Department of Theatre and Film
A Second Line in the Sand: Changing Representations of African-American Characters in Film Versions of the Alamo
In the 1915 silent film Martyrs of the Alamo, an Anglo actor in blackface portrays Jim Bowie’s loyal slave Sam as the two await the imminent arrival of Mexican troops in Bowie’s sickroom during the final massacre. Twenty-two years later, in Heroes of the Alamo, Col. Bowie is still the co-commander of the Alamo troops (along with William Barrett Travis), but in this film he has no slave and dies alone in his sickroom after taking out several Mexican troopers. Sam is back with his master in 1953 in The Man from the Alamo, but is absent once again in 1955 in The Last Command. In 1960, however, Sam returns to dive in front of his master and take the first bayonet thrusts from Mexican troopers in The Alamo. In the 1986 film Thirteen Days to Glory, Sam is nowhere to be seen, as is the case in 1998 in Two for Texas. The Sam of 2004 in The Alamo is evacuated with the woman and children at Bowie’s urging, thereby escaping the carnage.
Historians do not know exactly how Jim Bowie died or whether he actually had any slaves with him at the Alamo, but the mythology of the Alamo has allowed filmmakers to engage in contradictory retellings of the event, albeit to a limited extent. This is not surprising, because as Roland Barthes pointed out decades ago, a historical event is at times best understood as a myth when it is recounted (109). One reason the Alamo has been a subject for mythmaking is that many details of the final skirmish are vague. The principal actors did not live to tell the story, and the scant eyewitness accounts are somewhat erratic. However, the basic outline of the Alamo story has never varied in its film depictions. Precisely how the story can be told, therefore, is open to a certain extent, so long as specific mythical parameters are preserved, but closed insofar as the heroes and the basic legend (treated as sacred and untouchable) are concerned.
The role of African-Americans at the Alamo, as the cinematic depictions cited above reveal, has always been fair game for revision on the part of filmmakers. In fact, the representation of African-Americans at the 1836 battle is virtually the only plot element that varies between these films, while the hagiography of the principal figures and the stake of the battle in the future of the United States is left uncontested. Given changes in social attitudes over the last hundred years, it is perhaps not surprising that the experiences of African-Americans at the Alamo—most notably Sam, who is sometimes identified as Jim Bowie’s slave, and Joe, the documented slave of William Barrett Travis—have been adjusted in various film versions of the event to conform to the political winds of the times. And yet, as this essay will argue, the treatment of slaves in the antebellum South has been and continues to be laundered by the mythical treatment of the Alamo within the larger context of America’s appropriation of territory, and in the films analyzed below the Alamo story provides a shelter for the myth of the “Plantation Illusion” described by Everett Carter, which promotes the idea that slaves were both happier and better off before emancipation (12). The Plantation Illusion was, in fact, once a mainstay of classical Hollywood cinema, as evidenced by the depictions of the servants in Gone With the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939), and, as this essay will demonstrate, this representational convention extends to a large number of cinematic portrayals of the Alamo.
With the mythology of the Alamo is an open field for signification only in a limited sense, cinematic adaptors have settled on a version of the story that is remarkably consistent in both its attention to historical detail and its development of the characters of well-known figures such as Bowie and Crockett. Several of the film versions of the Alamo story have hedged their accounts so that very minor differences in personalities can be attributed to the Texians, the Anglo-Americans settlers and adventurers who opposed the Mexican government of Santa Anna, but the hagiography never varies when it comes to depictions of Bowie in particular. Both Sam Houston and Jim Bowie are typically portrayed as “larger-than-life” figures, and although a few Anglo-American scoundrels occasionally show up in certain Alamo films to provide very minor nuisance to the Texians, the front of Texian opposition against Santa Anna is overwhelmingly united. At the same time, the fact that slavery was an important dimension of the 1836 battle for Texas independence is never broached in any of the Alamo films, which have been inherently conservative in their political orientation during the past century of filmmaking.
As far as representations of African-Americans in these films are concerned, the image of Sam protecting his master as the two await the imminent overrun of the Alamo by Mexican forces has been consistently invoked to suggest that America is a great country because of its uniqueness in human history and despite its utilization of slavery. After all, the promise of the Alamo martyrdom, both in Texas schoolbook history and in film depictions, is that Texas in 1836 had the capacity to become a “little America” because the battle was a small-scale version of the Revolutionary War. Therefore, the image of Sam selflessly protecting his master seemingly lends credence to the view that slavery was not an inherently bad thing because slave and master were obviously emotionally attached to each other.
In the case of the standard cinematic image of the slave Sam aiding the stricken Bowie, the signifier remains stable for approximately fifty years, from 1915 to 1960, but in more recent years this representational pattern has shifted. One could argue that the integration of the armed services in World War II and the Civil Rights movement are the pivotal events behind this shift. As Richard Flores writes in Remembering the Alamo, “both the breadth of the Alamo story…and the divergent understandings of it…are the result of its transformation from a site of defeat in 1836 into a powerfully rendered and racially produced icon of American cultural memory” (xiv). As such, this essay will argue that the Alamo films are a viable means of elaborating on the nuances of changes in dominant cultural discourses surrounding racial difference and African-American identity since World War II, with the varying depictions of the African-American characters in the films providing an inscription point for such discourses.
Before an analysis of the various film version of the Alamo story can begin, however, it is useful to discuss some of the facts about the event that are available. The purpose here is not to sort out the veracity of conflicting stories, but rather to point out that certain documents have been the sources for the creative reinterpretations of various filmmakers in regard to the role of African-Americans at the Alamo. A good source of the various contemporary reports is Bill Groneman’s 1996 book Eyewitness to the Alamo, which includes every testimony written down by survivors, those purporting to be survivors, and various friends and descendants who have claimed through the years to possess information about the Alamo massacre. These records do not clarify the number of dead on the Texian/Tejano side, much less the exact names of the fallen, although according to Alamo historian Walter Lord there were about 183 fatalities (209). The figures for Mexican casualties are also imprecise, although Lord indicates that the total number of Mexican dead may well have been much higher than the Texian/Tejano losses (209). Mexican accounts and the debriefings of the very few Alamo survivors agree that there were no survivors among the armed male Anglos in the final battle.
Although Bowie is consistently portrayed as a brave and noble warrior—albeit somewhat mercurial—his death has been subject to slight variations in various film versions of the Alamo story. Bowie was presumed by survivors of the battle to either have died in bed of severe pulmonary illness just before the final assault, or else to have been well enough to kill a few Mexican soldiers with a brace of pistols and/or his celebrated bowie knife before succumbing to his illness. Mexican accounts, by contrast, say that Bowie was found cowering underneath a blanket, a story that might be based on there being a blanket covering him in his sickbed. The death of William Barrett Travis, co-commander of the Alamo forces, is less ambiguous because his slave Joe reported that he had seen Travis shot in the forehead early in the final assault. Filmmakers have taken advantage of the ambiguity of Bowie’s death in their contrasting portrayal of his slave Sam, and have even done so with Travis’s slave Joe, despite the fact that Travis’s death and Joe’s actions during the battle are well documented in Joe’s account of the events.
As for the actual situation of the African-Americans at the Alamo, historical records show that at least one man (perhaps two or even possibly more) were held as slaves in a province of Mexico, which had allowed both Anglos and Tejanos to have Black and Indian slaves until prohibited by Santa Anna. Joe, whose last name is not known, earned his place in Texas annals by traveling with fellow survivor Susanne Dickinson to Sam Houston’s headquarters, where he provided an account of the battle that has been the basis for much of the history and legend. Regardless of his service to the nascent republic of Texas, Joe’s immediate destiny showed that the probate courts were not inclined to reward his efforts, as historian Paul D. Lack explains:
By [Joe’s] own account, conveyed according to one hearer, ‘with much modesty [and] apparent candor,’ the servant fired at the attackers several times, received wounds but escaped the initial massacre by hiding in a building inside the fortress, narrowly avoided execution through an officer’s intervention, and even spoke with Santa Anna concerning the Texas army . . . However, his eloquence did not bring him freedom—Joe remained a slave in the Travis estate, living near Columbia for over a year after his great adventure. (247)
Joe did eventually manage to gain his freedom. As Lack observes, in the process he “created his own method of celebrating the first anniversary of the battle of San Jacinto. Accompanied by a Mexican and taking two fully equipped horses, Joe chose that day to run away in search of the freedom that had eluded him” (247-8).1
As for Jim Bowie, William C. Davis writes that he had one or two slaves when he took up residence at his in-laws’ San Antonio house prior to the Alamo siege (499). According to Lack, the slave with Bowie during the siege was named Sam (244). The online Handbook of Texas also confirms the existence of Sam, but adds that “no further record is known to exist.” Walter Lord, on the other hand, says that the Sam sometimes identified as Bowie’s slave was actually Ben, a man employed as a cook by Juan Almonte, one of Santa Anna’s colonels (207-208). Lord’s position is that Susanne Dickinson, her infant daughter Angelina, and Joe were the only Americans who survived the battle at the Alamo (208). Significantly, though Sam might not have been a slave of Bowie or a survivor of the Alamo, he has nonetheless been portrayed as such in several Alamo films.
Within this context, it is worth noting here that there is certainly no obligation on the part of filmmakers to adhere closely to the historical facts when dramatizing them onscreen. Filmmakers have taken liberty with their depictions of historical events throughout the history of the cinema, and storytellers since ancient times have had little compunction in altering stories to fit their agendas, as a comparison of various stories from Ovid’s Metamorphosis with their antecedents makes clear. The purpose of this paper is thus not to determine whether the various Alamo retellings are “authentic,” but rather to explore one single aspect of the event that has been particularly open to free interpretation, that of the experiences of African-Americans at the battle. Further, this essay seeks to question why the experiences of African-Americans has been so free for alteration when the overall Alamo story is quite stable and unvarying. This becomes particularly evident in the films analyzed in the following sections, which, while certainly not the only Alamo films that have been made, are all especially interesting for the manner in which they take liberties with the story of African-Americans during the battle.
Making the World Safe for Women: Martyrs of the Alamo
Those who are troubled by D.W. Griffith’s classic 1915 film Birth of a Nation and its racism will have the same problem with its obvious derivative, Martyrs of the Alamo. Produced by Griffith but directed by Christy Cabanne, Martyrs, also released in 1915, follows the lead of Griffith’s film in positing the struggle of the early Texians as one in which the protection of innocent women from swarthy, uncontrollable hordes is paramount. Martyrs depicts the first insult leading to the epic confrontation between the Texians and Santa Anna’s army as the humiliation of Susanne Dickinson. After a Mexican trooper insults Mrs. Dickinson on the streets of San Antonio, she slaps him, rushes into the house, and blurts out the incident to her husband. Mr. Dickinson grabs a pistol and kills the Mexican in the street. The incident is brought to the attention of Santa Anna, played in blackface by the white actor Walter Long, who also portrayed the nefarious Gus in Birth of a Nation.
The role of Sam is likewise played by a white actor (never identified) in blackface who is first seen watching General Cos, Santa Anna’s brother-in-law, parade through San Antonio. Just as the Cameron slaves in Birth of a Nation are depicted as a carefree crowd of gentle souls who love their masters and fear Northern victory, Sam in Martyrs of the Alamo also seems to fear living under Santa Anna. In this way, the film seems to evoke what Everett Carter terms the “Plantation Illusion.” According to Carter, “[t]he Illusion has many elements, but it is based primarily upon a belief in a golden age of the antebellum South, an age in which feudal agrarianism provided the good life for wealthy, leisured, kindly, aristocratic owner and loyal, happy, obedient slave” (12). The Plantation Illusion is not confined to Sam’s fear of Santa Anna’s victory as he watches de Cos and his troops march through San Antonio in Martyrs of the Alamo. Another white actor in blackface later appears seated beneath the standing Bowie, withdrawing to the background when Davy Crockett confers with Bowie on the upcoming revolt.
This unidentified African-American servant is also present in Martyrs when the ill Bowie needs help crossing Travis’s celebrated, but perhaps fictional, “line in the sand.” One of the apocryphal stories of the Alamo is that Travis drew a line in the sand and gave the Alamo defenders the option of remaining to face almost certain death, or else leaving with honor. The title of this article is taken from this legend, because even if no such thing happened, the necessity of choosing sides and remaining faithful to a cause is freely appropriated in many of the film versions of the battle when it comes to the depiction of the African-American characters.
After willingly crossing Travis’s line, the servant is next seen sitting on the floor beside Bowie’s sickbed in order to reload Bowie’s muskets for the final attack. We also see him in wide-eyed fear as Bowie stabs a Mexican attacker, but he is not present when Bowie’s corpse is shown after the battle. The film ends with Susanne Dickinson and her infant, released by Santa Anna, riding out of the Alamo alone.
The significance of the representation of African-Americans in Martyrs of the Alamo is that the filmmakers seemingly envisioned a world in which history had smiled upon Anglo-Americans in fighting the good fight against the heathen hordes, while everyone else was relegated to one of two roles: the enemy or the loyal subordinate who willingly and unhesitatingly trusted the master. It is in this sense that Martyrs of the Alamo is representative of the Plantation Illusion.
No New Deal for Sam: Heroes of the Alamo
The question of whether the 1937 film Heroes of the Alamo, directed by Harry L. Fraser, changed the racial stereotypes present in the depiction of African-American characters in Martyrs of the Alamo depends on how one interprets a crucial exchange of dialogue between Stephen F. Austin (Earl Hodgins) and Luke (Fred “Snowflake“ Toones), his servant and presumed slave. After several scenes dramatizing the imminent confrontation between Santa Anna’s forces and the defenders of the Alamo, Austin is visited in his San Felipe home by a group of men who want to discuss the crisis. Luke, who has opened the door for the men at Austin’s instructions, listens while standing in the background, and after they leave, questions Austin about the likelihood of war. Austin, who has lost himself in thought after the door closes behind the men, answers Luke politely, but insists that war is unlikely.
A close analysis of this scene reveals that Luke is pretty much in the same frame of mind as the loyal servants that would be seen two years later in Gone With the Wind. In other words, the Anglo-Americans are the sole principal players in the political drama, while the African-American servants are primarily relegated to the task of fretting in the background with overwrought expressions to convey the presumed desire that their “good” masters prevail in the struggle. Luke’s dialogue is minimal, and his presence onscreen serves mostly to display worry for his master rather than concern for the larger political forces at work in the conflict with the Mexicans. The latter is Austin’s concern alone, for this scene implies that Austin is the grand actor on the stage of history whose charge is to take action with the unfolding of major human events in mind, while Luke is merely left to agonize over whether his master may be swept away by forces even greater and more powerful than himself.
We never see Luke or Austin again. When the action shifts to the Alamo, Bowie suffers his life-threatening illness without the aid of an African-American servant. The remainder of the film consists of a confrontation between white Alamo defenders and Mexican forces. The events depicted would be reasonably accurate if not for the fact that Travis’s slave Joe and the Mexican officers’ cook Ben are not shown in their real-life roles as the men who accompanied Susanne Dickinson to Sam Houston’s headquarters. Therefore, as a representation of the African-American experience at the Alamo, the film alters widely accepted historical fact in apparent preference for a dramatic ending employing only Anglo survivors. These Anglo survivors walk off the screen, but are clearly destined to bear their grim testimony to other Anglos and provide information needed for the imminent confrontation with the Mexican forces. Ultimately, then, because the African-American survivors of the actual historical event are not even depicted in the film, and because the Luke-Austin confrontation at the beginning of the narrative is ambivalent, Heroes of the Alamo, much like Martyrs of the Alamo, can be classified as another reenactment—and thus, as a reinforcement—of the Plantation Illusion.
Knowing Our Friends from Our Enemies: The Man from the Alamo
Possibly drawing from the story of Louis Moses Rose, who is reported to have left the Alamo just before the final battle, The Man from the Alamo (Budd Boetticher, 1953)recasts the encounter in Cold War terms by repeatedly asserting that an individual’s fidelity to the American (or Texian) cause is much more important than one’s ethnic background.2 The film depicts an America in which fidelity to the patriotic cause is the only tolerable stance for an individual, regardless of background. Those who are on the other side are naturally the enemies—in this case, the Mexicans, who presumably were meant to invite comparisons with the Soviets for contemporary audiences, or else at the very least to evoke the communists with whom America was busy fighting in Korea at the time that the film was released.
The message of the film seems to be that it is incumbent on all good Americans to tell the good people from the bad—those whose politics are corrupted by either greed or bad philosophy—especially since the former may appear to be latter due to the intrigue and confusion that always accompanies war. The protagonist, John Stroud (Glenn Ford), is one such individual, because he draws the “unlucky” straw that compels him to depart the Alamo under cover of darkness in order to make sure that the families of his fellow townsmen are safe. As he is told by one of his fellow soldiers, he is unlucky because dying a hero at the Alamo will not only be easy, but will also ensure eternal glory for those who drew the short straws.
However, Stroud leaves only to find that all the families in his town—his own included—have been massacred. Not only has he been unsuccessful in providing aid to the townsfolk, but he quickly discovers that he has been branded a coward and traitor because he has survived the Alamo massacre. Those who knew about the drawing of the straws are all dead, of course, and the only male survivor of the Alamo (sent on a mission just before the final assault) is not aware of the circumstances and also thinks Stroud to be a coward and traitor.
Against this backdrop, the renegades are easily identified as villains by the “good” Anglos who would lynch Stroud, but their motivations are obviously greed. Once we observe the renegades after Stroud escapes his jail cell, we see that each of the men are simply stereotyped bandits virtually indistinguishable from countless other film bandits of B Westerns. Stroud is assumed by the “good” Anglos to be morally corrupt and therefore motivated by bad philosophy, thus equating the motives of an outlaw gang with the earnest but misguided difference in world-view of a dissenter. As such, the character of Stroud in the film might be interpreted as being representative of the American citizens who were victimized by the McCarthy witch hunts of the early 1950s, in that Stroud is clearly not ethnically a representative of the enemy, nor is he firmly committed to the enemy’s point of view, but he is nonetheless classified as a foe within the narrative because of his reluctance to endorse the “right” side without reservation. Gone is the Plantation Illusion in which an individual is classified according to the color of his skin. Stroud is an enemy because of bad ideas, while Bowie’s slave Sam (Smokey Whitfield) is an ally because he willingly and trustfully aids Bowie in the final battle.
By the time the film reaches its climax, Sam is presumably dead, as all the other Alamo defenders have certainly been slaughtered. If Man from the Alamo indeed proposes that an individual’s fidelity to the American cause is more important than his or her race or ethnic background, then, the brief scenes involving Sam are consistent in their depiction of a man who has aligned himself with an ideological cause that may not be directly in his best interest. Though Sam is never referred to as a slave, he is obviously a close servant of Bowie, who is depicted as bedridden, but nonetheless fully conscious and able to participate in combat to a certain degree. Sam, in the first scene, is given the opportunity to polish Bowie’s famous knife, and Bowie himself is later seen polishing the same knife with a whetstone while the two sit on the bed and await the final assault. In this way, while Sam is a servant in the film, in the thick of battle he provides a function that somehow transcends the “mundane” details of his servitude. Therefore, while Sam’s fidelity to the service of his master in Man from the Alamo may harken back to the Plantation Illusion to a certain extent, it does so in a manner that befits the changing social attitudes surrounding racial difference in the early 1950s, with Sam provided an opportunity to affirm his patriotism through service to his country (or a revolutionary cause, in the case of the Alamo).
The question, then, is whether the Sam of Man from the Alamo is essentially one of the happy Cameron slaves of Birth of a Nation, or if instead he is a representation of African-American enlisted men who were finally welcomed into the U.S. armed forces during World War II. Sam is never show engaging in combat, although there is nothing to suggest that he merely stands by while Bowie fights valiantly. Thus, although The Man from the Alamo does not make much progress in countering the Plantation Illusion supported by the earlier film depictions of the event, Sam is nonetheless provided the choice of allegiances within the narrative, so that he fights out of belief in the cause and not necessarily only out of loyalty to his master. His death is not shown in the film, but we have no reason to doubt that Sam fights with Bowie when the Mexicans break into Bowie’s sickroom, and that both die fighting, even if Bowie is the first to die. Moreover, the handing over of the knife shows that Sam can be trusted to carry on the American military tradition, even though he may have been exploited under the system of slavery.
In depicting Sam as representative of an African-American combat force that can be trusted to defend the American cause faithfully and bravely, The Man from the Alamo may have been influenced by the contributions of African-American soldiers during World War II in its representational departure from the portrayal of Sam in the earlier Alamo films. Sam may only be handed a weapon with the approval of his white superiors in The Man from the Alamo, but he nonetheless can be trusted to use it appropriately, unlike the Sam characters in the earlier films. The Man from the Alamo therefore represents a major ideological shift in representations of African-Americans at the Alamo, and further, is tied very closely with social changes that emerged during the decade of the 1950s. The African-American experience changed significantly after World War II, and Hollywood depictions of the Alamo massacre apparently adjusted accordingly in onscreen representations of Sam beginning with The Man from the Alamo.
Protecting Republicanism on the New Frontier: The Alamo
The 1960 film The Alamo, directed by and starring John Wayne as Davy Crockett, is probably the Alamo film most familiar to the American public. The character of Sam in this film is yet another throwback to the Plantation Illusion, with Bowie portrayed as a benevolent master and Sam as his faithful servant.3 It is worth noting here that the prevalence of this Sam-Bowie relational dynamic in film versions of the Alamo may be due in part to the real-life biography of Bowie, who spent his early years in Louisiana, as well as William C. Davis’s book Three Roads to the Alamo, in which Bowie is portrayed as a Southerner. Drawing on these sources, Bowie can be portrayed as Southern landed gentry, as he is in the Wayne film, or as a Southern hell-raiser, as in the case of some of the more recent Alamo films which will be examined in more detail below. Conversely, in The Alamo, Sam is depicted as a couple of decades older than the 39-year-old Bowie (Richard Widmark), and presumably a loyal family servant of many years. As Richard Slotkin notes of the film,
Wayne’s handling of the theme of slavery drew on a recognizably denigrating stereotype of the faithful black servant and reiterated one of the oldest of pro-slavery myths by having Bowie’s servant resist his own manumission and elect to die with his master. (Gunfighter, 518)
Like Sam in The Man from the Alamo, the Sam character in The Alamo is loyal to a fault, even electing to remain inside the compound after Bowie hands him his papers of freedom. At the final battle, when the injured (rather than ill) Bowie is besieged by a storm of Mexican troopers invading his sickroom, Sam throws himself in front of the approaching bayonets, sacrificing himself in a futile attempt to protect his former master. Unlike Sam in the 1953 film, however, Sam in the 1960 film also seems irrevocably cast in his racial identity, with the narrative emphasis on his ability to fight found in The Man from the Alamo absent from The Alamo. In fact, The Alamo seems to regress to earlier representational patterns supporting the Plantation Illusion in its depiction of Sam, perhaps because of Wayne’s well-known conservatism, or perhaps because U.S. society was growing increasingly ambivalent about the Civil Rights Movement as the 1950s drew to a close.
At the same time, though, Sam’s death as portrayed in The Alamo is also unique among Alamo films in its highly dramatic circumstances, which temporarily place Sam at the center of the narrative action. As in the case of The Man from the Alamo in 1953, the social changes in America at the time of The Alamo’s release perhaps made this more active narrative role for Sam possible. This is not to suggest, however, that the film is in any way progressive, or that it necessarily breaks new ground in the representation of African-Americans at the Alamo outside of allowing Sam to die heroically in service of his master rather than just to die alongside his master. Indeed, because there is not only
no solid evidence that Bowie had slaves with him at the Alamo, but also certainly no evidence that an African-American took a bullet (or bayonet) for Bowie, the subplot of Sam’s sacrifice in The Alamo is purely a creation of the film that seeks to reassert the Plantation Illusion at the exact social-historical moment when the systematic oppression of African-American citizens in the United States, from the horrors of slavery through the injustices of segregation, were at the forefront of American cultural consciousness as a result of the Civil Rights movement.
Joe and Bill’s Excellent Adventure: Thirteen Days to Glory
The tremendous social developments that occurred in America in the years between the release of The Alamo in 1960 and the 1986 film Thirteen Days to Glory (Burt Kennedy) include the realization of desegregated educational institutions, the rescinding of Jim Crow laws by federal statute, the invalidation of miscegenation laws, and efforts towards overall greater social and economic opportunity for African-Americans. However, this period also saw the ruinous Vietnam War (in which African-Americans for the first time were disproportionately represented on the front lines), the re-emergence of conservatism with the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan, and subsequent calls for dismantling of the welfare state in which African-Americans were frequently demonized in political rhetoric, as well as the Rambo-esque rewriting of history to suggest that Vietnam was more a failing of the political leadership to let soldiers do what they did best than a flawed military escapade. As with the older films discussed above, the revisions made to the Alamo story in Thirteen Days to Glory seem to gesture to these events, incorporating in its depiction of the battle of the Alamo the discourses of both the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War, as well as Regan-era conservatism.
Though Thirteen Days to Glory was made almost a decade after Roots aired on television, the 1986 miniseries is in many ways infused with the Roots ethos. Foremost is the depiction of Travis’s slave Joe, who in the 1986 film is not a slave at all, but rather a sidekick who is thinking about pushing on to California now that his partner has found his calling in Texas. Joe nevertheless hangs around long enough to take part in the final battle, and is last seen accompanying Susanne Dickinson and the other survivors to safety behind Houston’s lines. As one can surmise, this version is as much a freewheeling re-creation of Alamo history as the intimations of Mexican insults to Anglo-American womanhood in 1915’s Martyrs of the Alamo. Southern Anglo men like Travis (who came to Texas from antebellum Alabama) simply did not have African-American sidekicks of equal social standing in 1836, which means that the 1986 version not only revises the history of the Alamo substantially, but also revises the entire history of race relations in the United States.
Following the release of Roots, it became less socially acceptable for films to openly endorse the notion that slavery could be supported by decent Anglos with self-respect. Arguably it is this legacy of Roots, at least in part, that led to the revisionism surrounding the depiction of Joe in Thirteen Days. The historical William Barrett Travis was indeed a slave owner, something that would likely have made his representation as a hero problematic for a 1980s film, because the legacy of Roots meant that the “good guys” could not own slaves. Therefore, the apparent solution was to rewrite history so that the Travis of the film is not a slave owner at all, but instead simply a white man with a buddy named Joe who happens to be African-American. In this sense, the depiction of Travis’s and Joe’s relationship in Thirteen Days to Glory also draws on interracial buddy movies of the 1980s such as 48 Hours (Walter Hill, 1982) and Trading Places (John Landis, 1983), with the Travis-Joe relationship in Thirteen Days emblematic of the Hollywood vision of racial harmony that was prevalent in such cinematic representations throughout the decade, although not necessarily reflective of any kind of social reality.
Such radical taking of liberties with historic fact is not particularly unusual in Hollywood films based on real events. However, the historical revisionism engaged in by Thirteen Days to Glory is a perfect example of the linchpin argument of this essay—that a historical event often can most efficaciously be retold by adjusting its mythic parameters along lines that are seemingly inoffensive to prevailing ideologies. Thus, in the film versions of the Alamo discussed above, certain historic facts are consistently represented, while others are not. The events of the battle, such as the wholesale massacre of the Texians and Tejanos, for example, have never been readjusted in any film versions of the Alamo, nor has the heroism of the major characters. Likewise, the value of the Alamo skirmish in the winning of the revolution and consequent founding of Texas, as well as the assertion that the creation of Texas was an inherently good turn of events in world history, remain uncontested across all of the films. The depiction of African-Americans at the Alamo, in sharp contrast, is routinely altered by filmmakers as the political and social winds blow, perhaps leading to the conclusion that racial equity in this country is sometimes more a function of political rhetoric than a meaningful evolution of circumstances—or at least it has been so for the makers of Alamo films, and presumably for those who have avidly consumed them.
Regeneration Through Clean Living: Two for Texas
Thirteen Days was not the only film about the Alamo in the post-Vietnam era that saw revisionism in its representation of interracial harmony. While Sam is once again absent from the story in Two for Texas, and there is only one minor character who is African-American, this film version of events is particularly noteworthy within the context of this essay because of its willingness to revise history to comply with modern sensibilities. Originally broadcast January 18, 1998 on TNT and directed by Rod Hardy, the film employs revisionism in placing fictional characters Hugh (Kris Kristofferson) and Son (Scott Bairstow) in revolutionary Texas where they have escaped from an unjust imprisonment in the bayou country of Louisiana. Hugh is an old friend of Bowie’s, and soon becomes convinced that the legendary knife-wielder’s fight for a new nation is about as good a goal as any other. Along their way to the Alamo, Hugh and Son meet Sana (Irene Bedard), a Native American woman who also takes up the battle for Texas independence.
The Alamo massacre is not shown in the film, but Hugh and Son are aware of the dire circumstances of the Texians and ride to San Antonio to see how they can help. They are too late to join the battle, however, and revisionism once again comes into play when the two circulate freely inside the Alamo (Santa Anna and his troops already having departed), and view the corpse of Bowie and the other defenders that Mexican peasants are readying for cremation. Son decides to marry Sana, a narrative development that seems to communicate the message that integration is the hope for the new Texas and ultimately for America, with Son and Sana positioned as the Texans of the future. Although the filmmakers chose to portray Sana as Native American rather than African-American, the interracial marriage between Son and Sana nonetheless points to an idealized lessening of interracial tension in America that is presumably meant to suggest that this is equally true of the country at the time of the film’s release. This idealized stance can be easily gleaned from both Thirteen Days to Glory and Two for Texas, insofar as both films seem to invite interpretations of their revisions to African-American participation in the Alamo in light of the supposed improved race relations in the U.S. at the time that the films were made.
As for African-American characters, there is precisely one in the entire film—a prison guard at the facility in Louisiana that Hugh and Son escape from, who is instructed to beat an Anglo prisoner for some infraction or other. While not quite as startling as the sight of Travis and Joe as traveling sidekicks in Thirteen Days, the image of an African-American man beating a white man with the full legal blessing of his Southern state in the antebellum period is an unlikely scenario. Moreover, while in the 1986 and 1998 films the overt support of the Plantation Illusion found in the earlier films disappears with the transformation of the African-American characters from servants to autonomous individuals, this erasure of slaves from the Alamo story is problematic in a different way because there was certainly at least one African-America at the Alamo who was a slave in historical fact—Travis’s slave Joe. Therefore, Two for Texas is a long way past the Plantation Illusion, but still lodged in post-Vietnam “Ramboesque” revisionism, in which, much like in Thirteen Days to Glory, uncomfortable historical truths are elided in favor of idealized representations in which the racial inequalities between the African-American and white participants in the battle at the Alamo are either rewritten, ignored or erased.
The Alamo Story for a New Millennium: The Alamo
As a retelling of the African-American experience at the Alamo, the 2004 film The Alamo (John Lee Hancock) is the most historically accurate to date, although its depiction of events is still creatively embellished. For one thing, it is the only film in which Joe (Edwin Hodge) is actually portrayed as Travis’s slave, reflecting the historical reality. In this version, Joe is often seen with Sam (Afemo Omilami), who for the only time in film history is depicted as a slave not particularly invested in the success of his owner Jim Bowie (Jason Patric). Sam is fluent in Spanish, which serves him well once the Mexicans inevitably overcome the Texians. Sam’s knowledge of Mexican culture and language is not an unrealistic fabrication, because Bowie was after all married for years to an aristocratic Mexican and lived at his Veramendi in-laws’ San Antonio residence prior to the Texas Revolution.
The Sam of 2004’s The Alamo is also by no means imbued with the Plantation Illusion, and, in fact, urges Joe to make his escape if the opportunity arises. While digging a well together, Sam even coaches Joe in how to say “Please don’t shoot; I’m a negro” in Spanish. Later, when Bowie tells Sam and his Latina sister-in-law that he wishes them to join the evacuation of women and children, Sam asks him if he is getting his papers. Bowie answers that Sam is his property until he dies, and that he intends to come and claim him after the Alamo confrontation is over. In this way, the film not only presents a new vision of historic accuracy in its depiction of African-Americans, but it is also is the first Alamo film to assign slightly negative character attributes to any of the principal heroes of the battle (although it should be acknowledged that the film also hints that Bowie realizes that the defense of the Alamo is essentially a suicide mission, and is in essence giving Sam his walking papers by dying). Gone too is the interracial buddying of the 1980s and 1990s Alamo films, although it is unclear whether in openly acknowledging the subordinate social status of Sam and Joe as slaves the filmmakers merely wished to strive for greater historical accuracy, or if instead it is an explicit attempt to avoid the naiveté of Thirteen Days to Glory and Two for Texas by confronting issues of racial inequality head-on.
Travis (Patrick Wilson) is depicted in the 2004 film as an unrepentant slave owner and a very young and rather vain man who nevertheless rises to the occasion when it becomes apparent that the loss of the Alamo to the Mexican forces is imminent. However, in its portrayal of Travis, the 2004 film also resurrects the image of an Anglo-American man who doesn’t see a contradiction in his support of the institution of slavery and his support of American democratic platitudes. One can question whether the flag-waving by Travis and Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton) at the end of the film truly compensates for their failure to acknowledge the democratic right of certain of their fellow Americans, or is merely a glaring inconsistency that is not handled adequately by the scriptwriters. If the latter, then perhaps there are reasons for the film’s box-office failure other than Slotkin’s assertion of mythical incoherence in today’s Westerns. After all, the realistic portrayals of Joe and Sam may be to the credit of the filmmakers, but ultimately the film does little to question the ideological values inscribed onto the Alamo battle, which have gone largely unchallenged for the last 175 years, even if it does alter aspects of the story prevalent in its cinematic representations. In other words, while facets of the narrative may change in this film, the meaning that the story is invested with in dominant U.S. culture still remains the same.
In the films analyzed in this essay, the history of the Alamo is quite stable overall, while the details of African-American involvement in the battle is altered to suit the cultural temper of the moment. The fact that representations of the African-American characters, their motivations, and their actions can be changed when other aspects of the battle are apparently too sacred to tamper with leads to the conclusion that, when it comes to cinematic depictions of the Alamo, the African-American experience is free for reinterpretation at the whims of filmmakers. Because the Alamo massacre has consistently been the subject of films every decade or so from 1915 onwards, the stories of Joe and Sam (whoever he was) have been ripe for reinterpretation, and continuing shifts in depictions of Joe and Sam, both in terms of character and motivation, may very well continue to occur in subsequent films.
While, as this essay has argued, the revisions to Joe’s and Sam’s stories in the films discussed above are arguably the result of changing social attitudes, a closely related question is whether America may someday rethink the significance of the Alamo massacre and the Texas Revolution. Although slavery in Texas is never a major theme of Alamo films, one important outcome of the defeat of Mexico in 1836 was the legal reinstitution of slavery in Texas. Therefore, the Alamo as an important battle in the successful war for Texas independence can be interpreted as a miniature enactment of the Civil War struggle between the anti-slavery North and pro-slavery South—an enactment in which the South wins and successfully secures the right to own slaves. And yet film versions of the Alamo myth to date have failed to acknowledge, nevermind to consider, that the victory of the Texians in their battle for independence resulted in Texas becoming a slave state.
Whether any such soul-searching will occur in either Texas or Hollywood is another question. Unlike the story of the Little Big Horn massacre and the radical rethinking of George Armstrong Custer in popular culture (most notably in the book and film Little Big Man), the Alamo story has undergone very little historical alteration or revision in the time since the event occurred. In short, the 1836 battle was and is taken by American society as an inspiring test of the mettle of brave warriors who are bent on protecting their cultural values from undesirable outside forces. Except for the slight desanctification of Jim Bowie in the 2004 film The Alamo, the basic facts of the battle and the basic understanding of the main characters has been remarkably consistent. Indeed, despite the fact that the story of the Alamo massacre could be reasonably expected to lend itself to mythic retellings, the only aspect of the story that has been consistently altered by filmmakers is the experiences of the African-Americans who were present at the massacre. The logical conclusion to be reached is that the various American filmmakers who have addressed the Alamo story are content to alter the facts of the African-American experience for the sake of good storytelling consistent with the times, but are not quite as willing to alter the meaning inscribed on to the story of the Alamo within the dominant American mythos.
1 William C. Davis bases his information about the 1875 appearance by Joe on the John S. Ford Memoirs in UT Austin’s Center for American History. One can only conclude that Joe had learned the extent of Texian gratitude for his service at the Alamo, for the online Handbook of Texas entry for Joe notes that an ad in the Telegraph and Texas Register offering a $50 reward for his capture continued to run in the paper for three months. Joe showed up in Austin in 1875, according to the online Handbook, but Davis writes that he passed on an opportunity to celebrate the San Jacinto victory.
2 Groneman has misgivings about the Rose story (66-68), although other Alamo historians have repeated it verbatim. Jeff Long, for example, recounts the Rose and line-in-sand stories as they have come down from the 19th century (232-234), as does Walter Lord (201-203), the latter even providing evidence to back up his assertion that the story is probably accurate. Richard Flores provides a good overview of the matter (111-112), taking no side but focusing rather on the uses of the Rose legend as a basis for Man from the Alamo.
3 Sammy Davis Jr. reportedly wished to be cast in the heavily stereotyped role of Bowie’s slave Sam, but according to Michael Munn’s biography, the film’s financial backers nixed Davis’s casting because he was dating a white woman at the time (207-208).
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