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The Alamo: Defining Heroism Down
by Patrick Rooney
14 April 2004

The fatal flaw of this generation’s judgment of the preceding ones, is that true enemies are not seen for what they are.

Rather than depict them as alabaster saints, we wanted to show them as complete human beings.
-- Stephen Hardin, historical advisor, The Alamo

In 1960, American icon John Wayne starred as Davy Crockett in The Alamo, a heroic, if sanitized, portrayal of the infamous siege where some 200 Americans held off Mexican General Santa Anna’s army of several thousand for 13 days before being wiped out to a man.

Nearly 45 years later, a new unwashed Alamo is upon us, brought to us by Disney, and starring American anti-hero Billy Bob Thornton as the larger-than-life frontiersman. America has obviously changed, and the new Alamo reflects that change—but is it a good one?

Thornton’s legendary Indian fighter Davy Crockett is portrayed as a man of hyped abilities who was only involved in a single skirmish with Indians—an unsavory massacre at that—and considers escaping over the Alamo wall but doesn’t due to vanity. Renowned knife fighter Jim Bowie is a heavy drinker and slave trader of questionable morality; and the man who engineered the subsequent defeat of Santa Anna, Sam Houston, is a quick-tempered drunk. Bowie, Houston, and others were supposedly motivated by cheap land in Texas, not freedom.

I believe both the old Wayne portrayal and the new Disney portrayals have their value, yet miss the mark in their own way.

Wayne’s movies mirrored the times in which they were made. His was a World War II era of heroes. Character flaws were generally not discussed, nor were family secrets often exposed.

One of the positive aspects of the “modern era” has been an increasing openness about our flaws. This openness has allowed a great deal of personal and family conflict to be worked out in the sweet air of reason.

But the devil is always lurking, ready to use any situation to his advantage. While he is able to control us with the shame of secrecy, on the flip side he is able to fan the flames, so that modern openness too often becomes accusation that needlessly ruins reputations and relationships.

The unwillingness to forgive is the Achilles heel of this generation. In judging the faults of former generations, many have done all they can do to “never be like that.” But they have not succeeded.

Former generations were closed in comparison—this generation attempts openness, yet is closed to anyone who disagrees with it. Former generations smoked—this generation stamps out cigarettes yet tolerates pot smoking. This generation saves rainforests—yet kills unborn children. The former generation allowed Jim Crow laws. This generation attempts to show color blindness, yet daily demonstrates its race obsession.

But in its unforgiveness, this generation also judges that which is good in its parents’ and grandparents’ generations. The World War II generation was undoubtedly heroic in facing down Adolf Hitler and Emperor Hirohito. But admitting this heroism is hard for many in the present generation.

So what to do in portraying heroism on the screen? Bring it down to your level. Highlight the flaws of the heroes. Show they were “just like us.” But Thornton’s too-vulnerable portrayal ultimately proves he’s no Davy Crockett.

The fatal flaw of this generation’s judgment of the preceding ones, is that true enemies are not seen for what they are. For instance, there’s nothing redeeming about General Santa Anna. He was a vicious, bloodthirsty tyrant, nothing more. Yet The Alamo attempts to be “even handed,” praising the fact that he was interested in his country’s “territorial integrity.”

And in seeking “humanity” in its characters, the filmmakers mistakenly look for human faults as evidence of it. But faults don’t make us more human, they make us more inhumane! And conversely the filmmakers “humanize” evil characters like Santa Anna by showing their supposed good points! 

The Alamo is not a bad movie, and certainly not unique in advertising its generation’s flaws. But ultimately a movie whose greatest asset is its heroism, yet feels constantly compelled to undercut that heroism, is on shaky ground.

I don’t want to see a whitewash of history. But neither can I be truly inspired by a movie that suggests unblemished heroism is unheard of—or worse, somehow undesirable.

Patrick Rooney is Director of Special Projects for the Brotherhood Organization of A New Destiny.

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