Monday, March 02, 2009

Martyrs of the Alamo

Martyrs of the Alamo coverFor almost a century filmmakers have been mythologizing the Battle of the Alamo, the site where a handful of Anglo-American Texans stood their ground against the Mexican army in events leading to Texan Independence. Martyrs of the Alamo (1915) is the earliest surviving silent film to depict this event. In this rendition, the heroes are fighting against not only a territorial threat, as the Mexicans aim to oust Texan settlers from San Antonio, but also a moral threat, as the Mexicans are depicted as lecherous toward Anglo-American women.

Martyrs of the Alamo gives two reasons behind the Texas Revolution. Antonio López de Santa Anna, President of Mexico, sparked the ire of Texan settlers by introducing an anti-federalist constitution, denying them a state government. On top of this affront to American liberty, the despicable Santa Anna and other Mexicans sexually prey upon the Texan womenfolk. The film takes place in the town of San Antonio, which is overrun by rowdy and obnoxious Mexican soldiers. This grates upon our heroes, including the sharp-witted Silent Smith, noble James Bowie and jovial David Crockett. Prompted by the crack-down on their civil liberties and the moral depravity of the Mexicans, they resolve to band the men together and seize San Antonio while Santa Anna is absent. The Texans overwhelm the Mexican army, and to demonstrate their magnanimity they let the survivors leave San Antonio. The moral order is temporarily restored.

However, their benevolence backfires when Santa Anna hears about this humiliating defeat, and he vows to never rest until Texas is crushed. Meanwhile, Colonel Travis is sent by General Huston, an important Texas Revolution leader, to replace the sick Bowie as garrison leader. Travis delivers his legendary speech in which he demands that the men who will sacrifice their lives for Texas step over a line that he draws in the soil. All men step over, including Bowie being carried on a stretcher. Santa Anna has his troops surround the Alamo and sends a messenger with an ultimatum to surrender. When the messenger returns with a negative response, Santa Anna unleashes the brunt of his army, much superior in terms of soldiers and arms, upon the Alamo. Days of battle ensue in which the Texans show great heroism and sacrifice as they stave off endless waves of Mexican aggressors. Silent Smith exits the Alamo via a secret passageway and rides to General Huston with a plea for reinforcements.

While Huston advances towards the Alamo it is being defeated. Mexicans pour through the cannon-blasted walls, killing everyone in sight including the bed-ridden Bowie. Although the text optimistically states that “before each patriot’s death, many a foe had fallen,” the grim tableaus at the battle’s end show the high Texan casualties. The surviving men are shot (Travis and Crockett are inexplicably absent) and women are sequestered for Santa Anna’s sordid pleasure. As the text tells us, “An inveterate drug fiend, the Dictator of Mexico [is] also famous for his shameful orgies.” The Mexicans let one woman go to inform Huston what happened to the garrison. She finds Huston, tragically close to the Alamo with reinforcements, and he plans to attack the Mexican camp at San Jacinto. Silent Smith infiltrates the camp under the highly implausible guise of a deaf-mute game hunter to observe their activities. Huston launches an attack while the Mexicans are having a siesta and subjugates the camp in less than twenty minutes. Santa Anna, who before the battle began was drugged up in tent-turned-harem of female dancers, is found cowering in the bushes. Huston has Santa Anna, still in a drug-induced stupor, sign a document acknowledging Texas as a free and independent republic.

The Battle of San Jacinto gave birth to the rallying cry “Remember the Alamo!” This phrase, which alludes to a shared memory of grief inflicted by a foreign aggressor and the subsequent triumph of statehood, has become immortalized in American national myth. However, as historian Holly Beachley Brear has noted, the negative role of Mexican-Americans in this myth, projected in numerous Alamo films, makes it highly contestable as a national symbol. For Brear, the Alamo “serves mythologically as a second birthplace for the American,” but as Hispanics are cast as the oppressors, they are excluded from using the Alamo to construct their sense of national pride as other Americans do. The Alamo recalls an extremely violent chapter in Hispanic/Anglo relations as they battled over territory on the frontier. Added to this, Alamo legends often depict this battle as one between two national or racial character types rather than territorial entities.

This is nowhere more apparent than in Martyrs of the Alamo. The primary anxiety in the film is the threat posed to virginal Texan women by rapacious Mexican men. As the audience is informed early on, “Under the dictator’s rule the honor and life of American womanhood was held in contempt.” Women’s bodies often allegorically stand in for territory, and the integrity of both must be protected from invaders. The film continues to depict Mexicans and Americans on the opposite ends of the spectrum morally and temperamentally. For example, the Americans benevolently let enemy soldiers free versus the Mexicans who cruelly shoot their prisoners, or the Americans fight bravely and persistently versus the Mexican troops who are cowardly and dispirited. Myths distill actual events for the relevant elements to tell a good national story, leaving many alternative readings of those events unexplored. The question of how champion of liberty James Bowie can justify owning slaves is just one example of this.

YouTube Link: A brief introduction and the first ten minutes of the film.

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