That Sinking Feeling
Those who forget history are doomed to . . . really enjoy Texas Rising.
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In 2008 the History Channel “refreshed” its identity. It would drop “Channel” and henceforth be known simply as History, a giant untethered balloon of a name that seemed to signal not merely a re-branding but a brazen appropriation. But with great words come great responsibilities. Now that I’ve watched the first four hours of History’s robustly ahistorical ten-hour miniseries Texas Rising (May 25 through June 15) and my rolling eyeballs have finally come to rest, I think the network needs to re-refresh. It should drop “History” this time and just call the thing Channel.
Provoked by the best-picture nominations in this year’s Oscar race, the culture recently passed through one of its periodic soul-searching episodes about the way movies portray history. The discussion was mostly limited to earnest dramas that touched upon high-stakes contemporary preoccupations. Scholars and critics argued about Selma’s attitude toward Lyndon Johnson’s true role in the passage of the Voting Rights Act and about the depiction of Alan Turing’s homosexuality in The Imitation Game. But nobody minded that the Persian king Xerxes in 300: Rise of an Empire was fifteen feet tall or that Jennifer Connelly in Noah wore what looked like a biblical-era version of a Lululemon yoga outfit. Maybe the casual historical indifference of Texas Rising should get the same sort of pass. There’s probably no reason to single it out as a particularly groundbreaking offender—except for the fact that I can’t stop myself.
The miniseries begins just after the fall of the Alamo, in 1836. Judging by the events of the first four hours, which is all that has been made available to critics at the time I’m writing this, the story is about Texas’s fight for independence from Mexico, its establishment as a republic, and the forging of its identity. It’s not a bad premise for a throbbing, action-filled western epic, and it’s a crucial span of history that has been overlooked in previous depictions of the era, for which the Battle of the Alamo is not the catalytic event but the ennobling conclusion.
Since Texas Rising starts at the Alamo, let’s go there first, though with due disclosure of my own literal-mindedness. (Having once spent the better part of a decade researching and writing a novel about this subject, I’ve been known to churlishly fact-check the historical veracity of the Alamo sequence in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.) In the opening scene, the Mexican dictator Santa Anna rides through the vanquished fort past heaps of dead Texan defenders as the words “The Alamo, March 7, 1836” appear on the screen—or at least that’s what it says in the unfinished cut I watched. That’s right—March 7! A quick check of any seventh-grade Texas history book will tell you that Santa Anna entered the mission just after it fell on the morning of March 6.
It’s possible that for some reason the filmmakers decided to depict this event as happening a day later than it really did. More likely it’s just a simple mistake that will be corrected before the show airs, the sort of thing that happens all the time during the production process. But in the context of the overall miniseries, getting such a hallowed date wrong, even temporarily, doesn’t feel like just any mistake. It feels like the first of many shoulder shrugs of factual disinterest.
Among the women who survive the battle is Emily West, the mysterious seductress known to lore if not to history as the Yellow Rose of Texas. In Texas Rising she not only has had a thing with Sam Houston, but she will later tell Santa Anna, “I want a warm bath. With you in it.” Remember, I’ve seen only the first four hours, so I can’t tell you whether all three of them eventually get into the tub together—but you can be sure that History would not let a little thing like history get in the way of a scene like that.
Emily rides away from the Alamo in a wagon that falls under attack by a swarm of mounted Indian warriors, all with identical Rod Stewart haircuts. “Karankawa,” says Brendan Fraser to his fellow Texas Rangers as they watch the attack from a distant hillside. “Don’t know what they’re doing so far inland.”
I don’t know either, since the Karankawa didn’t thunder across the prairie on horses but paddled around Padre Island in dugout canoes. And come to think of it, I don’t know what anybody is doing so far inland. Texas Rising was shot in and around Durango, Mexico, a long-standing locale for western movies. (Memo from the who-am-I-to-throw-stones department: I once wrote a Texas-set television movie that was filmed there.) The scenery is certainly spectacular, but the overall look is just in-your-face wrong. Instead of the lush coastal prairies and riverine woodlands where the actual Texas Revolution took place, we get a barren desert with soaring outcrops of naked rock. Sam Houston’s headquarters tent in Gonzales—which in reality is a leafy, pastoral place—is perched like a swallow’s nest on a scary precipice looking out over a desolate wasteland. How about some landscape respect, Hollywood? How would you like it if they had filmed Sunset Boulevard in Sabine Pass?
From a historical point of view, much else is wrong too: uniforms that look like they were grabbed off a Civil War costume rack, flowing beards and mustaches that are out of sync with the more clean-shaven grooming standards of the 1830’s, farms set on patches of bare earth where nothing could ever grow, Anglo towns that look like Mexican pueblos and Mexican pueblos that look like Anglo towns.
But enough geeky grousing for the moment. Is Texas Rising any good? I guess it sort of is. Roland Joffé, the Oscar-nominated director of The Killing Fields and The Mission, is best when it comes to battles and grisly massacres and moments of lingering menace. But he also presides over some torpid scenes and some really hammy acting. (To be fair, though, is there any director on the planet who could rein in Crispin Glover?) The script, credited to Leslie Greif, Darrell Fetty, and George Nihil, is over-rich in expository dialogue (“After General Houston quit being governor of Tennessee, is it true that he lit out for the territory, took up with a Cherokee squaw, and stayed drunk for five years?”) and in coarse Old West–isms (Texas Ranger to a dead comrade: “Save me some poon in hell, big fella”). But it does a reasonably decent job of keeping the action moving and a multitude of plot tangents in order. As Santa Anna, Olivier Martinez is called upon to portray a one-dimensional sadist who punctuates his remarks by wringing the necks of chickens, but at least in a physical sense he’s the best Santa Anna ever—not the paunchy sourpuss of John Wayne’s 1960 Alamo movie, but young and lean and dynamic like the real personage. As for Sam Houston, the embodiment of nineteenth-century romantic swagger, he’s played by Bill Paxton, an excellent actor who unfortunately projects an air of put-upon modernity. The role of Andrew Jackson is essayed by none other than Kris Kristofferson, whom age has endowed with a puckish bonhomie quite distinct from the feral gauntness of our seventh president. His performance is—well, let’s just say that “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down” and “Me and Bobby McGee” are really great songs.
I’m tempted to predict that the less you know about Texas history the more likely you will be to enjoy Texas Rising, but that may not be true. I remember being in Springfield, Illinois, a few summers back doing some research in the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, and the scholars there were almost giddy with excitement as they prepared for their group outing to see Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. There are no vampires in Texas Rising, just a ghostly Alamo avenger played by New Jersey’s Ray Liotta. Part of why Texas Rising might leave viewers who care about Texas history with a sinking feeling is that it settles into a zone of historical blah-ness, committing itself neither to scrupulous fact nor to preposterous fun.
As a novelist and a screenwriter, I’ve done my share of inventing and rearranging when it comes to the historical record, though I like to think I’ve done so with a heavy heart. Storytelling is dependent upon the interplay of fiction and fact, and I’d be a hypocrite to pretend otherwise, especially when one of my own current film projects—about the early life of Julius Caesar—has only about a 28 percent truth quotient. The fact that I can plead guilty to the Caesar charge and still remain annoyed at Texas Rising mirrors the vital inconsistency we bring to the whole question of historical drama. There’s a line somewhere that should never be crossed, but nobody knows where it is.