Mission: Impossible

Rumor has it that director Ron Howard and screenwriter John Sayles are coming to Austin this spring to make a $100 million movie about the Alamo. It may be too much to ask that they get Texas' defining battle right (since no one knows what reallyhappened), but I've got my fingers crossed—and a few friendly words of advice.
Mission: Impossible
Illustration by Rob Clayton

Dear Ron and John:

Heard y’all are coming to Texas to make a moving picture. We are mighty excited! It has been a long, lonely fifteen years since somebody made an epic about our favorite subject, the Alamo. Here are a few tips to make your stay productive and enjoyable.

Tip Number 1: FINDING THE ALAMO

ALTHOUGH YOU’LL BE STAYING in Austin, you’ll want to visit the Alamo City to do research, but once in San Antonio, stay calm. Everything down there is Alamo this and Alamo that. If you’re trying to look up the Alamo in the telephone book, be forewarned: There are four pages of “Alamo” listings, including Alamo Dog and Cat Hospital, Alamo Investigation Agency, Alamo Funeral Company, and so on. The one you want is Alamo: Shrine of Texas Liberty, 300 Alamo Plaza. The best way to find the Alamo Plaza Alamo is to check in at the historic Menger Hotel (Kinky Friedman schlepped here). Get a room on the north side and look out the window. That little yellow-stone, mission-style number—it’ll be all lit up at night—is the ticket.

Never divulge directly to the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, who are in charge of the Alamo, that you are making a movie about it. It will be their patriotic duty to call the police and make wretched all the days of your lives. The only emotion officially sanctioned by the DRT is awe. P.S. The facilities are out back—they get irritated if you ask.

Since a tour of the Alamo takes no more than half an hour, tops, plan on taking a long lunch break to sort through your impressions. There are plenty of restaurants where you can dine alfresco along the River Walk, a short distance away and easy to find. (Just follow the 4,742 signs that say “River Walk.”) By the way, do not confuse this river with the one in John Wayne’s epic, the Río Bravo (Rio Grande), which is 150 miles from here. What you are looking at and dining beside is the San Antonio River.

Historical note: Santa Anna’s army used neither paddleboats nor motorized barges to cross the river, nor was there a really good fajita place located on it at that time. Mexican-food advice is always important to outlanders, so listen up. Expensive Mexican restaurants are what we call oxymorons, so don’t plan on spending much for Tex-Mex. It should be cheap and it should come in two colors: brown and yellow.

Tip Number 2: LOOKING AT THE BIG PICTURE

WE SAW THE NEWS RELEASE about how the big guy at Disney, Michael Eisner, in post-9-11 mode, put the project on the fast track. Ron, we read in the New York Daily Newshow you want to “capture the post-Sept. 11 surge in patriotism.” And we heard about the efforts of your producer, Brian Grazer, to steer the film away from anything controversial, announcing that it wouldn’t ally itself with Mexicans or Texians. Don’t you see that it has to, Ron? If it’s about patriotism, then it’s about love of country. There were two opposing forces at the Alamo: One was Mexican, one was Texian, and they didn’t like each other very much. The Mexican leader, General Antonio López de Santa Anna, considered the Texians “pirates,” and the Texians considered the Mexicans deluded followers of a corrupt and tyrannical government. Ron, we know you know how to wax patriotic. We’ve seen all the episodes of The Andy Griffith Show; we’ve seen Apollo 13. So we know you have it in you. John, we’re not so sure about you. Texans have a long memory, and those of us who saw Lone Star remember how you had the heroine say, ringingly, “Forget the Alamo.” And some of us, like me, remember an earlier offense, in Piranha, when you placed piranhas in the San Marcos River. That was okay; it was a spoof of horror flicks. But we’re in shrine country now, John, and you need to pay attention to what you write. Every Alamo movie since the days of the silents has claimed to be authentic, and every one of them has played fast and loose with the facts. So watch it.

One thing that needs to be understood from the get-go is that anything— anything—done or said about the Alamo can create controversy in Texas. For example, the descendants of both Mexicans and Tejanos (Mexicans born in Texas) always complain about how their forebears are misrepresented in Alamo films. Back in 1915 the racism of The Martyrs of the Alamo led Mexican Americans in South Texas to boycott the film. Anglos get mad too. The Daughters of the Republic of Texas pitched a fit when Viva Max! (1969) mocked some of the solemnities surrounding the Alamo legend. Even when a filmmaker tries his best to be fair, as John Wayne did with The Alamo (1960), there can be trouble. Jesus Trevino, for example, who directed the revisionist Alamo docudrama Seguin (1982), accused Wayne of picturing Mexicans as “either bandidos, dancing señoritas, sleeping drunks, or fiery temptresses.” More recently, other groups have protested naming public schools after Travis (because he championed slavery and abandoned his wife and child) or Bowie (because he was a slave smuggler). In a politically correct age, the heroes of the Alamo are apt to come off as a bit unsavory.

As you will soon discover, nobody knows exactly what the hell happened at the Alamo. All we know for sure is that the Texians lost and the Mexicans won on March 6, 1836. But as any red-blooded Texan will be happy to tell you, Texas soon came out ahead because Santa Anna’s army was defeated some six weeks later, on April 21, at San Jacinto. Since then, politicians, historians, and moviemakers have touted the Alamo as a moral victory.

Tip Number 3: TELLING THE TRUTH

IF YOU WANT TO MAKE a powerful film, then you are going to have to get down to historical cases. This means you will have

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