Don't Start the Martyrdom Without Me

Everyone's fixin' to die for 90 minutes. Then they do. So why do their deaths matter 168 years later?

EVERY NATIONAL foundation story, if it's to be depicted by Hollywood, needs to be steeped in blood—which is why we don't see more movies about the birth of Canada. By this standard, the establishment of the short-lived Republic of Texas in 1836 certainly qualifies. Yet its history isn't more than PG-13 bloody in The Alamo (which opens Friday, April 9, at the Metro and other theaters). Hewing fairly close to the historical record, the movie shows how some 200 "Texians" (both Anglo immigrants and Hispanic natives) perished following a 13-day siege by troops attempting to stop a breakaway province from seceding from newly independent Mexico. Real historical figures perished there, including Jim Bowie (namesake for the famous knife) and Davy Crockett, the famous Tennessee frontiersman-turned-congressman, who had just been voted out of office and was looking for a way to burnish his legend.

Rather than focusing on the fascinatingly ambivalent figure of Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton), who's ruefully aware of the gulf between life and legend, The Alamo peddles the latter to disturbing effect. Led by the dastardly "Napoleon of the West," Gen. Santa Anna, the Mexicans are mostly demonized; they take no prisoners among the Texians who willingly volunteer for certain death. The historical record suggests these holdouts acted despite the sensible orders to retreat from stern rebel commander Sam Houston (Dennis Quaid), which makes them brave patriots in some eyes, fanatics in others.

Today, in watching the Alamo's legend perpetuated—for non-Texans, at least—there's a damning, contaminating association with modern-day extremists of all stripes. The Texians are righteous rebels against what they view as a corrupt imperial regime. Santa Anna calls them "pirates" (the terrorists of their day). In this way, The Alamo is inescapably a movie about martyrdom, about how the memory of martyrs subsequently inspires victory. "Remember the Alamo!" goes the battle cry, which sounds a lot like those recently heard from the Middle East, Rwanda, or Serbia. Past atrocities and glorious defeats are used to justify, well, anything.

What Are THE Alamo's uses today? You could imagine Karl Rove arranging a White House screening for Dubya, since it bears on his past and future. Here, Texas explicitly represents "a second chance" for the Alamo's defenders, many of them ne'er-do-well refugees from states back east. It's a place of reinvention and myth, where causes are just and clear, grudges are nurtured, nuances have been hunted to extinction, and God is always on our side. What about the brown-skinned mob outside the fortress walls, clamoring to expel the occupying Yankees from their homeland? That's a different movie for a different president. Like Iraq, there is no exit strategy to The Alamo.

Curiously, there are a few signs of slippage in the jingoistic script, initially drafted by John Sayles, who previously got in his licks at Texas in Lone Star. Of their adversaries' nascent power and ambition, one Mexican grouses, "These disgraces want the entire world." Later, even Santa Anna correctly predicts that if his side loses, their grandchildren "will suffer the disgrace of begging from the Americans." That's why the Alamo resonates differently south of the border—we think of manifest destiny, they think of NAFTA.

If I'm giving The Alamo a more political reading than it deserves, I would argue that's because the movie should've indulged in more politics and less pageantry. (Into how many sunsets must Crockett play his defiant fiddle against the Mexican threnody played before the nightly bombardment?) Crockett and Houston may have been heroes, but they were also self-interested politicians— proto-carpetbaggers in the antebellum West. Their natural habitat was as much back rooms as backwoods.

Recalling his turn as U.S. president in Love Actually, Thornton makes Crockett a Clintonian pol who capitalizes on his rascally charm. (Interns! Where are the interns?) Arriving at the soon-to-be-encircled Alamo dressed in buckskin splendor Roy Rogers would envy, he's told that the Mexican army is due at any moment. Quickly concealing his qualms with a candidate's smooth smile, he replies, "I understood the fighting was over." Clearly this is a media op he didn't bargain for, a campaign stunt gone awry. Once considered a Whig Party rival to Andrew Jackson, he comes to Texas looking for a new nation to lead. The movie only hints at how he and Houston—safe outside the Alamo walls—were rivals for the job. Instead, he ironically died as the only man in the fort who knew better than to believe his own press clips.

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