[10 February 2004]
Texans take their history seriously. Some estimates have no fewer than 5,000 separate websites devoted to Texas lore. Central to that history is the struggle for Texas independence in the first half of the 19th century. And, at the heart of that effort is the legend of the Alamo.
It’s crucial to say “legend” here because, as with many chapters in the building of the American colossus, there is as much myth as truth surrounding the last stand at the former Spanish mission in what is now San Antonio. “The Alamo” offers an irresistible Hollywood storyline: certified celebrities of the Western frontier, such as Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie, shoulder to shoulder against the invading Mexican horde, surrendering their lives for the cause of freedom. (The tale has repeatedly made for good theatre, most notably in the John Wayne vehicle, The Alamo .)
All of that is accurate. Sort of. Crockett and Bowie were, indeed, legendary backwoodsman. But their cause had as much to do with preserving Texas’ business climate (which included the employment of slaves) from Mexican interference as it did with some abstract notion of independence. And Bowie, best known for the knife that bears his name, didn’t perish alongside Crockett and other Alamo defenders on the front lines. He was killed in his sick bed, where he suffered from tuberculosis. Neither was a U.S. citizen at the time. Rather, they were citizens of Mexico, which then reached deep into the midsection of what is now the United States.
Exploding this myth is the mission of The History Channel’s two-hour documentary, Remember the Alamo, which serves as the centerpiece of a new DVD release concerning the epic battle. The documentary, which originally ran on the cable channel, attempts to chronicle the events of 6 March 1836 with objectivity, a goal as daunting in the patriotic, warlike days of 2004 as it must have been in the years that followed the Mexican siege. “The winner gets to write the history and ultimately, the Texians won the Texas revolution,” advises historian Alan C. Huffins in the film.
The documentary uses the now familiar mix of re-created live action, academic sources, and archival records to tell its story. “Texians” was the name given American settlers who accepted the Mexican government’s offer of land and citizenship in the Texas territory, before they ultimately rebelled. Most of them were Southerners who came to establish the cotton trade in the developing land. With them, of course, came slaves, and the three central figures of the Alamo story—Bowie, Crockett, and William Barret Travis—all sought riches. Travis, a lawyer, left behind a wife and children in Alabama and was a militant supporter of slavery.
In the early 1830s, the federal government of Mexico threatened to eliminate the practice of slaveholding in Texas, as it had already done in the rest of the nation. Travis became a leader in the movement opposing Mexican rule and was later jailed briefly. In the meantime, the foremost Texan settler, Stephen F. Austin, was imprisoned for resisting Mexican taxation. The seeds were now planted for an independence movement.
Bowie, the celebrated Indian fighter, was, in fact, a criminal, facing indictment for land fraud. Crockett, already a famous hunter and backwoodsman, had lost his Tennessee congressional seat and, according to the film, was suffering from nothing less than a midlife crisis. Both of them became entangled in the Texian rebellion. Along with Travis, they sat with a garrison at the Alamo in early 1836 to await the onslaught. Led by the vicious General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, the imperious head of the Mexican government, the Mexican troops arrived weeks ahead of schedule and laid siege to the fortified former Spanish mission.
Most of the Alamo defenders were not colonists at all, but illegal immigrants, American mercenaries who streamed into the territory to try to secure its separation from Mexico. “It was very important to get the Alamo back, because it was Mexican territory and they were illegals and people who were defying the Mexican government,” says Josefina Zoradia Vazquez, a historian from El Colegio de Mexico. Remember the Alamo, admirably and perhaps for the first time, strives to portray the conflict from the Mexican point of view, at times allowing the colorful cast of historian narrators to underline that the rebels were criminals leading an insurrection. Terrorists, if you will. (They don’t use that word, but think, for a moment, if a group of armed radicals seized a portion of Montana. It would give “Homeland Security” new meaning.)
The film also reserves a place of honor for Juan Seguin, a controversial Tejano soldier who fought alongside the Anglo defenders of the Alamo. Seguin, a steadfast friend of Stephen Austin, epitomized the largely ignored Hispanic contingent who stood with the Texian rebels at the Alamo. Seguin escaped death only because he was sent from the Alamo during Santa Anna’s siege to recruit reinforcements that never came. However, his place in Texas history has remained somewhat unsettled, as he was later expelled from Texas by racist American newcomers and joined the Mexican Army in battle against the U.S. in the Mexican-American War.
Santa Anna overran the Alamo with more than 1,000 troops. The 200-odd men, women, and children who stood against them had little hope. All of the soldiers were either killed or executed, including Crockett. (Some women and children survived, another fact somewhat lost to folklore.) The most common version of the story holds that Crockett died fighting, brandishing his rifle like a bludgeon, though this documentary suggests a different fate. One historical fact that few dispute is that Santa Anna’s merciless campaign enraged the fledgling Texian rebels. The Mexican Army would soon be overwhelmed at the Battle of San Jacinto and Texas’ independence, however short-lived, would be won.
The DVD set vividly illustrates the conflicting views of events at the Alamo. It sports three additional features, all filmed about a decade earlier. Two of them, episodes of the A&E Network’s series, The Real West, hosted by country singer Kenny Rogers (back in his “Gambler” days), are consistent with the myth-building surrounding the Alamo that began in earnest in the late 19th century. The Real West doesn’t note the ongoing disputes over the number of Mexican casualties inflicted by our heroes. And there is no dispute whether the Texian rebels died for the cause of freedom or something more material.
The Hispanic point of view is nowhere to be found in these earlier films. Juan Seguin, his family, and his relationship to the settlers aren’t mentioned. And where the new documentary attempts to interview Mexican historians such as Josefina Zoradia Vazquez, whose take on the events of March 1836 goes noticeably against the grain, these early films let the winners write the history, through interviews with Texas-based historians whose academic notoriety is based on being experts on “the Alamo.” The final segment is an old episode of the series Biography about Crockett; at every turn, it describes him as a legend, never raising questions concerning his life or death.
Last but not least, a featurette hosted by actor Dennis Quaid brackets the two-disc set. Quaid plays Colonel Sam Houston in the upcoming feature film, The Alamo, scheduled to be released this spring. A preview of the film suggests it will be an action-packed historical epic, featuring brave freedom fighters devoted to democracy. These scenes show that, at the end of the day, the truth can never compete with a good story.