Misremembering The Alamo
What is the real story behind the legendary battle?
The last time the battle of the Alamo was fought on the big screen, John Wayne played Davy Crockett, the old fort seemed to be garrisoned exclusively by white men in coonskin caps, and myth trumped history at every turn. "There is literally not a line, not a sentence, not a place, not a person, nothing in that film that corresponds with reality in any shape or form," says Frank Thompson, author of Alamo Movies. The film's two historical advisers were so disgusted that they walked off the set.
This week, John Lee Hancock's The Alamo, the 13th version of the epic to be filmed, premieres on the big screen. While experts are circumspect about the movie's historical merits, those who have seen the movie say it is closer to the truth, for what that's worth, than John Wayne's account or any of the others.
For decades, "the Alamo [has been] the shrine of Texas liberty," says Thompson. The 200 or so defenders of the fort in San Antonio, all of whom died trying to hold off up to 6,000 Mexican regulars in 1836, "were the saints who were immolated on that pyre." The first historian who dared suggest, in 1978, that Davy Crockett was captured after the battle and executed--rather than fighting, gloriously, to the end--received death threats. (Most experts now agree with this interpretation.) But over the past decade, what started as a trickle has now become a stream of scholarship offering new insight into the Texas revolution--who the Alamo martyrs really were and what inspired them to fight.
Misfits. Historians take pains to stress that the lily-white image of most Alamo stories is misleading. Not only were there a significant number of Tejanos--ethnic Mexicans living in Texas--fighting in the fort alongside the Anglos, but the heroes of Texas independence were not, well, so heroic--at least not at the beginning. "Many of these guys when they arrived were sort of rotten and nasty," says H. W. Brands, author of Lone Star Nation: How a Ragged Army of Volunteers Won the Battle for Texas Independence--and Changed America. Jim Bowie was a slave trader and land speculator before he came to Texas. Davy Crockett was a backwoods politician who had just been humiliated in an election. Sam Houston, the general of the Texas army who later avenged the deaths of the Alamo garrison and won Texas independence, had a notorious weakness for the bottle. William Travis, who was in command of the Alamo when it fell, had deserted his pregnant wife, young child, and a mountain of debt. He brought his personal slave, Joe, with him to the battle, one of a handful of black men who would be trapped inside the fort. To its credit, historians say, the new movie, unlike its predecessors, embraces the complexity of these men--Houston wrestles with his drinking, Crockett with his image. Travis's slave appears for the first time in an Alamo film.
But the movies can't answer the question that still tantalizes historians: What was it about Texas that made the volunteers so willing to sacrifice their lives for it? It's important to remember, says Brands, that "no one went to the Alamo to die; they all thought they were going to win." Initially, Houston dispatched a group of men to destroy the fort, which guarded one of the two roads into Texas. Once they arrived, however, he was persuaded to let them fight, and the defenders began to dig in. The Mexican Army surprised what was still a tiny garrison in late February 1836. Travis immediately began sending letters to Houston asking for reinforcements. But political infighting in the main army camp prevented Houston from sending help. On the morning of March 6, after a 12-day siege, the Mexicans attacked.