The Very Blurry Line Between Fact and Fiction

Texas Rising has taken historic liberties that have undermined rather than enhanced the narrative momentum of the story.

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Bill Paxton as Sam Houston.
Photo credit: Zade Rosenthal

Editor’s note: When we heard History would be airing a ten-hour miniseries about the Texas Revolution, of course we had to tune in. Stephen Harrigan, Texas Monthly’s film and television columnist, already reviewed the first four hours of the show in this month’s issue of the magazine. Now, he and James Donovan, author of The Blood of Heroes: The 13-Day Struggle for the Alamo—and the Sacrifice That Forged a Nation, will watch each episode and discuss just how accurate—or, at the very least, entertaining—the series is. (Scroll down to read the rest of their coverage.)

Jim,

Oh yes, I’ll stay tuned. Only a despicable poltroon would agree to watch all ten hours of this thing and then turn tail and run away faster than a ringtail bobcat. As you’re well aware, Jim, fightin’s all I know. I claim the ancient right by my own death denied and my brethren butchered to seize the remote from my tender young wife—who is and always will be my sweet desert rose—and make her watch Dancing with the Stars on the little TV in the bedroom.

Sorry. Two nights of Texas Rising dialogue has really messed with the language centers of my brain. And to answer your question, I’m not watching this series out of professional obligation so much as out of slack-jawed wonderment. It just never really occurred to me that in my lifetime I would witness a dramatic rendering of the Texas Revolution in which Emily West reports this to Sam Houston about Santa Anna: “He mocks you to his men. He named a chicken after you.”

You’re right. Every work of fiction must at some level be historically inaccurate, and every viewer has his or her own tolerance for the liberties movies end up taking with the facts. “I personally think that historical fiction should be banned,” wrote one of the people who posted a comment on the Texas Monthly website after my original review ran. “It confuses the young and makes old people think they are losing their minds.”

I don’t want to ban historical fiction. Not only has writing it provided me with much of my livelihood, but watching movies and reading novels was what originally sparked my interest in history. When I see a conscientiously rendered movie like Mr. Turner or read a book like Wolf Hall, I still get that time machine thrill of being fully transported to another world.

“It’s quite simple, really,” Hilary Mantel, the author of Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies said when Terry Gross asked her recently in a Fresh Air interview about where she draws the line between fact and fiction. “I make up as little as possible.”

The folks who made Texas Rising seem to be operating on the opposite principle. They made up as much as they could, but to no clear strategic purpose. Were you as amazed as I was that the date of March 7, 1836 appears on the screen as Santa Anna rides through the smoldering ruins of the Alamo?  When I saw a rough cut, I was sure it was just a mistake that would be corrected, but there it was for all 4.1 million viewers of the first episode to see. (A nice sized audience, by the way, though it will be interesting to see how the ratings track through the course of the series.) Anybody who has read a book about the Alamo (preferably yours or mine) or knows any of the big dates in Texas history (hello, March 6?) is bound to greet the opening sequence of Texas Rising with a big “Uh, what?”. And that Goliad massacre scene! If you’re about to carry out a mass execution, is it wise to form a circular firing squad?

One of the co-producers of Texas Rising is David Marion Wilkinson, the acclaimed author of Not Between Brothers, a very good and historically rigorous novel set during the Texas Revolution. Judging by this interview he recently gave to the Austin Chronicle, Texas Rising sounds like it went down the path of a lot of other Hollywood projects: a high stakes, high budget production that ended up being a slurry of competing visions and agendas, with a multitude of drafts by different writers shuffled during the race to production into a final shooting script. There are enough earnest little bits in Texas Rising–lines of dialogue here and there taken verbatim from obscure historical references–to suggest that at some point somebody might have actually cared about the factual record. But those righteous intentions, if they existed, have been buried under a blizzard of inanity.

And so far the liberties taken by the filmmakers have, to my mind, undermined rather than enhanced the narrative momentum of the story. Like you, I was extremely puzzled by the film’s depiction of the desperate situation after the fall of the Alamo. At the exact point in the story where everyone should be madly scrambling for the survival of Texas, time seems to stand still. The characters pretty much just dawdle around, joshing and dancing and arguing and feeding stray dogs. And what did you think about those insufferable scenes with those two young rangers who were courting the doctor’s daughter?  Were you glad when they finally—spoiler alert, but too late!—got killed?

I do have hopes, though. From the coming attractions at the end of the episode, it seems there might be real action ahead, including the battle of San Jacinto, with some trees at last!

Steve

Previous coverage of Texas Rising:
James Donovan watches the first four hours: “Let’s Not Count Out Texas Rising Just Yet”
Stephen Harrigan’s response: “The Very Blurry Line Between Fact and Fiction”
James Donovan on episode 3: “Are You Not Entertained?”
Stephen Harrigan on episode 3: “We Have Minutiae, But Where Is the Nuance?”
James Donovan on episode 4: “The Basic Problem with “Texas Rising”? A Lack of Human Connection”
Stephen Harrigan on episode 4: “The Latest Installment Is the Most Superior Yet”
James and Stephen discuss the final episode: “So About That ‘Texas Rising’ Finale . . .”

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