Monday, March 09, 2009

The Alamo

The Alamo posterThe Alamo (1960), directed by and starring John Wayne, shares the same narrative elements of other films in its genre, but with the difference that it goes to surprising lengths to humanize the enemy Mexican army and show positive relationships between Mexicans and Anglo-Americans. The majority of this epic feature is not dedicated to the battle itself, which after all was a devastating American loss, but instead to the drama preceding it, which shows how American heroism lead to the creation of the Republic of Texas.

The film opens with a conversation between General Sam Huston and Colonel Travis that gives the viewer the key facts of the incipient tale. Huston has command over Texan armies trying to repel the forces of Mexican president Santa Anna, who is advancing northward to quell dissent among American settlers in Mexican-owned Texas. The problem is that these armies hardly exist, so he charges Colonel Travis with buying him time until he can assemble and train his men. San Antonio is located about two days ride from where Huston is encamped. This is where Travis and his twenty-seven soldiers are to hold off Santa Anna, who is rumoured to be marching with 7,000 battle-hardened troops. Soon Colonel Bowie arrives with 100 volunteers. Tension between the men is immediately apparent. Bowie missed the meeting with Huston due to a hangover and is incredulous that they are to protect the broken-down mission with their meager forces against the daunting Mexican army. More assistance arrives with Davy Crockett (played by John Wayne) and his band of twenty-three coonskin-capped Tennesseans.

Subsequent events serve to illustrate the characters of three leading men. Bowie is a rugged individual who is constantly rubbed the wrong way by Travis's upper-class airs and military formalities. Crockett is multi-faceted, able to play the eloquent ex-congressman when not performing his folksy attitude amongst the Tennesseans, and becomes the intermediary between the other two. While the Mexican army masses outside the Alamo's walls, an argument occurs between the men as to boost morale Travis wants to exaggerate the number of troops that one General Fannon is bringing to their aid, while Bowie detests lying to his men and wants to retreat. Arguments worsen when Bowie and Crockett takes matters into their own hands by leading the men to sabotage a militarily strategic Mexican cannon; the plan works out but Travis is infuriated and threatens to have Bowie arrested. However, the men learn to work together, coordinating to steal Mexican beef cattle, and despite having little hope of crushing Santa Anna and their jarring personality differences, each man decides to stay and fight for the Alamo.

On the first morning of battle, Santa Anna makes a surprising show of gallantry by informing those in the Alamo that they have one hour to evacuate women and children, and that they will be provided with transportation to a destination of their choice. The non-combatants leave, with the exception of Captain Dickinson's brave wife, after which the battle commences. Though a third of the American garrison is lost to casualties, morale is still high at the end of the day. However, the leaders know that Santa Anna underestimated them and will redouble his efforts tomorrow, and they receive the devastating news that General Fannon’s reinforcement army has been ambushed. Interestingly, Travis does not, as Alamo legend suggests, deliver a rousing speech about liberty and draw a line in the sand for loyal men to cross, but instead opens the gates and gives them honorable leave. Despite this, the men follow Bowie in standing by Travis, signifying their allegiance. The next day the battle takes place, a grim spectacle that claims the life of every American man. The film closes as the Mexican army find a terrified Mrs. Dickinson hiding with her daughter and a Mexican boy, but then stand to attention as she walks through them, over the horizon towards General Huston.

The Alamo fleshes out the personalities of the familiar American heroes, patriotically displays American heroism and commitment to individual freedom, and idealizes race relations. The latter point is carried through to a surprising degree. Unlike other Alamo adaptations which vilify Mexicans, this film both posits harmonious relations between Mexicans and Anglo-Americans, as well as uniquely humanizes its enemy. Bowie angrily jumps to the defense of the Mexican mayor when Travis treats him with racist suspicion when he offers information about Santa Anna. Bowie, who is married to a Mexican woman, speaks highly of Mexicans to Crockett when he says “they’ve got courage, they’ve got dignity, they ain’t afraid to die. And what seems important to me is they ain’t afraid to live. Today’s important to them, not the dollar tomorrow might bring.” Crockett also becomes briefly, but platonically, involved with a Mexican woman who alerts him to a stash of gunpowder and rifles. So the film projects a positive role for Mexicans in the Battle of the Alamo: not only are they friends and family of Americans, but they offer information and arms against Mexico in favour of Texas.

Even the Mexicans who are assaulting the Alamo are portrayed as fighting with the same bravery, dying with the same dignity, and acting upon the same sense of justice as the Americans. The Alamo goes so far as to strain the limits of credibility when, following the stress of battle, two men gaze admiringly down at their enemy and say: “Sure killed many a brave man today” and “Funny, I was proud of them, even while I was killing them, I was proud of them.” Santa Anna is portrayed as noble adversary, but the opening credits call his government “tyrannical” and an affront to the American values of liberty and republicanism. The Alamo still posits a battle between good and evil, with Santa Anna firmly in the latter camp, but not all Mexicans are connected to this figure. In this film Mexicans occupy contradictory positions: they are both friend and foe, foreigner and countryman.

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