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Published:March 5th, 2014 13:43 EST
Why Have Interpretations of The Battle of The Alamo Changed So Drastically Over the past 60 Years?

Why Have Interpretations of The Battle of The Alamo Changed So Drastically Over the past 60 Years?

By John G. Kays

Yesterday I saw a pristine movie poster for sale of John Wayne`s The Alamo (1960); suddenly it hit me like a Mexican cannonball, discharged early on the morn of March 6, 1836 in the legendary, besieged Bexar citadel! One reason for its considerable impact on me, is that the poster acted as a milestone, reminding me that tomorrow marks the 178th year anniversary of the Fall of the Alamo; the other reason is a bit more stressful and convoluted. I can only vaguely describe it, but it has to do with how the historical record of what really occurred there in 1836, has been distorted beyond recognition for more than a half century; this is not such a good thing!

I`ll not go into all of that, since I was a big fan of the movie; my dad took me to the film`s premiere in Houston, Texas back in 1960 (I was 7-years-old), then later our family even visited the movie sets in Brackenridge, Texas when on vacation. The recreation of the garrison is very impressive and it gave me an accurate sense of how the battle went down. Yet, through the years, being more of a fan of the real history of the battle (and The Texas Revolution in general), I`ve tried to keep up with any news about the battle or any new research that might shed more light on the truth of the event.

Why, for example, did Sam Houston tell Jim Bowie to go and blow up the fortress? Why didn`t (at least initially) Sam think it of strategic importance? Why did the movie make the claim that defending the Alamo would help get Houston time to train his men, when really he was attending the Washington-on-the-Brazos convention? Why were we told that Santa Anna had 5,000 men when actually he only had less than 2,000? Why did Davy Crockett come to the aid of the Texians all the way from Tennessee? And most of all, why did so many Americans and Texans (of course) see the battle as a racial conflict between Anglo settlers and Mexican Nationals?

More recently, some of these questions have been put to rest by astute historians; I wouldn`t say the controversies have been completely eliminated, however. For lots of us, to think that Davy was summarily executed by a firing squad, is unthinkable and sacrilegious! It cuts against the grain of what we`ve come to believe about the courageous former U.S. Congressman; well, that`s just the myth cracking up, but still? Was it just John Wayne, and Walt Disney who created this myth, or had it already been formulated, even way back in the mid-Nineteenth Century? Can this be somehow connected to the Cold War or to the Vietnam War?

This seems a little crazy, I know, but the thought has crossed my path a few times before; in this wacky analogy, the Mexicans would be like the Red Soviets and Santa Anna would be the spitting image of Joseph Stalin. This is almost too insane to type, but such was how people thought during those times; the levels of paranoia people experienced were inconceivable; yet, I lived through those times, and as much as I don`t want to admit it, I know it was real. Anytime we could make The Alamo symbolic for something else, we`d do so; as time passed, the true picture of what happened there and why this small bunch of men chose freely to defend this garrison, got lost.

Only over the past few decades, have we returned to an accurate examination of the historical record. I read Santa Anna`s Memoirs in the late 1980s, and even wrote a paper on them, when pursuing a teacher`s certificate (mine was in Texas and American History) at The University of Texas at Dallas. The best word to use, explaining Santa Anna is: VANITY; he was certainly a Tyrant, yet he managed to survive for many years, after his show of cowardice at San Jacinto. The Napoleon of Mexico is not all bad, he invented chewing gum! 

But seriously, seeing that perfect movie poster of The Alamo brought back a lot of conflicting ideas in my head, questions about who we are, how we got here, and disturbing notions about why 185 ethnically varied men would have to die on a chilly March morning (3/06/1836). I guess I`ll make a trip down to San Antonio on Friday and get some meditation under my belt in that little adobe chapel. Finally, some needed perspective is in order.

*Sources: Battle Of The Alamo, by Stephen L. Hardin (Handbook of Texas Online) - published by the Texas State Historical Association, Texas Revolution: 1835-1836, (Handbook of Texas), one movie poster (in mint condition), John Wayne`s The Alamo, and my own fifty plus years, surviving the tumultuous metamorphosis (or interpretation) of The Event (3/06/1836) or what it means