At the Alamo, Davy Crockett either: A. Died while swinging old Betsy; B. Came radically disconnected when he torched the powder magazine; C. Surrendered to the Mexicans, who tortured, then killed him, along with six other Anglo survivors of the siege.

Does it matter immensely which of these versions of Crockett’s death commends itself to us as truthful? Possibly not. A and C (the trick choice, B, is the version from John Wayne’s famous film, The Alamo) lead to the very same place: the tiny Alamo garrison wiped out, Santa Anna’s vastly more powerful Mexican army in full possession of San Antonio de Bexar, Texas’s hopes for independence flickering low in the ashes, waiting to be kindled less than six weeks later at San Jacinto.

Why, then, the sensitivity—much trumpeted in the media these past few months—over which version is right, A or C? What’s it all got to do with the price of eggs in Arkansas? Especially given that, just before Texas Independence Day (March 2) of this year, a random poll of Texans uncovered what appears to be widespread public ignorance concerning events at the Alamo. I say “what appears” because you know about polls, especially random ones conducted, as in this case, by a New York City firm. Anyway, I solemnly relay the finding that 36 percent of the 403 people surveyed could not name anyone who died at the Alamo, nine percent did not know where the battle took place, and 23 percent were unaware whose army overwhelmed the Texicans. I conclude with the caution that each one of these people’s votes counts just as much as yours and mine.

But the point was Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier, as the Disney series and its lilting George Bruns theme song denominated him. Does it matter how he died? Certainly not to those who are not even sure he was at the Alamo. Among the conventionally informed, the Crockett death story has achieved a certain resonance. A political resonance, you will gather from your knowledge of the circumstances.

In 1975, the English translation of a Mexican officer’s diary first made headlines, chiefly because of the officer’s claim to have seen Crockett and six other Alamo defenders tortured and executed by the Mexicans after the battle. This account, if true, set at naught the received version of Crockett’s death during the battle.

Of course, there was more to the matter than this. News, however long delayed, of a Crockett execution could be seen as deflating a romantic and heroic story. In the late 20th century, as in George Orwell’s day, the self-enlightened squint balefully at romance and heroism, which pull the wool over ordinary’ people’s eyes, ratify the claims of a ruling class, blah blah blah. We still battle the same cultural cynicism that Orwell cogently confronted in his time.

The legend of the Alamo concerned all the defenders dying at their posts for the sake of freedom. (“Now the bugles are silent, and there’s rust on each sword / And the small band of soldiers lie asleep in the arms of the Lord . . . “—Paul Francis Webster, from the John Wayne version.) What if one of those defenders—the most famous of them at that—could be shown to have surrendered, possibly cringed, even begged for his life? Puncture a myth, and the air escapes rapidly.

Well, the diary of Col. Jose Enrique de la Pena made a brief sensation. As it happened, not the same sensation de la Pena had envisioned in the 1830’s when he penned it, probably in prison. De la Pena shared the Texans’ dislike of the cruel and crafty Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, who had commanded the Mexican forces at the Alamo. De la Pena clearly hoped to show Santa Anna at his worst.

In fact, the diary disappeared, turning up again only in the 1950’s. When it did so, the Crockett story, as reported in the media, seemed to matter more than the depredations of Santa Anna—who, let’s face it, could be viewed as a sort of Third World founding father. All the burning, searching questions were turned upon the Alamo “myth.” The alleged inferiority of the John Wayne and Disney versions of the Crockett story was widely implied and sometimes stated forthrightly. (John Wayne’s Hollywood “heroism” has drawn similarly condescending glances from writers analyzing Saving Private Ryan— a matter to which I shall shortly return.)

The diary became a freight car on which could be loaded random criticisms of white Anglo society and its assorted myths. That de la Peña’s account cannot be verified objectively—any more than the received version can be—does not stop the chatter. A deconstructionist age has endless room for alternative readings of What Everyone Knows To Be True. The Gospels themselves are not so sacred as to prevent, say, the frequent assertion that the Resurrection represented merely what the Disciples wanted to believe about the continued presence of their crucified Lord.

The 1990’s are likely even better prepared than the 1970’s to relish the taste of shredded myth. We have had 20 years longer to work up an appetite, and now the increasingly Hispanic cast of Southwestern life reinforces motives of cultural relativism. The Alamo story implies cultural superiority: Anglos triumphant over Mexicans. Well. The Alamo story partakes of fevered myth-making, don’t you know? That means a large number of things, no doubt. We will be informed in due course.

The de la Peña story resurfaced in November 1998, when the diary came up for auction in California. It fetched $387,500. The two buyers, business partners from Dallas and Houston, one of whom owns two sports teams in Dallas, have donated the manuscript to the University of Texas. The team owner is a member of the UT board of regents. Said he, inadvertently opening a window on his soul; “Whether it’s the football stadium or this or the business school, these are all resources and treasures.”

Out again, with the news stories about the auction, came the well-worn reproaches; history presented as Anglo myth, heroism as popular entertainment, the masses misled, racial understanding thwarted. On and on. “The Alamo has been a victory of cultural memory over history,” claims one Hispanic anthropologist. One might think we were viewing Rashomon instead of The Alamo, so many are the angles of vision. What once seemed so simple—a story of heroism and sacrifice—is made to do duty as a venture in cultural reconstruction. That there is no “history” apart from culture—in other words, that the culture endlessly recycles its history, retells its yarns —is the point on which general agreement is likeliest to be reached.

The 1960’s, which never go away, have prompted the current reexamination of the Alamo, ah, myth. The question of what the 60’s are whispering in our ears, and sometimes more than whispering, is probably more interesting than the question of whether Davy Crockett fell during or after the battle. After all, Crockett went out, more or less, swinging. As de la Peña himself wrote: “Though tortured before they were killed, these unfortunates died without complaining and without humiliating themselves before their torturers.” More heroism there, one might argue, than in receiving a quick bullet through the brain. Says another Alamo expert, James Crisp of North Carolina State University: “In no way does being captured equate to cowardice. And it shows that men on both sides were capable of grace under pressure.”

It could be left at that but for the obvious compulsion in certain segments of the culture ever to be picking away at the handiwork of past generations. Oh, the Alamo was a heroic last stand, was it—a modern Thermopylae? What about Crockett? Sure, sure, he died . . . just not the way they said. Let’s undermine their authority—all those dead guys from whom we derive so many moldering suppositions.

It is like the Scriptures. Paint a new and arresting picture of the Resurrection—that central snippet from the creeds—and you can go on to redefine the Church. Demythologization preoccupies us because it opens escape hatches from the present. To escape the bonds of the past is to experience power in radical new forms.

Why do we have to escape the bonds of the past? Because, silly, the past is full of grievous, almost unpardonable stuff: racism, sexism, imperialism, ageism, and so on. The times in which they lived make the men of the Alamo automatically suspect. These were not open times; they were closed to women and blacks, and, in the Texas of 1836, were closing to Hispanics. The myths of such a time should not be taken on faith. Myth tells a story that just may not be true. We must examine those stories with a critical eye. Truth will yet out. As maybe it will, the narrow viewpoint of the myth-busters notwithstanding. The myth-busters are not above the construction of myths; in fact, they revel in the task.

For instance, the newly emerging Alamo myth cannot be honest about the old myth. You would think, for Pete’s sake, they could get right the stuff they see in the movies, never mind diaries. John Wayne’s The Alamo, released in 1960, a good two decades before political correctness and Hispanic consciousness, campaigns almost fanatically for fairness to the besieging Mexicans. I have not seen the movie in some years, but here are a few things I remember: Crockett has a pre-Alamo romance with a Mexican woman, from whom he gallantly detaches himself as the siege begins; after the first, repulsed Mexican charge, one of Crockett’s men, Thimblerig, says of the fallen Mexican soldiers something I remember as, “I was proud of “em. Even when I was killing ’em, I was proud of ’em”; Mexican women, after the first charge, are depicted tenderly mourning the dead, caring for the wounded; as the survivors leave the Alamo, Santa Anna, his troops drawn up in orderly ranks, sweeps off his hat.

Don’t the guys analyzing old movies take the time actually to see the movies? Don’t they have at least a Blockbuster in their neighborhoods?

Throughout The Alamo, the Duke, who learned the film trade from the great custodian of myth, John Ford, was respectful of the combatants on both sides (as Ford was respectful of, and often enough affectionate toward, the Indians in his pictures). But, you see, that ain’t precisely the point. The name John Wayne is poison with cultural revisionists, connoting as it does a culture of masculine violence. We are supposed to reject such a culture and whatever pertains to it.

The “John Wayne version” of war came under fire in appraisals of Saving Private Ryan, which supposedly shows us, for the first time ever, war in all its insanity and horror. I have not yet seen Ryan, and therefore do not wish to expose myself to the same censure I visit on certain critics of The Alamo. I merely remark an unfortunate tendency in our cultural wars to disrespect John Wayne-ism without trying to understand what Wayne-ism may not, as well as may, represent.

The resistance of many to the de la Peña findings may or may not be wise, historically speaking. There is this much to be said for it, perhaps: Resistance, reverse skepticism, affirms the transcendent value of myth. It salutes the power of legend to exalt those who affirm and live by the legend. Diary critics may fail to appropriate Col. de la Peña as an ally. Study of the diaries at UT may show this to be an error. On the other hand, modern times make the wise very nervous when the odor of revisionism is in the air. The tendency of revisionists to toss out babies along with bath water is famous.

A post-Alamo John Wayne picture, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, wrestles with the question of the invigorating power of myth and legend. The film, not surprisingly, was directed by John Ford. Many reading this disquisition already know the story, but I will summarize the argument anyway.

Was it or was it not right for the editor of the Shinhone Star to print the newly acquired news about local hero James Stewart: to wit, that he had not, contrary to the common belief that launched his successful political career, dispatched the outlaw Liberty Valance? (The real killer? John Wayne. Of course.) The editor, who clearly had never darkened the door of a modern journalism school, listened to Stewart’s account of thitherto-unknown events . . . and crumpled his notes. Wasn’t he going to print the story? No, he was not: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

A good formula, this, for ending up in Shinbone as opposed to getting your own show on CNN. Does a modern man of integrity want to commend such an outrageous viewpoint in front of ever-questioning intellectuals?

I think maybe what he wants to do is smile in a satisfied way, avoid direct commentary, and murmur to himself through the movie credits.