The Alamo Diluted History Hurts Disney's 'Alamo'

Disney had a $100 million-plus budget riding on its version of The Alamo, a war epic directed by John Lee Hancock. Box Office Mojo had forecast gross receipts of almost $15 million during its opening weekend and, when it barely reached $9 million, it was clear that The Alamo was in trouble. More than a week following its release, it has become the year's biggest bomb.

What went wrong with Disney's The Alamo may be debated as much as the famous siege itself. Most reviewers panned the movie's political correctness, though there were exceptions. Critic Roger Ebert praised it for capturing "the loneliness and dread of men" waiting to die. Perhaps Americans, facing the grim reality of U.S. soldiers surrounded by the enemy, were dissuaded from watching a war movie during a world war.

In a newspaper interview, Box Office Mojo president Brandon Gray suggested that today's younger audiences may not have been sufficiently aware of the Alamo. "[T]he ads just said 'this is about the Alamo.' That's probably assuming people know more than they do," Gray told USA Today.

For the studio that put Billy Bob Thornton's revisionist Davy Crockett on the silver screen 50 years after it created Fess Parker's heroic Davy Crockett for television, The Alamo offers a contrast to classic Disney—and, according to those who ought to know, an illustration of how not to dramatize war history.

"One of my key criticisms of the movie," says history professor James S. Olson, who teaches at Sam Houston State University in Texas, "is that there wasn't any sense of why the men were there." Olson, who wrote A Line in the Sand: the Alamo in Blood and Memory, talked with Box Office Mojo after seeing the movie.

Olson credits The Alamo with a certain factual accuracy about the event, noting that the fate of each character is true to what is known to have happened inside the doomed fortress. "What I was waiting for was a filmmaker who was pandering to the left," he says. "I didn't really find that."

What he discovered instead was a sense of moral equivalency. Asked about Davy Crockett's actions in The Alamo, Olson answers: "There's no evidence that Crockett apologized to his men, as he does in the movie, and there's no evidence that he sympathized with a dying enemy soldier."

Virginia-based novelist Edward Cline, whose Sparrowhawk novels depict heroes in American history, agrees. Cline, who has written articles for Colonial Williamsburg Journal and Marine Corps League, told Box Office Mojo that the essence of the Alamo is missing from the Disney movie, which he says lacks context.

"The Alamo was a great event," Cline explains, noting that the battle is an American, not just Texan, victory. "The country was only 50 years old and we were being attacked -- again. If Santa Anna got his hands on Texas, he would have sought to expand his power."

"These were men who stalled Santa Anna's army while [General Sam] Houston got his army together and defeated them later [at the Battle of San Jacinto]. The Alamo made it possible for Texas' independence and, later, its admission to the United States," Cline says.

Cline contends that Texas joining the United States of America—nine years after the Alamo—changed the course of history.

"Think of the size," he says. "That vast state mattered to the young nation. Later, just before the Civil War, France took over Mexico and [ Texas] served as a buffer against any kind of European designs. Europe still posed a threat to the United States—the British had their eyes on the west coast—they had Oregon wrapped up—the Russians were in California with a naval fleet. There could have been a brand new war."

The Alamo, Olson and Cline concur, was an early test of America's founding ideas in action; the American War for Independence on a smaller scale. That sense of what mattered to the men in the Alamo, what was at stake, and what it cost them, eludes the 2-hour plus movie in theaters, according to Olson and Cline.

"They saw what was happening to them as a repeat of the American Revolution," Olson says. "The Mexicans were coming like the British as a centralized government -- they were coming to take control -- and [the men defending the Alamo] saw it immediately as Lexington and Concord. These men were fighting for their lives, their land and their freedom. It's not like these people were trapped in there—they had a choice."

Olson points out that Texans—whether from America or born in Mexico—were united against the tyrannical Santa Anna and they had sympathizers south of Texas, too. Yucatan had seceded from Mexico. "Santa Anna outlawed militias and banned weapons, then he moved in to seize them at Zacatecas [ Mexico]," Olson explains.

Olson said Santa Anna ordered hundreds of men shot in the back of their heads, with their hands tied together, at Goliad, which Olson describes as a massacre. But that would come later. For those at the Alamo, with Zacatecas demolished—property stolen, silver mines stripped, women raped—Texas was next and the 13-day siege at the Alamo would save a future of freedom for Texas.

"Look at William Travis [who commanded the Alamo]," Olson suggests. "He came to Texas to try and make his fortune there. I think Laurence Harvey [in John Wayne's movie version] really captured Travis's personality, like something out of a novel by Sir Walter Raleigh. He was a man of principle. He believed in nobility and great causes, and individual rights."

Cline describes Travis as the Alamo's intellectual. "He was fighting for an idea. Davy Crockett, who had a certain style and panache, was a man of action."

Cline insists that the Alamo's defenders deserve better than Disney's revised characterizations, which show the Alamo's fighters and leaders as embedded with doubts, flaws and fear. "The people in Texas wanted to be independent," he says. "They were investors, they were entrepreneurs, they were speculators—they were the quintessential self-made Americans."

As Travis wrote in an open letter addressed to "all Americans in the world" during the confrontation, "The enemy has demanded a surrender ... I call on you in the name of Liberty, of patriotism, and everything dear to the American character, to come to our aid with all dispatch ..." According to Olson, Travis ended the letter: "VICTORY or DEATH."

Notes

James S. Olson, Ph.D., is history professor and Chair of the history department at Sam Houston State University in Texas. Dr. Olson wrote A Line in the Sand: The Alamo in Blood and Memory and John Wayne: American. While writing Bathsheba's Breast, which is the history of breast cancer from Louis XIV's mother and John Adams' only daughter to former first lady Betty Ford, Dr. Olson lost his left hand and forearm to cancer. He has also written Winning Is the Only Thing: Sports in America since 1945 and he is currently at work on a book about Mormon pioneers in the American West.

Edward Cline created the Sparrowhawk saga, a series of historical novels about heroic men in America's earliest days. Cline also wrote First Prize and Whisper The Guns, a suspense novel, and he has written for the Colonial Williamsburg Journal and Marine Corps League. He currently lives in Yorktown, Virginia.

This 2004 movie review was published in the Los Angeles Daily News.

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