Writer-at-large Don Graham discusses this month's cover story, "Alamo Heights."
texasmonthly.com: How did the new release date for The Alamo affect your story?
Don Graham: The new release date affected the story rather sharply. I had finished writing the story and was working on the fact-checking process when the news came down. Stop the presses! It was like a scene out of Front Page, that old film about the newspaper business. I had to write a new beginning and ending (more on that later) and sort of wonder about the middle. But Evan Smith and Quita McMath worked on that part, deciding what to leave out because now the piece was running too long. In the end everything clicked.
texasmonthly.com: How difficult was it to write this piece without having watched the film?
DG: It was not difficult at all to write the piece without seeing the film. If the film had been available for me to see—in the three-hour version that was showed to test audiences—I would have had to “review” it in the article. This way, without seeing it, I could do other things such as trace the origins of the movie and provide an overview of other Alamo films. So that was fine, not seeing it.
texasmonthly.com: Throughout your story, you mention other movies that have been made about the Alamo. Did you have any preconceived ideas about the success of this movie before you began writing your story? If so, did those ideas change during the course of your research?
DG: I have seen all of the Alamo movies that can be seen (at least a couple of the silents have not survived), and I must say that that legacy creates a certain skepticism. None of them have been very good, but you’re always hoping the next one—this one—will be. As for specifics, I have some doubts about a couple of actors in the film. Period pieces are very hard to pull off; the actors have to look comfortable in those out-dated funny-looking clothes, and I’ll be very curious to see if they look at home on this range.
texasmonthly.com: In your story, you mention Michael Eisner’s explanation that the film would “capture the post-September 11 surge in patriotism.” In your own opinion, do you think too much time has gone by since 9/11? Do you think audiences will make a connection?
DG: What’s 9/11? I’m serious. I think that it is a long time since that “surge in patriotism” that Michael Eisner spoke of. The Alamo story as envisioned by this film is the successful end of a revolution, and how that connects with 9/11 is not at all clear to me. John Lee Hancock, the director, told me specifically that he was not thinking about 9/11 at all when he came on board to rewrite the script and direct.
texasmonthly.com: I know you haven’t seen the film, but after reading the script and researching this story, what do you think is the production’s best asset? Why?
DG: The film’s best assets, I think, are the set, the authenticity of which has impressed everybody; the interesting portrait of David Crockett as played by Billy Bob Thornton; the overarching theme of characters—historical figures—having a second chance to redeem themselves for earlier mistakes and/or disappointments; and the attempt at historical accuracy. The scenes with Sam Houston among the Cherokee should be interesting, with real Cherokee being spoken, too. I also hear that the musical score is very good. I saw a primitive trailer that had some beautiful sunset/sunrise footage.
texasmonthly.com: What was the most difficult aspect of working on this story?
DG: The most difficult thing was the time pressure of that last week of rewriting. And right after I had finished the new ending and thought I was done, John Lee Hancock called my home to give me his take on the change in the film’s release date. So then I had to rewrite the ending again. Also, Hancock seems like the nicest guy in the world and I enjoyed interviewing him very much, and I wanted to do right by him but I also wanted to get the story told in all of its complexity.
texasmonthly.com: What was the most interesting thing you learned while working on this story?
DG: The most interesting thing I learned was a tiny historical fact, namely, that a young soldier at Goliad, upon hearing of two successful repulses of Mexican attacks in the early days of the siege, wrote his mother telling her that “Probably Davy Crockett ‘grinned’ them off.” Here was wonderful evidence of Crockett’s celebrity at the time. I also thought it was very interesting that John Lee Hancock tried to emulate the “operatic” style of Akira Kurosawa in the battle scenes.
texasmonthly.com: In your own opinion, do you think audiences will remember the Alamo in April? Or will the film die at the box office?
DG: I think that those who want to remember the Alamo will remember this one, and those who don’t will go to Home Depot and get some stuff. Seriously, the demographics—18-26—are very tough, it seems to me, for a film like this. I don’t think it’s going to be a date movie, that’s for sure.
texasmonthly.com: In your story, you talk about John Lee Hancock’s effort to be historically correct. Do you think he succeeded? If so, why? If not, why not?
DG: I think that this film is going to be the most historically accurate of all the Alamo movies. The bar, incidentally, is not very high, but Hancock is shooting for a much greater degree of historical authenticity than any previous director. I imagine that he will succeed in this aspect of what he was trying to do.
texasmonthly.com: Is there anything you would like to add?
DG: I think that the film’s reception by general audiences and by Texas historians will be fascinating to watch. I’m looking forward to it.