Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Why We Remember the Alamo

This commentary was originally posted on National Review Online hours after his son Ian was deployed to the Middle East.

March 6, 2003, 9:00 a.m.
Why We Remember the Alamo
Comfort in history.

By Gleaves Whitney

very good Texan knows that today is Alamo Day.

Before daybreak on March 6, 1836, Mexican General Santa Anna ordered the final assault on 189 defenders of a decaying mission fortress above the San Antonio River. After being repulsed by a fusillade of musket balls and cannon shots, Mexican soldiers regrouped and surmounted the north wall. In the hand-to-hand combat that followed, hordes of Mexican troops eventually overcame the Alamo defenders, who died to a man.

The battle raged about 90 minutes and was over by sunrise — in the literal if not the figurative sense. Interpretive battles over what happened soon erupted and continue to this day. For example:

1) Did the commander of the Alamo, William Barrett Travis, really draw the line in the sand — or was it the invention of a storyteller? The incident was not written up until more than three decades after the battle.

2) What were the principals really like — Travis, Crockett, Bowie, Santa Anna? To what extent did their words and behavior reveal "warts and all"? In many fashionably revisionist accounts, it's just "warts" and no "all."

3) Then there is the matter of how David Crockett met his end. Was he cut down fiercely bludgeoning Mexican soldiers with his rifle? Or was he captured? Or did he surrender with a half-dozen other defenders, only to be mercilessly executed by order of Santa Anna? The revisionist notion that Crockett surrendered leans on the controversial diary of one of Santa Anna's soldiers, Jose Enrique de la Pena, who may not have even fought at the Alamo.

4) What flag flew over the Alamo? It matters to the meaning of the battle. If the defenders raised the Mexican tricolor of 1824, then they were fighting to restore the Mexican constitution of 1824, which Santa Anna had abrogated. If, as seems more likely, the flag was that of a group of American volunteers called the New Orleans Greys, then the Alamo was a defiant declaration of independence.

These are among the many questions over which historians and Alamo buffs have fought for decades. The arguments are coming to a head once again in 2003 because of the new Alamo movie that's being filmed. Walt Disney Pictures has teamed up with director John Lee Hancock, a native Texan, to produce the most ambitious Alamo ever. It is also rumored to be the most violent PG-13 film that Disney will have released. The cast includes Dennis Quaid (as Sam Houston), Billy Bob Thornton (Crockett), and Emilio Echevarria (Santa Anna).

To their credit, the filmmakers have consulted numerous historians. The set is a painstakingly accurate reproduction of San Antonio de Bexar in 1836, built on a sprawling ranch in the Texas Hill Country north of San Antonio. Only period weapons, artifacts, and clothing are being used. This will lead to some surprises for audiences raised on the stereotypical western. In 1836, for example, men wore not cowboy hats but seal-skin caps and tall hats. And the exterior of San Fernando Church is not sun-bleached white, but richly colored.

But the Alamo story is about so much more than getting the material culture right. It's about the meaning of the event. Professor Stephen Hardin, an eminent Alamo historian at Victoria College, has been one of the moviemakers' go-to guys. He himself goes right to the bottom line when he asks: To what extent will the story be told historically, and to what extent mythically?

The answer to this question is not altogether clear. Until the movie is released in December, John Lee Hancock will keep his cards vested. Alamo buffs and revisionists are particularly watching for leaks of how Crockett's death is depicted. Earlier this week I spoke with Dr. Bruce Winders, the historian at the real Alamo and a consultant to the moviemakers, and even he doesn't know what lines in the sand the director is drawing.

Winders is pretty sure, however, that no one school of thought will totally prevail. Those who hope for a documentary will be disappointed. Those who desire reaffirmation of the legend will be frustrated. Those who call for revisionism will be unrequited. The movie is unapologetically Hollywood: The aim is to connect with audiences emotionally by alternately entertaining, horrifying, and inspiring.

The unofficial website tracking the film reports that, in harmony with postmodern times, the movie will portray the 13-day siege and battle from various viewpoints — Anglo Texian, Mexican soldado, black slave. To heighten the sense of authenticity, the Mexicans will speak in 19th-century Spanish, during which parts there will be subtitles (a first for a mainstream Alamo movie). To avoid hero worship, some unsavory topics will be broached — for example, Bowie as a slave trader and Travis as an adulterer. Clearly this is not John Wayne's Alamo.

The moviemakers want this new Alamo to show the complexity of the revolutionaries and their revolution. The film's production designer, Michael Corenblith, says he hopes the conflict is presented "as a dialogue between … factions." There were in fact many factions in the 1836 Revolution, and consequently many dialogues: between Mexicans and Americans; between Americans and Native Americans; between Texas Anglos ("Texians") and Hispanics ("Tejanos"); between slaveholders and freedom fighters. These dialogues fill a large horizon of the American experience.

At a deeper level, the Alamo story fulfills our need for heroes. Whatever the historiographic puzzles, whatever the biographical "warts," certain facts remain. On the morning of March 6, at least 189 men stood their ground against a ruthless dictator. Though many among this band of brothers were illiterate, they made a universally articulate statement about courage and self-sacrifice. Texians and Tejanos fought side-by-side with men from distant states and nations — England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Germany, and Denmark. Some of these men measured their time in Texas in mere weeks. Once the siege began, they had 12 days to escape. But they didn't. They endured round-the-clock bombardments, sleep deprivation, cold nights, and poor food. They forewent the comfort of a wife, the pleasures of the hearth, and the amenities of civilization.

What inspires men to sacrifice so?

That's the question these past 167 years. That's why we remember the Alamo, and why every generation of Americans recalls what happened on that distant borderland. The Texas Thermopylae holds a mirror up to our character. The event challenges us to ponder our principles, our aspirations, our capacity for virtue.

The new Alamo movie is getting considerable press, more than most movies receive. Why the heightened interest in the Alamo these days? I suspect it's because America is entering a season of war. Young men and women are being asked to interrupt their schooling, careers, and family life. They are called to go to a distant land, fight a ruthless dictator, and be willing to make a patriotic sacrifice.

They are going, they will fight, and they will be our heroes.

Gleaves Whitney is a native Texan. His 19-year-old son Ian serves in the Michigan Air National Guard and has been deployed to the Middle East.

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