Is there a difference?
I love ’em both and I love how hard it can be to tell them apart sometimes. For the most part, our glorified versions of Texas history remain off-stage and unchallenged. But when you bring them out to center stage and shine a spotlight, you better get it right, or you’re messing with Texas history — and you might as well burn a Bible while you’re at it.
So it is that the current mini-series, Texas Rising, an epic retelling of the days and weeks following the fall of the Alamo, has sparked fierce debate about the handling of fact and fiction in the sacred canon of our Texas history.
Well, not so much debate as derision, starting with getting the most hallowed date in Texas history — the fall of the Alamo on March 6, 1836 — wrong. This version opens with Santa Anna prowling through the smoldering remains of the Alamo with the title, “March 7, 1836…” AARGGH!
We expect Hollywood to mangle and mishandle history somewhat, so fictionalizing characters like Emily West — the original “Yellow Rose of Texas” with a legend more myth than truth — is never too surprising, though annoying. And we know better than to expect complete verisimilitude to time and place in historical re-tellings. But by the time the Texas Rangers in Texas Rising ride up into the mountains outside of Goliad, Texas viewers were howling or scowling — the closest mountains are hundreds of miles away.
No one expects complete accuracy in these admittedly fictional historical recountings. Noted Texas author and historian, Stephen Harrigan — himself author of “The Gates of the Alamo” — wrote a review of the first 4 hours of this newest version of the same old story in Texas Monthly (Spoiler alert: article sub-titled “Those who forget history are doomed to…really enjoy Texas Rising“). James Donovan, another Alamo author (The Blood of Heroes), and Harrigan are exchanging correspondence as the mini-series unfolds, and it’s easily as amusing as the show itself.
Personally, I became intrigued with this particular re-telling of the Texas origin myth when I noted the involvement of author David Marion Wilkinson (Not Between Briothers and Oblivion’s Altar), as he has demonstrated not only a respect for history, but also a respect for the story of history. Even Wilkinson, though, noted in a recent interview, “Hollywood, much like many historical novelists and all good criminal attorneys, never lets the facts get in the way of a good story.”
The story of Texas, especially the story of the Alamo, has inspired over a dozen movies, starting in 1911 with The Immortal Alamo by Gaston Méliès, a film now unfortunately lost. The oldest surviving movie we have is D.W. Griffith’s The Martyrs of the Alamo (currently available for free streaming to Amazon Prime members, as are several other Alamo movies), and that twisted version of history reflects the racist overtones of the time. Again and again, filmmakers would turn to the Texas tale and twist it up to fit their movies.
By the time John Wayne produced the 1960 version —probably the best known — the movies had mangled the story so much that this version, as riddled with historical inaccuracies as it was, raised the bar on fidelity to the facts. Growing up in Texas, where Texas history is a required subject not once but twice before high school, I can recall going to see this movie in the theater as a class field trip. I don’t think we reviewed the accuracy, and to this day, I tend to see Jim Bowie as looking rather like Richard Widmark.
So, I had high hopes when Disney started planning the most recent rendition a little more than 10 years ago. With Ron Howard at the helm and Russell Crowe lined up to play Sam Houston, this production sounded like we finally had a chance for a proper telling of the tale. But then, director Howard’s proposed R-rated treatment to more realistically portray war, and Disney balked. The disappointing result bombed, and once again seemed to poison the well against the next telling, so I had felt heartened upon word of this year’s model of the Texas myth.
I must confess I am enjoying watching Texas Rising, and not just as you might watch a slow-motion train wreck. No, as a Texan and a storyteller, I’m fascinated by how they are choosing to tell us the story. We’re just over halfway through the miniseries and stand ready for the Battle of San Jacinto. My heart jumped excitedly when Bill “Sam Houston” Paxton told Deaf Smith to go check Vince’s Bridge. They’re sticking to the truth there, and that one little detail made me very happy. Of course, then in the previews for the next episode, it looks like just chopping the bridge down to foil Santa Anna’s escape wasn’t nearly exciting enough. No, this time, Deaf blows up the bridge. Well. You gotta love an extra explosion or two, right?
We Texans tell tales, both true and tall, and, to tell the truth, it’s the telling more than the truth that matters most to us.