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Remembering the Alamo

Move over, John Wayne. John Lee Hancock's epic re-creation of the 1836 battle between Mexican forces and Texas insurgents casts the mythic massacre in a more historically accurate light

Each year some three million visitors, eager to glimpse a fabled American landmark, converge on a tree-shaded section of downtown San Antonio. In this leafy urban neighborhood, many of them,whether from Berlin or Tokyo or Dime Box, Texas, appear lost. The sightseers glance from their guidebooks to a towering Hyatt Hotel, to the historic 1859 Menger Hotel, to the Crockett Hotel—now that, they may tell themselves, sounds promising—all hard by a drug store, a post office, parking lots and a dingy café serving $5.49 chicken-fried steaks. None of this quite squares with their ideas of the place—largely formed by movie images of John Wayne, eternally valiant in the role of Davy Crockett, defending a sprawling fortress on a vast Texas prairie in 1836. ~ Then tourists round a corner to find themselves facing a weathered limestone church, barely 63 feet wide and 33 feet tall at its hallowed hump, that strikes many as some sort of junior-size replica rather than a heart-grabbing monument. “The first impression of so many who come here is, ‘This is it?’ ” says Although the Alamo defenders including Davy Crockett (played by Billy Bob Thornton, leading a charge, above) fought bravely, the mission complex (in a c. 1885 depiction of the garrison) was nearly indefensible. General Santa Anna, commander of the Mexican Army, called it an irregular fortification hardly worthy of the name.. historian Stephen L. Hardin. “Of course, they’re looking only at the church, not the entire Alamo,” he says of the old Spanish mission that became an unlikely fortress. (The word Alamo means “cottonwood” in Spanish. The mission, established in 1718 and erected on this site in 1724 near the San AntonioRiver, was bordered by stands of poplars.) “It does seem dwarfed by surrounding hotels. I overhear people all the time saying, ‘It’s so small.’ ”

From This Story

Small it may be, but the “shrine to Texas freedom” looms large in the annals of courage. With the release this month of the new movie The Alamo, filmgoers far too young to remember the 1960 epic, an outsize drama showcasing Wayne as the bold frontiersman Crockett—or actor Fess Parker’s portrayal of a coonskin-capped Crockett on the 1954-55 Disney television series of that name—may discover anew the dramatic power of a uniquely American saga. In this case, the heroic triumvirate of Alamo defenders—William B. Travis, James Bowie and David (as he called himself) Crockett—are portrayed, respectively, by Patrick Wilson, Jason Patric and Billy Bob Thornton.

By no means a remake of Wayne’s histrionic chronicle—“there was hardly a line of historically accurate dialogue in it,” says North Carolina State University historian James E. Crisp—the new, $90 million film from Texas-born director John Lee Hancock is a graphic and largely factual rendition of the legendary battle between insurgent Texas settlers and the Mexican Army.

For many Americans, the actual confrontation remains a symbol of the courage of ordinary men placed in extraordinary circumstances. Others see it as emblematic of America’s territorial ambitions in an era of Manifest Destiny.

Andres Tijerina, a historian at Austin Community College, recalls the day in 1958 at Edison Junior High in San Angelo, Texas, when his history teacher finished her lesson on the Alamo by glaring at him, a kid who, like countless American youngsters, was hooked on the Fess Parker TV series and longed for a coonskin cap. “You’re a Mexican,” she said to Tijerina, even though he was a third-generation U.S. citizen. “How do you explain what they did to Davy Crockett?”

“That was the last time,” says Tijerina, “that I ever wished for a coonskin cap.”

“The Alamo became a hammer for bashing Mexican-Americans in Texas,” says Crisp, a Yale-educated Texan. “It was portrayed as a race war” between Mexicans on one side and American settlers thirsting for freedom on the other. But “on that battlefield there were free blacks, slaves, Indians from central Mexico who spoke no Spanish, Tejanos [Mexicans who sided with the Americans], Europeans, including an Italian general . . . It was almost a laboratory in multiculturalism. It was not a race war.”

All kids growing up in 1950s Texas—as I did—were raised on textbooks that omitted or obscured the fact that the Alamo counted among its defenders Spanish-speaking, Mexican-born Tejanos who fought bravely. “They are the people who often get erased from the story of Texas independence,” says Crisp, who appeared in a recent PBS documentary on the role of Tejanos in the Texas Revolution. “They had their own reasons to fight for Texas independence. This Anglo-Mexican cooperation was purged from the Alamo myth.” Textbooks of the time also neglected to mention that many Alamo heroes, foremost among them Travis and Bowie, had been slaveholders, even slave traders, or that one account of the 12-day Alamo siege, and lightning-quick battle on the 13th day, came from a defender who survived—Travis’ slave, a 23-year-old African-American man known to history only as Joe.

“Telling this tale is an awesome responsibility,” director Hancock, 47, told me in his trailer during the final days of filming last summer. A graduate of Baylor Law School and a screenwriter, Hancock presided over 101 production days that saw Central Texas temperatures go from 22 degrees in January to 102 degrees in August. “I feel the burden of this film in a good way,” he says. “I want to please myself, but I also want to please that 8-year-old in the audience who might make his first trek to the Alamo holding the hand of his grandmother—just as I did.”

Hancock says his intention was to convey depth and humanity upon Mexican soldiers while portraying Travis, Bowie and Crockett less as freedom’s icons than as mortal, fallible men trying to do their best in a difficult situation. Yet Hancock recoils at the suggestion that the movie might be viewed as an exercise in political correctness. “If I had deliberately set out to tell only ‘the Mexican side,’ it would have ended up on the editing room floor,” he says. “Santa Anna may be the most fascinating guy in the movie, and I can’t deny an attempt to convey that a very large Anglo constituency [at the Alamo] was interested in keeping slavery, but ultimately, I looked for those things that would tell the very best story. . . . The facts of the Alamo are far more interesting than the mythology.”

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