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Thinking About The Alamo—And Those Self-Organizing Americans
[See also ¿OLVIDATE DEL ALAMO? [FORGET THE ALAMO ?] by Allan Wall]
The Alamo opened in theatres Friday dogged by some of the worst pre-release buzz since Titanic. Expensive talent Russell Crowe and Ron Howard dropped out when Disney cut the budget from immense to merely very large. And many Texans and conservatives are worried that Disney does not have the guts to make an accurate movie about Mexicans behaving badly.
A Texan with the wonderful name of John Lee Hancock, who had a surprise hit in The Rookie, pinch-hit as director. Hancock's natural pace is slow: his fine little baseball biopic took over two hours to tell a story that a TV-movie-of-the-week would have zipped through in 88 minutes. His first version of The Alamo, a complex epic, clocked in at around 180 minutes. Hancock missed the planned Christmas 2003 release date as he struggled to cut The Alamo down to its current 137 minutes.
But I think the movie turned out decently. It lacks pizzazz, but it's quite respectable: a basic three stars out of four film. The main shortcomings are that the filmstock is intentionally underexposed, giving a slightly gloomy air to the proceedings, and that Dennis Quaid, who was so good in The Rookie, plays Sam Houston as if he has a painful intestinal disorder.
Of course, it helps if you have some level of interest in American history.
For example, when one character is introduced brandishing a knife bigger than Crocodile Dundee's, you'll be able to follow the complicated plot better if you immediately realize he's Jim Bowie of Bowie Knife fame. Unfortunately, Hollywood's most treasured demographic—the male lumpen youth market—generally doesn't know Jim Bowie from David Bowie.
I suspect the eventual DVD release, with the deleted scenes restored, might be even better. In the final cut, for example, there's no mention of the horrendous Goliad massacre when Mexican dictator Santa Anna treacherously murdered 400 American POWs. And some additional backstory on these larger than life characters would be fun. For example, something not mentioned in the theatrical release is that when Houston's new bride left him in 1829, he resigned the governorship of Tennessee and dragged his broken heart off to live with wild Indians for three years.
The last film version starred John Wayne as Davy Crockett, the frontier superman of comic legend. Here, the genial and loquacious Billy Bob Thornton is perfectly cast as David Crockett, the wry ex-Congressman who grows into the heroism of his popular but largely fictitious alter ego, Davy Crockett.
This Alamo uses the alternative story favored by some historians who believe Crockett did not die fighting, but was captured along with five others and executed. A Mexican officer's diary reads: "These unfortunates died without complaining and without humiliating themselves before their torturers."
Dying fighting suited the imposing Wayne, but dying smarting off to Santa Anna—"If your whole army surrenders to me, I'll try to see that my friend Sam Houston goes easy on you"—suits the witty Thornton.
Santa Anna is treated as the cruel, egomaniacal, and bungling villain he was. But the movie assuages Mexican pride by giving Santa Anna an adjutant who is an honorable old soldier and despises his commander's vulgarity and viciousness. And handsome Spanish actor Jordi Mollà plays the Americans' Tejano ally Juan Seguin.
While Santa Anna was a uniquely awful leader in Mexico's history (and that's saying a lot), it's important to note that Santa Anna's career says something important about the difference between American and Mexican culture. He ruled Mexico five separate times. That's like Dennis Kucinich being President five times.
"It is difficult now to conjure up the contempt felt by most Americans in the 1840s for the way Mexico was governed, or misgoverned, the endless coups and pronunciamentos, the intermittent and exceedingly cruel and often bloody civil conflicts, and the general insecurity of life and property. It made moral as well as economic and political sense for the civilized United States to wrest as much territory as possible from the hands of Mexico's greedy and irresponsible rulers."
Mexican culture's inadequacies at self-rule help explain Santa Anna's bizarre, tragicomic career. Mexicans would grow sick of his dictatorial ways and overthrow him. After a few years of corruption and near-anarchy caused by their inability to trust anybody beyond their extended families, they'd start to long for a man on horseback, and bring him back. Then they'd find he only got worse with age.
As VDARE.COM'S Allen Wall has pointed out, the Texas Revolution is modern immigration's Worst Case Nightmare Scenario: immigrants (in Texas' case, Anglos) flood into a border state, refuse to assimilate, secede.
But Americans were able to carve a Republic of Texas out of Mexico in just a couple of decades because of their talent for self-organizing, a knack that Mexicans seldom have down to this day.
The movie makes this American talent clear. The circumstances were certainly unpropitious within the Alamo: Several large and volatile personalities, each leading his own private army, were crammed together with almost no time to work out how they'd cooperate. And yet they did, putting up a unified 13 day defense that allowed Houston time to unite fractious units and capture Santa Anna six weeks later at the Battle of San Jacinto, freeing Texas from Mexico…permanently?
Walking around downtown Philadelphia a couple of weeks ago, it occurred to me that Ben Franklin started more civic institutions than have all three million people of Mexican descent in Los Angeles County.
As Gregory Rodriguez wrote in the Feb. 29 Los Angeles Times:
"For example, in Los Angeles, home to more Mexicans than any other city in the U.S., there is not one ethnic Mexican hospital, college, cemetery or broad-based charity."
On the other hand, America's historic talent for civil society, displayed under such desperate circumstances in 1836, will be slowly eroded by mass immigration.
And that will make us ever more like Mexico—until the lessons of the Alamo become irrelevant.