Saturday, 5 September 2009

Two Movies About the Alamo

The Second Battle of the Alamo may well be the most legendary battles in American history. Not surprisingly, the battle has long been fodder for motion pictures. The first such movie about the Battle of the Alamo was The Immortal Alamo, a silent film made in 1911 and now thought to be lost. Since that time there have been no less than eight movies about the battle and at least three portrayals of it on television (including the "Davy Crockett at the Alamo" episode of Disneyland). Perhaps what may be the two most famous movies about the Battle of the Alamo are both simply called The Alamo: the 1960 version directed by John Wayne and the 2004 version directed by John Lee Hancock.

That the Second Battle of the Alamo should be the subject of many movies and television adaptations should not be surprising. The battle itself has become the stuff of legends to the point that it is sometimes difficult to separate fact from fiction. As might be expected of any battle that has become legend, it has proven fodder for various revisionists. There have been those who have claimed that the Second Battle of the Alamo (not to mention the whole Texas Revolution) was another manifestation of the then current idea of Manifest Destiny (the idea that the United States was destined to expand from the Atlantic to the Pacific). There have also been those who have claimed that the Second Battle of the Alamo (not to mention the whole Texas Revolution) was a battle between pro-slavery Texians and anti-slavery Mexicans. The traditional legend has primarily been a Northern European American-centric one, in which Texians desiring freedom fought against the oppression of the dictator Antonio L&ocacute;pez de Santa Anna. In truth, neither the revisionist views of the battle nor the traditional legend of it are quite true.

It was in 1833 that Santa Anna was elected the president of Mexico. By 1833 he decided Mexico was not ready for democracy. He threw out the Constitution of 1812, disbanded the Congress of Mexico, and created a centralised government with power resting primarily in himself. In fact, the state of Coahuila y Tejas (what would become the current Mexican state of Coahuila and the current American state of Texas) was not the only one to rebel. Along with Coahuila, the states of Nuevo Leóon and Tamaulipas would secede from Mexico and form the Republic of the Rio Grande. The Yucatan, once a republic of its own, would secede from Mexico to once more become a republic as it had been earlier. As to the Texas Revolution, it was not simply a war between Northern European Americans in favour of democracy and a Mexican dictator. In truth, not only Texians (Northern European Americans who had settled in Coahuila y Tejas) but Tejanos (Mexicans living in Coahuila y Tejas) rebelled against the authoritarian rule of Santa Anna as well.

The contribution which many Tejanos made to the Texas Revolution were often ignored by the legend of the Battle of the Alamo in both the 19th and 20th Centuries. Not surprisingly, they were then also ignored in most of the movies. Indeed, this was particularly true of the 1960 version of The Alamo, released in 1960 and directed by John Wayne, but then this version of the battle is so historically inaccurate that it should is pretty much a work of fiction as opposed to an accurate portrayal of the battle.

As early as 1945 John Wayne had wanted to make a movie about the Second Battle of the Alamo. It was at that point that he hired James Edward Grant (who had previously written the movie Boom Town starring Clark Gable) to write the script and the two began research on the battle itself. The project ultimately fell through, as Republic Pictures chafed at the film's estimated $3 million budget. Wayne left the studio because of the disagreement, and the script was rewritten as the screenplay for The Last Command, another film about the Battle of the Alamo. It was because of his experience with Republic that Wayne decided to produce and direct the film himself. With his company Batjac producing the film, in 1956 Wayne signed a contract with United Artists to distribute it.

While John Wayne and James Edward Grant did considerable research into the battle, the resulting film would be extraordinarily inaccurate in its depiction of the battle. In fact, one of its biggest inaccuracies is also one of its simplest. Characters refer to the Alamo (and hence the city of San Antonio) as being on the Rio Grande, even though the river is 150 miles away! Other inaccuracies were made with regards to the characters. As Davy Crockett, John Wayne dressed in a coonskin cap and buckskins. While this image of Crockett is a popular one, he never dressed that way. Davy Crockett is not only portrayed a bit inaccurately, but so is Jim Bowie. The movie portrays Bowie's wife and children as having died of cholera not long before the battle began. In fact, his wife and children had died of cholera four years before the Battle of the Alamo. The film also makes no mention that Bowie was suffering from an undetermined disease at the time, perhaps typhoid fever, tuberculosis, or even lung cancer. For much of the battle Bowie was actually bed ridden. According to John Wayne's version of The Alamo, Bowie was bed ridden because he had been wounded during the siege.

Beyond inaccuracies with regards to the various characters, the 1960 version also takes liberties with the particulars of the battle itself. This should perhaps not be surprising, as the movie does not go into the reasons for the Texas Revolution, much less the Second Battle of the Alamo. One of the most glaring bits of inaccuracy with regards to the battle is the sheer number of cannons which Santa Anna's army direct upon the Alamo. The Alamo was an old Spanish mission built of adobe. Had that much artillery been fired upon it, the old mission would have been blown to bits. The film even gets the deaths of both Lieutenant William B. Travis (commander of the regular troops) and Davy Crockett wrong. The film portrays Travis as dying at the mission's gate in a sword battle with two Mexican soldiers. In truth he died early from a bullet wound, on the wall of the mission. As to Crockett, the film portrays him as being stabbed by Mexican lancers, then wandering into an powder magazine where he is blown up. While it is a matter of debate of how Crockett died (I will cover this in more detail when I discuss the 2004 version), it is fairly certain he did not blow himself up!

While the inaccuracies of the 1960 version of The Alamo are many (not the least of which is the introduction of fictional characters, such as Chill Willis's Beekeeper), the most glaring one may be that it almost entirely overlooks the contributions of Tejanos to the battle. One of the heroes of the Texas Revolution and a man present for a time at the Second Battle of the Alamo was Captain Juan Seguín. He survived the battle because, as an officer who could speak Spanish, he was appointed to seek reinforcements for the beleaguered men at the Alamo. Nor was Seguín alone, as there were other Tejanos who fought at the Alamo as well. Despite Juan Seguín's major role in the Second Battle of the Alamo, he appears only briefly in the 1960 version of the movie and plays no real role in the battle. Indeed, his character was even miscast. At the time of the Battle of the Alamo, Juan Seguín was only 29 years old, but in the film he was played by Joseph Calleia, who was then 63 years old!

It is difficult to say why the 1960 version of The Alamo departs so from history, even though Wayne and Grant did a great deal of research. It is most likely that the historical inaccuracy of The Alamo rests with John Wayne's own political beliefs. It is well known that Wayne, who was both a conservative and an anti-Communist, meant for his version of The Alamo to be a message film, one that would assert that American freedom had not been won without sacrifice. Unfortunately for Wayne, in some respects the Second Battle of the Alamo was a poor choice for him to deliver his message. While the Battle of the Alamo was fought for freedom, it was not a case of Americans fighting an authoritarian government for that freedom. Instead, it was a case of Texians (the largely Northern European Americans who settled in North Mexico) and Tejanos (the Mexicans who lived there) fighting for their freedom against an authoritarian government. What is more, the goal of the Texas Revolution was not for Texas to become part of the United States (although there were those who favoured that idea), but for it to become its own republic. This could well be why Wayne almost wholly omits the contribution that Tejanos made to the Texas Revolution and why he does not address the causes and reasons for the Texas Revolution and hence the Battle of the Alamo. Portrayed accurately, the Battle of the Alamo would not be a battle between Americans and a dictatorship, but a battle between people seeking to found their own nation (Texians and Tejanos) and a dictatorship. This would have been a serious obstacle to Wayne delivering the message he wanted to with the film.

John Wayne's version of The Alamo was both a critical and financial failure. This was probably not due to the film's historical inaccuracies (after all, Braveheart was both a critical and financial success, despite the fact that it is even more historically inaccurate that John Wayne's The Alamo), but due to more basic flaws in the film. The 1960 movie of The Alamo moves at a somewhat slow pace in the beginning, so much so that it may well have tested the patience of even audiences in the Sixties (who presumably had longer attention spans than those today). In not addressing the causes of the Texas Revolution or the reasons the Battle of the Alamo took place, the movie is saddled with the old Western cliché of "defending the fort against the enemy," with only a few references to "freedom" hinting at the more complex reasons behind the war. There are also times when the humour in the film seems to detract from it. While I don't think it is desirable that even a film such as one about the Battle of the Alamo have no humour whatsoever, at times The Alamo has too much (particularly in the form of Chill Willis). Another flaw with the film is the early passing romance Crockett has with "Flaca (played by Linda Cristal)." It is not enough that no such romance ever took place. It is wholly gratuitous and tends to drag down the film.

Despite its flaws, John Wayne's The Alamo is an entertaining movie over all. With a good cast, the performances are worth watching the movie alone. Laurence Harvey was perfectly cast as Lt. Colonel William Travis, who is both a bit of a dandy and a martinet. Richard Widmark's Jim Bowie is a bit of a shady character (which we know Bowie to have been historically) and a bit rough around edges. John Wayne's version of Crockett is a variation of his other characters of the time (he could almost be interchangeable with Sheriff Chance from Rio Bravo or Sam McCord from North to Alaska). The best performance may well be delivered by Richard Boone, who plays General Sam Houston. Boone's commanding presence makes him convincing as the general. The battle scenes themselves are well handled and exciting.

It would be around forty years before another major motion picture about the Second Battle of the Alamo was conceived. It was in the mid-Nineties that screenwriter Leslie Bohem met Randall Wallace, the screenwriter of Braveheart, at the Austin Film Festival. Wallace confessed to Bohem that he had visited the Alamo in San Antonio, but he had no plans to turn the story of the legendary battle into a screenplay (given how fast and loose Wallace played with history in Braveheart, this is probably a good thing). It occurred to Bohem that the time may be right for a new movie about the battle of the Alamo. He spent four years doing research on the battle.

Just as the politics of the time played a role in the creation of John Wayne's version of The Alamo, so too would the politics of the time give impetus to Bohem's new screenplay becoming a movie. Following the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Centre, Disney head Michael Eisner saw the new version of The Alamo as a means "...to capture the post-September 11 surge in patriotism." Sreenwriter and director John Sayles was brought in to rewrite Bohem's script. The script which emerged from Sayles would not be used in the end, as it was felt that it was much too long. Disney then hired Stephen Gaghan to do another rewrite.

Ron Howard was brought in to direct the film. It would soon become apparent that Howard's vision for the film did not match that of what Disney. Ron Howard envisioned The Alamo as costing $125 million and as having an R rating. He also wanted to cast Russell Crowe in the role of Sam Houston. Disney wanted the film to cost only $50 million and to have only a PG-13 rating. Ron Howard soon left the project, and Crowe left as well. Disney then brought in John Lee Hancock to direct the movie. In some respects he had been a strange choice. Hancock had written a few screenplays (including A Perfect World, but he had only directed one movie, The Rookie, a Disney family comedy.

To Hancock's advantage was that he was a native Texan and would treat The Alamo with the reverence necessary to the movie. Indeed, like screenwriters Leslie Bohem and John Sayles before him, he realised the need for historical authenticity. He did a good deal of research on the battle itself. He also involved historians not only in the pre-production of the movie, but during the filming of the movie itself. During most days of a shooting, historians were right there on the set.

Initially Disney had set The Alamo to release on December 25, 2003. As it would turn out John Lee Hancock would need more time to finish the movie, so that its release was delayed until Easter weekend in April 2004. Unfortunately, the film would not do well at the box office, beaten by The Passion of the Christ, which had a resurgence in popularity (perhaps because of the Easter holiday).

The 2004 version of The Alamo would not only be much more historically accurate than the 1960 version, but it could possibly be the most historically accurate portrayal of the battle on film. Curiously, the film would be attacked by some critics for its authenticity. There were those who criticised the film for its portrayal of General Sam Houston as something of an alcoholic, even though this was well known even in his lifetime. There was also some controversy over having Lieutenant Colonel William B. Travis desert his wife. This is also a historical fact. Travis deserted his wife, his son, and an unborn child in Alabama in 1831 and left for Texas. They were divorced on January 9, 1836 and his son was placed in the care of the Ayres family, as portrayed in the movie. Others complained that the inclusion of Tejano characters in the film, even Captain Juan Seguín, was out of political correctness. It would seem these critics simply did not know their history. Not only were Tejanos present at the Battle of the Alamo, but as an officer Captain Juan Seguín played a vital role in the battle. As the movie portrays, it was Captain Seguín who was sent out to seek reinforcements. When Captain Seguín returned to the Alamo after its fall to Santa Anna's forces, he arranged to have the dead buried with military honours. He also fought in the the Battle of San Jacinto, the decisive battle in which Texas won its independence.

While the 2004 version of The Alamo is for the most part historically accurate, it does depart from history in some respects. There is an anachronism when Davy Crockett plays the song "The MockingBird Quick-Step" on his fiddle; it would not be written until 1855. John Lee Hancock also moved the Alamo chapel forward about thirty to forty feet, although this was so that the chapel and the mission's interior could be seen all in one shot.

The 2004 version of The Alamo does have what may be two glaring departures from history, both of which it shares with the 1960 version. The first takes place during Travis's speech to the men, in which he informs them that reinforcements will not be coming and invites anyone to leave to do so. According to an often repeated legend, William B. Travis drew a line in the sand with his sword, and asked all who wished to remain to cross it. This story was attested by Louis Moses Rose, a French veteran of the Napoleonic War and the only man to leave the Alamo. Even if one doubts the words of Rose, the tale of Travis drawing the line in the sand was also repeated by Susanna Dickinson, the wife of Captain Almaron Dickinson (the chief artillery officer during the battle) and one of the civilians who survived the siege. While it is possible that William B. Travis never did draw the line in the sand, given the reports of both Rose and Dickinson, it seems likely that he did. It must be pointed out that in John Wayne's version of The Alamo, Travis does not draw a line in the sand either (speaking simply as a movie buff, I must say it would have been a very dramatic way of making Travis's point). Regardless, both movies are accurate in that it is almost a certainty that at some point Travis would have informed the men of their dire situation.

Another possible departure from history is the death of Davy Crockett. While the 1960 version has Crockett blown up in a powder magazine, the 2004 version has Crockett captured and executed by Santa Anna. This is based on a claim made in the book La Rebellion de Texas—Manuscrito Inedito de 1836 por un Ofical de Santa Anna, purportedly the memoirs of Colonel José Enrique de la Pena (who served in Santa Anna's army), published by Jesus Sanchez Garza. It was first published in 1955 and translated into English in 1975. The book claims that seven men had survived the siege and were captured, among them Davy Crockett. These men were brought before Santa Anna. General Manuel Fernandez Castrillón attempted to intervene on the men's behalf, insisting their lives be spared. Santa Anna ignored Castrillón's plea and ordered Crockett executed regardless. Although many of Santa Anna's officers were outraged by this order, Davy Crockett was summarily killed. While there have been historians who have insisted that this is most likely how Crockett died, there is good reason to doubt that it is fact.

Indeed, many historians have pointed out that de la Pena's account was not published until 1955, or around 120 years after the battle took place. It was also self published, with no publisher or editor (much less historians) to examine whether or not it was authentic. Historian Bill Groneman has particularly expressed doubts to the manuscript's authenticity, finding it curious that it was published in 1955 as the Davy Crockett fad sparked by Disney's mini-series on the life of the frontiersman was at its height. Perhaps the biggest objection which can be made to de la Pena's account of Crockett's death is that it is the only one in which Crockett is said to have survived the Alamo and the only one in which he was executed.

If Davy Crockett did not get blown up in a powder magazine or executed, then how did he die? Ben, a former American slave and a cook in Santa Anna's army, maintained that he had seen Crockett's body surrounded by about sixteen dead bodies of Mexicans, one of whom had Crockett's knife in him. In a letter believed to be written by Lieutenant Colonel Travis's slave Joe, whom Travis had freed shortly before the battle's end, it is said that the "Honourable Davy Crockett died like a hero, surrounded by heaps of the enemy slain." Susanna Dickinson said that she saw the body of Davy Crockett between the chapel and the barracks. Francisco Ruiz, then mayor of San Antonio, attested that he had also seen the body of Davy Crockett. Perhaps the most damning evidence against Davy Crockett being executed can be found in an account by Santa Anna himself, in a report sent to Mexico City very shortly after the battle had ended and . Santa Anna tells how the fortress fell, and that among the dead were Travis, Bowie, and Crockett. No mention is made by Santa Anna that he had executed Davy Crockett. Given the sheer ego of General Antonio López de Santa Anna, it is almost certain that he would have boasted of the execution of a man who was even then a legend.

Despite the fact that there are those who accept the execution of Davy Crockett as genuine, it seems more likely that Davy Crockett died during the battle. In fact, if Joe and Ben's accounts are to be believed, the traditional legend of Crockett's death may well be true. The Honourable David Crockett died fighting to his last breath, resorting to his knife when firing Ol' Betsy became impractical, taking out a good number of the enemy in his final moments. It would then seem that the episode "Davy Crockett at the Alamo" of Disneyland is then a more accurate portrayal of his death than either the 1960 or the 2004 version of The Alamo!

Given that there are historians who do believe that the execution of Davy Crockett is reliable, the 2004 version of The Alamo can perhaps be forgiven for its portrayal of his death. Indeed, it must be pointed out that Hancock's version of The Alamo is one of the few to deal with the complex causes and reasons for the Texas Revolution, it is one of the first to deal with the strategies involved in the war, and it is also one of the first to prominently feature the Tejanos who fought against Santa Anna, particularly Capatain Juan Seguín. While the historical accuracy of the 2004 version of The Alamo meant that there would be less than flattering portrayals of some of those involved (Sam Houston as a drunk, Travis as deserting his wife), I do not think this in any way diminishes their status as heroes. Ultimately these were men who were in some ways very flawed, who ultimately chose to do the right thing even though it meant death. That they were not perfect does not take away from the heroism of what they accomplished.

The 2004 version of The Alamo opened to mixed reviews, much of it no doubt due to its insistence on an authentic and realistic telling of the story. My own thought is that The Alamo is indeed a good movie. It is one of the few times in which the men of the Second Battle of the Alamo are treated as human beings and not mere two dimensional characters. Played by Jason Patric, Jim Bowie is a man with a bit of an ego and one still haunted by the death of his wife and children. Played by Jason Patrick, Travis is a bit of a martinet, hindered to some degree by his inexperience, who becomes the commander needed in the battle. By far the best performance is given by Billy Bob Thornton as David Crockett. Thornton's Crockett is a man haunted by his reputation as something of a legend, and a man with no love for war (which is historically accurate) caught in the middle of what would become one of the most famous battles of all time. And while David Crockett realises that he cannot ride a streak of lightning or leap the Mississippi as Davy Crockett was said to do, he knows that in the end he must do what many ordinary men could not do.

In examining both the 1960 and the 2004 versions of The Alamo, it is curious that in some respects the 2004 version of The Alamo evoked more controversy than the 1960 version (at least in the portrayal of the battle). While the 1960 version of The Alamo received some very harsh reviews, very few of them attacked its wanton lack of historical authenticity. Ultimately, the only real controversy surrounding the 1960 version was caused by publicity agent W.S. Wojciechowicz's tasteless campaign for Chill Willis to win Oscar for the Best Supporting Actor. The 2004 version of The Alamo evoked a good deal of controversy, and not simply because of its portrayal of Davy Crockett's death (perhaps the most inauthentic thing in the movie). As mentioned above, many attacked it as being "politically correct" for including Tejanos in the battle, even though this is a historical fact. Others attacked it for the less than flattering views of some of the Alamo defenders, even though these less than flattering views were also based on historical fact. One can only guess that many critics preferred the Northern European American-centric version of the legend, in which the Alamo defenders are all paragons of virtue. I find that as sad, as to me the historical fact of the Battle of the Alamo is much more heroic than many of the retellings of the legend. I do hope this changes over time, and John Lee Hancock's version of The Alamo will be treated with the admiration and affection it deserves.

Regardless, the Second Battle of the Alamo still remains one of the most famous battles of all time. There have been many movies about the battle over the years, and there can be little doubt that there will be many more. One can only hope that the next movie based on the Battle of the Alamo not only strives to be entertaining, but also strives for historical accuracy. As enjoyable as John Wayne's version of The Alamo can be, I must admit I much prefer a more authentic version of the battle.

2 comments:

Holte Ender said...

I agree Hollywood and accurate history rarely get together in any movie. As a kid I enjoyed the Wayne movie, great adventure, but viewing as an adult I saw it more as entertainment. Laurence Harvey was a great actor and played Travis superbly, he actually acted in the film, as apposed to main stars playing an extended version of themselves, John Wayne in particular. Frankie Avalon, a pop singer of the day, got a part to attract the girls, don't know if it worked. "The Green Leaves of Summer" was a completely out of time and place song for that movie. An interesting movie would be one of Crockett's life. The real Davy seemed to have a very interesting life.

Piano Man Steve said...

The most poignant moment of the 2004 film is when Crockett admitted that he wished he could avoid the Big Battle and sneak out of the Alamo in the dead of night. But he couldn't because he had to live up to being The Great Davy Crockett.