Forget the Alamo

Film Review

Yet another film version of the story of the Alamo is about to descend on a movie theater near you. Although the makers of this latest Alamo incarnation have said they articulate the Mexican side of the conflict as well, the trailers proclaim that 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.”

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, such as the 1937 “Heroes of the Alamo.” The most recent Alamo film saga was John Wayne’s lumbering effort in 1960. All of these films inevitably fall into a category known as White Man Movie Fiction.

WMMF 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.

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”?

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 1920s. 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 massacres of Black people in Rosewood, Fla., and Tulsa, Okla., have been directly linked to local screenings of Griffith’s movie.

Another early Western filmmaker was William S. Hart. 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. Bowie is widely celebrated in film and television as a daring and resourceful adventurer famed for the development and usage of a long-bladed knife, which became known as the “Bowie knife.”

However, Bowie was much more than a back-alley knife fighter. Shortly after the War of 1812, he and his brother went into business as slave traders with the pirate Jean Lafitte. In the 1820s 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.

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, 25 percent of the people in Austin’s colony were slaves and by 1836 there were 5,000 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: “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.”

The story of the Alamo is not a story of a fight for freedom. It is the story of a fight for slavery. Forget the Alamo as it’s portrayed in movies, but never forget what really happened.

Don Santina is a film historian, who is author of the Academy of Motion Picture Archive’s monograph “The History of the Cisco Kid in Film.” He can be reached at pww@pww.org.