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 see the rest of their coverage.)
You warned us. In your review of Texas Rising in the latest Texas Monthly, you beat the tocsin loudly. But not loudly enough. Because you know that line in the sand you mentioned? The one that should never be crossed? Well . . . this mini-series crossed it.
I think we can agree on a few things, apropos of the whole Historical Accuracy vs. Dramatic Interpretation argument. Virtually without exception, every work of fiction is, by necessity, historically inaccurate. Filmmakers make things up, take things out, change things that were said and done. They have to, for dramatic reasons, because drama operates by different rules than real life. It’s often necessary to eliminate characters or combine two or more into a composite fictional one. Invented characters can work, too, provided they perform a necessary function and are believable within the context of the world in which they are set.
For these reasons and others, it’s all too easy for a historian to find fault with just about any filmed depiction of an historical event. It’s not really fair, or productive, to nitpick. Especially since most movies and TV shows are made for general audiences, not historians, who want, above all, to be entertained, and their intelligence respected—or at least not insulted too blatantly.
What pretty much any viewer familiar with the Texas Revolution will want to know is how convincingly Texas Rising portrays Sam Houston. You write that Bill Paxton is ineffective as Houston, and though you’re right, I don’t think it’s Paxton’s aura of modernity that’s the problem so much as the dialogue he’s given. Paxton, a fine actor—who, let’s remember, has pulled off convincing Frank James and Wyatt Earp in past projects—is a Texan and claims he’s related to Houston (“second cousins, four times removed”). But of course that means little to his performance, unless he’s able to channel his relation’s spirit. Perhaps, with a better script, he could have. But he never had a chance.
Neither does Olivier Martin, who looks and acts like Santa Anna but is sunk by lame dialogue like this exchange between himself and Emily West, a.k.a. “The Yellow Rose”:
Santa Anna: “I suspect you are running from a man.”
West: “Maybe I’m running to something. What makes you think that?”
Santa Anna: “I just do.”
The Front Page this ain’t.
Some of the characters are better realized. Every appearance of Ray Liotta’s Lorca, who rises from the Alamo dead to exact bloody revenge on Mexican soldiers for slaughtering his family, is a shot of adrenalin. (I wasn’t as bothered as you were by Liotta’s New Jersey affect.) Brendan Fraser as a pigtailed, Comanche-raised Ranger is an oddball original, though he occasionally ranges a bit too close to his George of the Jungle goofiness. (He’s given the best line of the first four hours, though: while translating between Houston and an Indian chief during a tense parlay, he complains, “Shakespeare does not translate into Comanche.”) And Cynthia Addai-Robinson plays Emily West—a real person, though there is zero evidence that she was involved in any way with the Texas Revolution—with luscious brio.
But is the core of the story there? Well—yes and no.
The broad outlines and underlying themes of the Texas Revolution are on display, but the subtleties are few and far between. Texas Rising offers little sense that many, perhaps most, Tejanos (though that term didn’t come into use until later) supported the revolution, or that the great majority of the Texians would have been content with Mexican statehood and a few more civil rights. And the Indians are given a larger part here than they merit—they stayed away from the hostilities, content to prey on stray settlers and settlements. Minor points? Maybe.
But dramatically, the series is something of a mess. The “Runaway Scrape,” in which families, entire communities, and yes, the Texian army fled frantically eastward before the advancing Mexican army, losing children along the way and navigating heavy rains and muddy roads, here becomes a leisurely trek with all the urgency of a Sunday box social. There’s plenty of time to relax, socialize, bathe and shave, and even do laundry. At the same time, Santa Anna and most of his army decide to take a holiday in San Antonio (unnoted, again, by the historical record) where they engage in a round of feasting, partying, cockfighting, and, in Santa Anna’s case, cavorting naked with the Yellow Rose in a large wooden tub.
Admittedly, these disparate elements are mostly kept under control by director Roland Joffe, and the series is well-directed within each scene. But the story slouches from one scene to the other with little narrative drive. It doesn’t help that there’s no proper sense of geography—it’s hard to tell where all these places are in relation to one another. The classic movie device of showing some of the characters examining a map would have helped the viewer to gain a spatial sense of the revolution. (Actually, one senses that Joffe and his writers might have benefitted from examining a map.) Without that, the action is somewhat bewildering to any viewer who isn’t already familiar with the geography. The size of the various groups is also confusing. The Mexican Army—the one that Houston mentions as numbering 6,000 men—is never shown as more than a hundred men, and the 300 Texians slaughtered at Goliad look like fifty, tops. Budgetary limitations, I suppose.
Still, I’ll keep watching Texas Rising, and not just because you and I are getting paid to pontificate about it. The series is fitfully entertaining, and I want to know how it all turns out in this alternate Texian universe. Obviously, most of these characters will ultimately collide on an empty plain almost a mile wide near a river crossing known as Lynch’s Ferry. I just hope the pace picks up before we get there. Maybe Santa Anna will fire up his hot tub time machine and really get this party started.
How about you? Do you want to keep watching? Or are you going to do so simply out of a sense of professional obligation?
James Donovan is a Dallas literary agent and the author of The Blood of Heroes: The 13-Day Struggle for the Alamo–and the Sacrifice That Forged a Nation. (Full disclosure: one of his clients is Stephen L. Moore, author of the recently released Texas Rising tie-in book.)
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 . . .”