The Alamo
Produced by Todd Hallowell and Philip Steuer
Written by John Lee Hancock, Leslie Bohem, and Stephen Gaghan
Directed by John Lee Hancock
Distributed by Touchstone Pictures

The familiar mythic image of the Alamo was burned into my mind at an early age, augmented by legends told by my grandfather; pictures of my namesake, who died in combat in what everybody called “The War”; and celluloid images of Audie Murphy, Sergeant York, and Western heroes.  What the Alamo meant to me was Texas herself—and the epic story of our people as a fighting nation, proud, stubborn, and free.  The names Bowie, Travis, and Crockett became powerful spell words, conjuring up images of ancient heroes from an Homeric past, the three leading members of the Texas pantheon, the embodiment of all those who fell alongside them and of the qualities we most wanted to identify with as a people.

The Alamo is the foundation of Texan identity and a part of American folklore.  All that came after—the cowboys, the Texas Rangers, the tall tales (“Everything’s bigger in Texas!”), the pride that came with being a Texan—rests on the bloody foundation of that old mission.  And the Texas identity is a reminder of the kind of patriotism that all Americans once had to one degree or another—Hoosiers, Buckeyes, Yankees, and Virginia cavaliers alike.

William Barrett Travis, commandant of the Alamo, addressed his famous letter of February 24, 1836, to “the People of Texas” and “All Americans in the World.”  The Alamo, occupied and fortified by the Texans, was besieged by Santa Ana’s army, marching under the pirate flag of no quarter for a defeated enemy.  Travis wrote that he had answered “with a cannon shot” and vowed “never to surrender or retreat.”  He called for aid in the name of “Liberty, of patriotism, and everything dear to the American character.”  Failing that, the young firebrand (he was 26) of the Texas Revolution announced that he was prepared to “die like a soldier . . . VICTORY OR DEATH.”

Travis, as Texas historian T.R. Fehren-bach wrote in his classic popular narrative Lone Star, “was one of those most fortunate of men,” for “on the grim stone walls of the Alamo,” “Buck” Travis had “found his time and place.”  Like many of the men he fought alongside, Travis believed in destiny and “rode to the scent of trouble.”  The Alamo defenders had a sense of loyalty to their people and to one another.  Along with the challenge from Santa Ana’s “blood red flag” and sheer warrior “exaltation,” that sense of loyalty “held them fast.”  They were headstrong, willful, and some of them were killers (but not murderers), adventurers who fought as paladins, each staking out a section of the wall to defend against a determined foe.

The Alamo fell in a ghastly blaze of blood and glory on March 6, 1836.

In recent decades, Bowie’s slave running (more than his land swindling), the fact that Travis owned a slave (Joe, among the Alamo survivors), and Crockett’s Indian fighting, together with a deracinated America’s attraction to the alien, have made the Alamo defenders less and less acceptable as popular heroes, evident in the way the battle has been treated in popular culture.

The Alamo myth, of course, has long been colored by the romanticism of the age in which the real Travis, Bowie, and Crockett lived—legends of Travis drawing the line in the sand, of the defenders offering themselves as a willing sacrifice (they did make a sacrifice, but none came to the Alamo to die), stories of Travis dispatching a Mexican general with his sword as he fell with a mortal wound.  These reflected the sensibilities of the age of Byron and Walter Scott, as did the high-flying language of Travis’s letters.

Crockett, who preferred to be called “David,” had mastered the style of the frontier tall tale, creating “Davy,” his mythical alter ego, as a larger-than-life figure in a tradition that produced American versions of ancient heroes, including Paul Bunyan, Mike Fink, Pecos Bill, and the protagonists of many a dime novel.  “Davy” Crockett could “grin” a bear to death, ride a cyclone, and shoot the eye out of a high-flying bird with his trusty rifle, “Betsy.”

In his masterful Three Roads to the Alamo, William C. Davis connects the Crockett of legend with the Trickster of ancient folktales, making him a descendant of Robin Hood (among others), combining mischievous humor with a sense of justice, defending the weak against the strong, the poor against the rich.  The tradition suited David, who found his political support as a congressman among the hunter/squatters of West Tennessee.

Jim Bowie, too, was a legendary figure, sometimes taking on the cloak of the Trickster, simultaneously a Good Samaritan and an invincible gambler, “winning back small fortunes for dupes unwittingly cheated at cards.”  However, it was Bowie’s reputation as a fighting man that spread his fame on the violent frontier, a reputation secured by his participation in the Sand Bar fight, the most famous frontier brawl of the era.  From his actual brawling grew the legends of Bowie as frontier warrior/hero—a prototype for the gunfighter legends that would follow as the six-gun replaced the bowie knife as the weapon of the frontier duelist.  The Jim Bowie of legend was not, in some ways, so far from the James Bowie of life: “fearless, quick to fight, yet a defender of the weak.”

The Texas myth lived on into the 20th century in countless “horse operas,” as well as in later versions of the Alamo legend, including Disney’s portrayal of Crockett as “King of the Wild Frontier” and John Wayne’s 1960 film, The Alamo.  By the mid 60’s, however, the gunfighters of legend were losing out in Hollywood to antiheroes patterned after Clint Eastwood’s “Man With No Name,” an amoral Terminator who would kill for a few dollars more, while Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man made a hash of the Custer legend, foreshadowing what would become of the Alamo heroes in later decades.

Since then, depictions of the Alamo heroes have stubbornly attacked the myth, replacing portrayals of Travis as Texas’ Patrick Henry, of Crockett as “Davy,” and Bowie as a precursor of the cowboy/gunman with an image that distorts historical fact as much as the romanticism of the 1830’s did, while undermining popular patriotism.  As portrayed by the antilegend, Travis was a reckless and greedy slave master; Bowie, an evil capitalist criminal; and Crockett, another Dead White Male who helped steal the continent from its rightful owners.  The antilegend was on prominent display at a recent exhibit in San Antonio, which highlighted the work of Ramon Vasquez y Sanchez, a native-born U.S. citizen who resides in the “Alamo City.”  Vasquez’s painting Olvidate del Alamo (Forget the Alamo) was part of an exhibit entitled “The Alamo: The Mexican-American Experience.”

It is no surprise, then, that Texas patriots were concerned that a Disney production of the Alamo story would repeat the antilegend.  It might well have been so, if not for the replacement of Ron Howard as the film’s director by Texan John Lee Hancock, who recently scored a surprise hit with The Rookie.  Hancock saw big-name talent drop out of the production, had his budget slashed, and was forced to cut his film from a running time of 180 minutes to 137 minutes, missing its scheduled Christmas release.  The “buzz” on The Alamo was overwhelmingly negative as a consequence, which may have contributed to the studio’s halfhearted publicity build-up for the film.  Perhaps more importantly, Hancock’s film does not deliver either the special-effects-driven rush of today’s action pictures nor the graphic violence audiences have come to expect.  The Alamo flopped at the box office.

Nevertheless, the film successfully presents as historically accurate a portrayal of the Alamo battle as a popular film is likely capable of, reconciling the real Travis, Bowie, and Crockett with the myth.  Hancock attempts to use historical accuracy in the service of patriotism: He has obviously read Davis and other contemporary historians, as well as Stephen Harrigan’s 2000 novel, The Gates of the Alamo, a somewhat-less-sympathetic portrayal of the Alamo heroes that nevertheless has the Texan defenders coming off better that the Mexican attackers, especially the dictator Santa Ana, portrayed in Hancock’s film by Emilio Echevarria as the villain the Mexican strongman undoubtedly was.

In Hancock’s film, Travis finally gets credit for being a forceful commander, winning the respect and loyalty of the Alamo garrison as Bowie, his co-commander, falls ill.  Jason Patric, who conveys the aura of menace associated with Bowie, is nevertheless too streamlined and urban in appearance for the 19th-century knife fighter, but Patrick Wilson as Travis seems a good fit as the educated frontier firebrand.  It is Billy Bob Thornton as Crockett who steals the show, however.  The gregarious Billy Bob, with his Appalachia South accent, was made to play Crockett, whom Hancock envisions as a man troubled by the legend that has overtaken him.  (In fact, Crockett was sometimes irritated by the comic superhero image he had invented.)

Crockett, like Travis and Bowie, had come to Texas to get a fresh start, his political career in a shambles after an election loss.  As portrayed by Thornton, Crockett had also decided to live up to his legend.  “David Crockett might drop over these walls and take his chances,” he says.  The Davy Crockett of legend, however, cannot: “People expect things . . . I’ve been on these walls all my life,” he tells the ailing Bowie.  Some conservative critics of the film have attacked Hancock’s portrayal of Crockett’s death: Crockett (as some historical sources claim) is taken alive, bravely dying on the orders of Santa Ana with a characteristic wisecrack—“If your whole army surrenders to me, I’ll try to see that my friend Sam Houston goes easy on you.”  The critics no doubt see the scene as an echo of the antilegend, which has done much to undermine the heroic version of the battle.  The attacks are misguided, though understandable.  Crockett’s heroism is not diminished in this version of the Alamo story.

Hancock’s The Alamo proves that the antilegend can be countered.  The truth supports the myth: That the Alamo defenders were heroes was proved by the very fact of their presence in the doomed mission on March 6, 1836.  Myths are not conjured out of thin air but have as their basis something real, a core of truth.  Without Buck Travis’s historic stand at the Alamo, there would be no Patrick Henry image for the fallen lawyer.  Without Crockett’s decision to serve as a “high private” on the walls of the old mission, there would have been no “Davy” for the 20th and 21st centuries.  Without the fact of Bowie’s fighting spirit, there could be no legend of the Trickster-turned-frontier-avenger.  And without the Alamo, both of fact and of legend, there could be no Texas.  In his fine 1961 version of the Alamo story, A Time to Stand, Walter Lord recorded some very wise words: “‘You know,’ the old Texan gently admonished, ‘legend is often truer than history and always more lasting.’”  So remember the Alamo of fact and, yes, the Alamo of legend.  Either is something we can be proud of.