invading forces. Of course, the Texans fighting ostensibly to protect their homes prevail in the long run with victory at San Jacinto. Perhaps there is some lesson here for any occupying power to consider.

While the film does attempt to provide some glimpse into the Tejano role and a more humane treatment of the Mexicans, it does little to explain the reasons for the Texas Revolution. Viewers are primarily presented with clichés about liberty from Travis and Sam Houston (Dennis Quaid), but the history of Texas as a Mexican province is not developed. Anglo settlement on Mexico's northern frontier had been encouraged with land grants; however, Mexican authorities, concerned about Anglo desires to affiliate with the United States, attempted to centralize control during the 1820s. In addition to enforcing Catholicism, the Mexican government outlawed slavery. Thus, one of the great ironies of the Texas Revolution is that the Texans were fighting for their natural right to hold other people in bondage.

This state of affairs is only alluded to in the film by two slaves who discuss the possibility of freedom under Mexican rule. Yet, no Anglo character expounds upon this explosive issue, which led the United States to delay annexing Texas until 1844. The annexation of Texas contributed to the Mexican-American War and the ensuing Civil War over slavery expansion.

The Alamo, however, does deserve some credit for suggesting that those migrating to Texas had rather unsavory pasts and reputations; such as Travis's desertion of wife and family or Houston's bouts with alcoholism. The film tends to interpret the Texas Revolution as giving these men a chance at redemption. Nevertheless, the bloody massacre of Mexican troops at San Jacinto and the atrocities committed against Mexicans by Texas volunteers during the Mexican-American War demonstrate that a bloody frontier legacy did not always represent a positive outcome for these second chances.

Of all the Anglo characters developed in The Alamo, Crockett, in a superb performance from Thornton, remains the most interesting. Thornton's Crockett is a far more complex individual than the man introduced by Disney during the 1950s. This Crockett is clearly a man of ambition. He journeys to Texas after losing a congressional election. Once regarded as a possible Whig presidential candidate, he remarks to Houston, in an early scene set in Washington, that Texas may need a president. When he arrives in Texas, Crockett is surprised to find that Santa Anna is marching upon San Antonio. An obviously uncomfortable Crockett states that he thought all the fighting was over. An introspective Crockett goes on to explain that he is a prisoner of his own image as a warrior created by newspapers and stage performers. His major military experience before the Alamo was against the Creek Indians. The witnessing of a massacre removed any illusions of war's grandeur. In fact, he concludes that David Crockett the man might crawl over the wall and desert the Alamo, but Davy Crockett the legend simply could not take that course of action.

And in the conclusion of the film, the Disney studio appears to become a hostage to its own legacy. In previous film versions of the Alamo, Crockett is always the last man standing. Consulting previously overlooked Mexican sources, many historians now maintain that Crockett was probably captured and executed by the Mexicans. Some accounts suggest that Crockett may have even bargained for his life. In the Hancock film, Crockett is given an opportunity to beg that he be spared. The former Tennessee congressman seems to contemplate pleading for his safety, and then he notices a young Mexican boy wearing a coonskin cap; reminding Crockett of the image which he cannot escape. Crockett bravely confronts Santa Anna and forfeits his life. It is almost as if the Disney studio decided that it was also the prisoner of its Crockett past and could not relinquish the heroic frontier image which it had so profitably exploited.

While the "Freedom Alliance," founded by Oliver North, asserts that The Alamo is "destroying a traditional hero," the Touchstone film should be congratulated for departing from the more juvenile portrayals of Crockett and the Alamo by offering multiple perspectives on this complex historical narrative. The Alamo is hardly the definitive version it would like to be; however, in alluding to Tejanos, the Mexican perspective, and the slavery issue, this film does indicate that there are rich veins still to be mined in the multi-faceted story of the Alamo. And those who would like to redress the atrocities of 9-11 with military expeditions around the globe--and there is no indication that the current Texan President George W. Bush is as concerned with Alamo analogies as was Lyndon Johnson during the Vietnam War--would do will to remember the troubled legacy of the Alamo. It would behoove us to remember the real rather than the mythical Alamo.