Yet another film version of the story of the Alamo is about to descend on a movie theatre near you. Due to production delays, we have been watching trailers and previews for over four months. According to the hoopla, the defenders of the Alamo fought for “liberty” and “freedom” and–as their noble commander says in a film clip– to “show the world what patriots are made of.” A stirring ad run during the Superbowl intoned that, at the Alamo, “Ordinary men will become heroes.”
The perpetuation of this myth of the Alamo is a dishonest exploitation of our history. The fact is that the defenders of the Alamo fought for white supremacy and slavery. This latest Hollywood edition of the Alamo story is not much different than the last half dozen or so Alamo movies, such as the 1937 Heroes of the Alamo. The most recent Alamo film saga was John Wayne’s lumbering effort in 1960, complete with a ponderous musical score and a cast of thousands. All of these films inevitably fall into a category known as White Man Movie Fiction.
WMMF, as it is more commonly known, does not allow a non-white actor in a movie unless the character is a servant, a comedian, or a criminal. The result is that the white man is always the central focus, or hero, of whatever action or event is being portrayed, regardless of historical fact. The first western movie, the all-white Great Train Robbery of 1903, set the tone for this fictional mythology of America’s story of the Frontier.
We know that-in the Old West trail drives–at least one out of every five cowboys was black. Yet hardly any black characters have been portrayed in the thousands of western films made during the past 100 years. Have you seen any black guys on horses with Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, John Wayne, Jimmie Stewart, or Gary Cooper? What about television serials like Gunsmoke and Bonanza? Search for black cowboys in Kevin Costner’s Wyatt Earp and Kurt Russell’s Tombstone.
You get the drift.
The earliest major promulgator of WMMF was the highly esteemed director D.W. Griffith, who was a Southerner. Griffith–like Hitler favorite Leni Rienfenstahl–is excused for his blatant and pervading racism by film savants because of his technical innovations and artistic contributions to the film industry.
No one wants to be reminded that Griffith’s epic 1915 film The Birth of a Nation, which was based on a fictional and inflammatory retelling of the Reconstruction period, contributed to the massive rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920’s. We also want to forget that lynchings increased and pogroms were carried out against black people throughout the South whenever Griffith’s movie was shown. The white supremacist massacres of black people in Rosewood, Florida and Tulsa, Oklahoma have been directly linked to local screenings of Griffith’s movie.
D.W. Griffith also made one of the first-if not the first-fictional movies of the Alamo story, The Martyrs of the Alamo. The through line for Griffith here is the White Man As Hero; Non-White Man As Bad Guy. If White Man Dies, He Dies For a Good Cause; If Non-White Man Dies, Good Riddance. Native Americans and Mexicans routinely fell into the Good Riddance classifications.
Another early Western film maker, William S. Hart, continued this tradition in his movies. One of the most notorious subtitles in Hart’s silent movie Hell’s Hinges describes the villain as “mingling the oily craftiness of a Mexican with the deadly treachery of a rattler, no man’s open enemy and no man’s friend.” Phew!
So what was the Alamo standoff really about?
Well, for starters, let’s take a look at one of the most legendary defenders of the Alamo, Jim Bowie.
Jim Bowie is widely celebrated in film (both Alan Ladd and Richard Widmark portrayed him) and television (a two year run in the ’50’s) as a daring and resourceful adventurer famed for the development and usage of a long-bladed knife which became known as the “Bowie knife.”
The facts are that Bowie was much more than a back alley knife fighter. Shortly after the War of 1812, he and his brother Rezin went into business as slave traders with the pirate Jean Lafitte. In the 1820’s they used their profits from the slave trade to become land speculators and eventually established a sugar plantation with slave labor in Louisiana. Ten years later they sold that business, and the 82 slaves who worked on it, for $90,000.
Bowie took his share of the profits and went to “Texas” to join Stephen F. Austin’s group of Anglo colonists. He then became involved in a scheme to fraudulently acquire land grants from the Mexican government and ultimately garnered thousands of acres of land. As the crisis loomed between the Anglo colony and the Mexican government, Bowie found himself on the side of William Travis’ “War Party,” a group that brooked no conciliation with the Mexican government and was dedicated to the creation of a “Republic of Texas.”
The “Republic of Texas” was a natural outgrowth of the Austin colony which brought slavery onto Mexican soil in 1821. In 1825, twenty five per cent of the people in Austin’s colony were slaves and by 1836 there were 5,000 slaves. James S. Mayfield, a later Secretary of State for the Republic of Texas, stated that “the true policy and prosperity of this country (Texas) depend on the maintenance” of slavery. Like all Southern plantation owners, these Anglo-Texans had a plan for their own prosperity based on the free labor of slaves.
However, the problem for the slave-owning crowd was that the fledgling national government in Mexico City threatened to restrict or abolish slavery on Mexican land.
So the Texas colonists organized a convention in March, 1836 to establish the issues for which they would do battle with the Mexican government. In a two-week period they adopted a declaration of independence from Mexico, declared a republic, and produced a constitution for that republic. All of this activity occurred during the siege of the Alamo.
The Alamo defenders fought and died for the constitution of the Republic of Texas which declared in Sections 6, 9 and 10:
“All free white persons who emigrate to the republic…shall be entitled to all the privileges of citizenship.’
“All persons of color who were slaves for life previous to their emigration to Texas, and who are now held in bondage, shall remain in the like state of servitude… Congress (of Texas) shall pass no laws to prohibit emigrants from the United State of America from bringing their slaves into the Republic with them…nor shall Congress have the power to emancipate slaves; nor shall any slaveholder be allowed to emancipate his or her slave or slaves…no free person of African descent either in whole or in part shall be permitted to reside permanently in the Republic without the consent of Congress.”
“All persons, (African, the descendants of Africans and Indians excepted,) who were residing in Texas on the day of the Declaration of Independence shall be considered citizens of the Republic and entitled to all the privileges of such.”
Contrary to popular mythology and the spurious history of White Man Movie Fiction, the story of the Alamo is not a story of a fight for freedom. It is the story of a fight for slavery. It is important for us to look honestly at our cultural and historical mythologies so that we can learn from them. By perpetuating the old myths, we create a stagnant and dangerous platform which prevents our cultural and artistic growth as a society.
Forget the Alamo as it’s portrayed in this movie, but never forget what really happened.
DON SANTINA is a film historian who is the author of the Academy of Motion Picture Archive’s monograph “The History of the Cisco Kid in Film.”