Judge Erick Harper made us swear not to mention the Alamo's basement in connection with this review.
The legend survived, but the truth was massacred.
The siege and defeat of independence-minded Texans at the Alamo has been rewritten and reimagined so many times that the real events have become enveloped in an almost impenetrable shroud of legend. It has become one of the great sacred myths of the American West. Larger-than-life figures like Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie dwell within its walls, the image of their courage and sacrifice burned into our imaginations forever. The battle for the Alamo has been represented as a quintessential episode in the ongoing American struggle for independence and freedom from tyranny.
As is usually the case with historical myths and legends, the truth is not so simple or comfortable. The History Channel has produced this set of documentary features in order to explore the real story behind the Alamo, just in time for the release of the new feature film starring the likes of Dennis Quaid and Billy Bob Thornton.
Facts of the Case
This two-disc set contains four different documentaries dealing with the Alamo and other aspects of Texas history. The centerpiece is the new documentary Remember the Alamo. This documentary explores not just the battle, but the political and social forces that led Anglo colonists to settle in this remote northern province of Mexico and eventually to seek their independence. It is a story of opportunity, hard work, and the pioneer spirit; it is also a tale of land speculation, greed, and conflict over slavery. The previously sainted heroes of Texas independence and the Alamo are painted in a different light, showing them to be much more human (and much more interesting) than we had previously been led to believe.
Another, more traditional look at the Alamo battle comes in the form of "The Battle of the Alamo," an episode of The Real West, the western history series hosted by Kenny Rogers (The Gambler). This episode, dating from 1992, focuses less on the greater sociopolitical context of the event, concentrating on the more immediate details and play-by-play.
On the second disc, we find an episode of A&E's award-winning Biography series entitled "Davy Crockett: American Frontier Legend." In typical Biography fashion, this is an in-depth look at the life and times of the coonskin cap-wearing icon, from his boyhood and frontier adventures in the newly opened western wilderness of Tennessee to his successful career in Congress and final days attempting to become one of the founding fathers of a new republic. Of particular interest is the way that Crockett was in large part responsible for the creation of his own legend. Tennessee was still considered far-flung wilderness in those days, and this rough-hewn frontier congressman with his ready store of tall tales captured the imagination of the Eastern media. He was a spectacle on the order of a Crocodile Dundee, and he knew it; he was one of America's earliest and most successful spin-doctors, and our first true media celebrity.
Only marginally related to these programs but still interesting is yet another episode of The Real West, this one focusing on the Texas Rangers—the frontier guardians and policemen, not the baseball team. The Rangers originated with frontier colonist and land trader Stephen F. Austin; their organization predates the Alamo and the struggle for Texas independence.
Remember the Alamo was shot on the same sets as The Alamo (2004) which is currently in theaters; The History Channel worked in cooperation with the film's producers in order to create a much more impressive-looking documentary. There is a history of this sort of cooperation between cable documentary channels and film producers; for example, the Discovery Channel worked closely with Ridley Scott to use sets from Gladiator to create a fascinating documentary about Roman blood sports. The benefits to both sides of such cooperative efforts are obvious: the documentary makers get access to sets and props that their resources would never allow them to recreate, and feature film producers get what amounts to hour-long commercials for their upcoming theatrical releases. It's synergy with an upside for everyone involved, including the viewers. Dennis Quaid even appears in a pair of framing introduction and conclusion segments, plugging his new movie but also lending his star power to what might otherwise be just another standard History Channel product.
With these additional resources available, the historical reenactment sequences in Remember the Alamo are among the more impressive scenes in any History Channel production. They are further augmented by excellent 3-D computer animations showing the movement of troops during the battle. In one interesting sequence, the producers constructed a replica of a section of Alamo wall and had a group of historical reenactors fire period cannons at it to show how a siege worked in those days.
All the Hollywood-style bells and whistles aside, the real contribution of Remember the Alamo is its willingness to look beyond our grade-school history lessons and examine the less pleasant realities of the battle. In this telling of the Alamo tale we learn how Mexico opened Texas to Anglo settlement on incredibly generous terms, providing opportunities for wealth and personal achievement unheard of in the United Stated. We learn how men like William Barrett Travis and James Bowie left behind nefarious dealings in the U.S. to come to Texas and continue their shady ways. We learn how slavery played a key role in rending Texas from Mexico, just as it would play a role in almost sundering the United States a few short decades later. Myths are exploded, such as the white vs. brown aspect that the battle has taken on in our cultural memories; the contributions of native Texas-born Mexicans on both sides of the independence struggle are highlighted. Perhaps most shocking, we come to learn the battle for the Alamo was almost entirely unnecessary; Sam Houston and the Texas provisional government refused to send additional troops to the battle because they knew the location's strategic significance was almost nil. Those who defended the Alamo did so more out of stubbornness and strategic blunder than out of any sense of contribution to the cause of independence.
In addition to the four documentaries that stand as the cornerstones of this collection, the second disc includes two special features. The first is a behind-the-scenes featurette bearing the name Remember the Alamo: Making History and Hollywood. Introduced and narrated by Dennis Quaid, this featurette spends a lot of time summarizing the information found in Remember the Alamo. It does give some glimpses into the making of the new documentary and the new feature film, and gives at least passing mention to previous Hollywood attempts to bring the Alamo story to life, such as D. W. Griffith's 1915 Martyrs of the Alamo: The Birth of Texas and John Wayne's 1960 effort. There are a few glimpses behind the scenes of the new feature film as well. Particularly interesting is the input from a man who worked on both projects. Dr. Stephen L. Hardin, author of Texian Iliad, served as a historical advisor on The Alamo (2004), and also appears in Remember the Alamo in several talking head segments. He comments that one of his frustrations in working on the feature film has been the fudging of some of the historical facts, with Hollywood types telling him that "we aren't making a documentary here." He found working on Remember the Alamo a refreshing change. The other special feature is an interactive timeline of the events leading up to the fateful battle and on through the aftermath and Santa Ana's defeat at San Jacinto.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Along with the more innovative parts of Remember the Alamo there are a number of fairly standard talking head interview segments. There is nothing wrong with this, most of the time. Most of them are nicely done, the historians speaking are articulate and insightful, and they convey useful information. However, the interview segments in Remember the Alamo are afflicted with some of the worst video and audio quality of the whole collection. The picture in these segments suffers from pronounced red push, leaving face tones positively pinkish. Not only that, but the faces of these academic talking heads are often in very soft, gauzy focus. Even worse is the audio quality in some of these scenes. For example, in every clip featuring Stephen Hardin, there is a high-pitched electronic squeal in the background, the likes of which I have never heard outside of AM radio broadcasts of high school basketball games. It is extremely noticeable, and as painful to the ears as an ice pick. Perhaps his interviews were recorded under less than ideal conditions, but there is still no excuse for the failure on the part of the producers of this DVD to clean up the audio. I refuse to believe the technology does not exist to remedy this situation, especially somewhere in the DVD mastering process. The History Channel has put a lot of effort into making and marketing Remember the Alamo as a tie-in to the new movie; it would have been nice had they bothered to spend a little time on the audio and visual elements as well.
To be fair, the above problems make up a minor part of the running time of Remember the Alamo. The rest of the presentation uses a passable Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo mix and high-enough quality visuals to stand with The History Channel's usual products. Remember the Alamo, however, is only the headline act in this collection. The rest of the documentaries, coming from The Real West and Biography, look exactly like what they are—old television programs that have seen a minimal amount of prep work and been thrown onto a DVD. I'm not expecting a History Channel box set to look like a Lord of the Rings extended edition, but I would prefer that it at least look better than broadcast quality. The History Channel Presents The Alamo fails to meet even that modest expectation.
Making matters even worse, and a more important criticism, is a lack of cohesion among the various documentaries. The Real West episode about the Texas Rangers is an interesting addition to this collection, and will be satisfactory to most history buffs. The Rangers hold an iconic place in Texas history to be sure, but their inclusion in this set really doesn't make a lot of sense. Of all the information in this collection, this one has the most tenuous connection to the fall of the Alamo. In fact, the Rangers weren't even part of the famous battle. Including this episode as part of this collection doesn't really hurt anything, but it certainly smacks of trying to pad out the set and make it look more impressive than it really is. Even the material that relates to the Alamo doesn't necessarily help further the point of Remember the Alamo. If one of the great strengths of this new documentary is its willingness to challenge the generally accepted myth of the Alamo defenders, it is undercut in this objective by the rest of the material included. The Biography episode on Crockett and the Real West episode about the Alamo serve to reinforce rather than challenge our preconceived notions, contrary to what Remember the Alamo seems intended to accomplish. Frankly, it all seems a bit like the "bundling" that everyone was busy vilifying Bill Gates for a few years ago.
There are some gems in the midst of all the chaff, but there's quite a pile of chaff to sift through. This set might be worth checking out on the basis of Remember the Alamo, but even the otherwise excellent doc is marred by the mind-blowingly poor audiovisuals of the interview segments. This is a flawed package, not at all ready for prime time, and really not worth a purchase. I'd be willing to bet anything that Remember the Alamo shows up as a special feature on The Alamo (2004) when it comes out on DVD anyway, so it might be best to wait and see it then if you really want to.
Guilty! The History Channel Presents The Alamo has some elements of greatness, but like the real story of the Alamo it is obscured by a lot of extraneous nonsense that makes it look a lot better than it actually is.
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: History Channel
• Introduction and Conclusion to "Remember the Alamo" with Dennis Quaid
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