My love of history began at a young age. As has been documented previously, the way my dad got me into the past was by telling me about the Napoleonic Wars. I have no idea what other fathers told their eight-year-old sons about, but when we were not playing catch, I was hearing about the famous Corsican. It was my history spark. One event that caught my attention early on was the infamous thirteen-day siege of the Alamo mission in 1836 in what became the modern-day city of San Antonio, Texas. What helped grow my interest in this particular event was the 1960 film version of the battle called The Alamo. Remarkably, the three-hour movie kept my young mind transfixed. It was not until I became an adult and did a little more research on the making of the film that I realized what made it so mesmerizing. Those who have been to the real Alamo (unlike myself) will tell you that it is a bit underwhelming. However, if you travel to the nearby town of Bracketville, you will find a life-size model that was built specifically for the filming. That, along with the thousands of Mexican extras that were brought in and fully kitted out with mid-nineteenth century uniforms, make for an incredible production.
As I mentioned, The Alamo is three hours long. Further, telling its plot would be slipping into history tedium because, with a bit of dramatization (which I will get into in a moment), the film follows a timeline pretty close to the actual battle. It is not historically accurate in detail, and that is another matter. Yet, the long and short of all this is that every defender of the former Catholic mission turned fortification was killed. This included a laundry list of pretty famous historical names, like the fort’s commander Colonel William Barrett Travis (Laurence Harvey). Outshining him, though, were Colonel Jim Bowie (Richard Widmark), he of knife fame, and Colonel Davy Crockett (John Wayne). If you are wondering, why all the colonels, think of it sort of in the same way as Harland David Sanders was a colonel before giving birth to a friend chicken empire. I digress. The film does nothing to discuss how the people in the Alamo got to be there, or why the Texas War of Independence was being fought. Approximately 180 dudes and their families show up in central Texas, including Crockett and his band of Tennesseans, and decide to fight. One of the running gags, er, themes throughout is that the Mexican Army under General and military dictator, the Napoleon of the West, Antonio Miguel Lopez de Santa Ana (Ruben Padilla), represents tyranny. Keep in mind that it was made at the height of the Cold War, a time when it seemed that all you needed to do for a film of this kind to be successful is spout bland patriotic platitudes. The United States saw itself as a bastion for freedom, and the Alamo was a lesson for what will happen if you let your guard down: everyone dies.
Further research into The Alamo will tell you that it is not a historically accurate film. For instance, there was never a Graciela Carmela Maria ‘Flaca’ de Lopez y Vejar (Linda Cristal), who provides a brief love interest for Crockett. That is probably the least of the concerns. Speaking of Crockett, recent historical research suggests that instead of dying in the Alamo, he was captured and later executed. The film also has Crockett heroically tossing a torch into the Texans’ gun powder stores hidden in the Alamo’s chapel, blowing it to smithereens. Since we can walk up and touch the still intact Alamo, we can rest assured that this part is untrue. Yet, the biggest inaccuracy relates to what I discussed in the last paragraph about the reasons for the film’s success in 1960. Instead of us being the ones bravely defending our soil, it was actually the Texans who were the usurpers. This is one of the reasons why historians rail against the movie. The Texas territory became filled with Americans moving into land that belonged to the fledgling country of Mexico. While a brief decade or so of peace existed, the problem of slavery arose. When Mexico became independent from Spain in 1821, it immediately abolished slavery. Many of those moving into Texas, including Bowie, brought the peculiar institution with them. Of course, there were other reasons for why these former Americans sought to secede from Mexico (sound familiar?), but it is particularly appalling when the only mention in the film of a slave, Jethro (Jester Hairston), is supposedly given his freedom in what is meant to be a magnanimous gesture by his owner, Bowie. This happens the night before the final Mexican assault, and instead of leaving, Jethro stays and dies attempting to protect his former master. Yikes.
Oh, yes, there are Catholic problems with The Alamo. For one thing, it is sad that the climactic battle took place in a former Catholic mission. There are those who talk about the awful nature of the Spanish missions and the Christianization of native populations. Like anything else, the history of evangelization was not always perfect, to say the least. And the reason why the Alamo was abandoned in the first place is because both clergy and the people they had ministered had moved on some time before the battle. Still, the bigger issue with which I will take exception relates to the way the Mexican Army is portrayed. Though they do not bring Faith into the movie, it is still part and parcel of Catholicism being a foreign “other” that is out to get every day Americans. I wrote an entire dissertation about this subject, so I have my antenna up when I see such things. Granted, it is not as overt as other films. At the same time, what Faith do you think the majority of the Mexican Army professed?
Despite its problems, I would still watch the 1960 The Alamo over the 2004 version. I never understood the casting of Billy Bob Thornton as Davy Crockett in the more recent one, though that is probably because I am conditioned to seeing the famous Tennessean as John Wayne. Then again, when you understand the history, John Wayne in that role is equally puzzling, and he looks like he did not want to be in the 1830s. At any rate, we will chalk up my preference to pure nostalgia. It is a problematic movie, thus if you plan on watching it, do some research before you see it. It cannot hurt, right?