When I was six years old, my parents took me to the Capri Theater on Elm Street in Dallas to watch a Todd-AO 70mm-film presentation of John Wayne’s epic The Alamo. It was a larger-than-life cinematic presentation of the Shrine of Texas and the men–the martyrs–who died there fighting for liberty. Cannons roared even without the help of modern surround sound. Mexican soldiers charging the fortress seemed to leap over my head. In the climax, a lancer runs a pike through Wayne, who portrays Davy Crockett. Our hero fends off the pain and fatal blow to enter the chapel with a torch, setting off an explosion of the rebel’s stored ammunition. It was history brought to full color life on the big screen, dazzling the eyes of a boy in the days when heroes were unquestioned.
Not long afterward, I insisted that my parents take me to the real Alamo in San Antonio. I was immediately disappointed to find that a large part of the wall had not been blown out by Crockett and his torch. My disappointment was deep and disillusioning. Over the years, I learned that Wayne’s The Alamo is probably one of the least accurate of eight Alamo movies, not counting made-for-TV depictions.
But that hasn’t stopped it from reprisal at a very significant theater. On March 2, as part of the 2018 Alamo commemoration, The Alamo will be shown in the gardens of the Alamo.
I still love watching The Alamo from time to time, but this ain’t Wayne in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance—this is a historical commemoration. Sure, I know that Land Commissioner George P. Bush is getting some heat for wanting to reimagine the Alamo Plaza, but while “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend” still holds, Wayne’s version is the legend and not the fact.
According to Bush spokesperson Brittany Eck, the movie was chosen through a Twitter poll. “The Alamo put it to a vote on Twitter and the 1960s version won,” she said. “While many Alamo enthusiasts have mentioned that they know the 2004 version is more accurate, the one featuring John Wayne has a special place in many hearts.” She adds that they did show Phil Collins’s favorite, the 1955 classic Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier, for the sixtieth anniversary—and that members of the Alamo’s Living History team will likely be present at the screening to give context about what life at the Alamo was like.
It’s difficult to be completely accurate about a battle where almost everyone died. But from William B. Travis’s slave, we know the commander died when a bullet hit him in the forehead in the opening minutes of the final battle. In Wayne’s version, Travis has a sword fight with two Mexicans, gets shot, and then takes the time to break his sword over his knee as a symbol of never surrendering. No one knows how David Crockett died, so any cinematic presentation has a chance of being accurate, except for Wayne throwing the torch into the garrison’s magazine, which didn’t happen.
The Alamo has inspired its share of films over the decades. The first two silent Alamo movies—The Immortal Alamo and The Siege and Fall of the Alamo—have been lost. But D.W. Griffith’s racist 1915 Martyrs of the Alamo still exists (though it is not as memorable as his racist Birth of a Nation, celebrating the Ku Klux Klan). Perhaps the first movie to actually attempt to tell the story of the Alamo was the 1955 feature The Last Command, which focused on defender James Bowie, portrayed by Sterling Hayden, which even had a make-believe meeting between Bowie and Mexican dictator Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. And I got a thrill out of Fess Parker swinging Old Betsy at Mexican soldiers in his final moments of Walt Disney’s Davy Crockett at the Alamo, even if it was more myth than reality.
There have also been plenty of Crocketts beyond Wayne, who made up for his lack of accuracy with excitement. Arthur Hunnicut, who portrayed Crockett as more of a bumpkin than I suspect he really was, also ended his hero’s life by blowing up a powder keg, but at least it wasn’t inside the chapel. Probably the best Crockett was Billy Bob Thornton in the painfully slow, if historically accurate, 2004 movie also named The Alamo.
In retrospect, the Wayne movie was something of a parable. Freedom-loving Americans stood up to the tyranny of a totalitarian government, with Santa Anna as the stand-in for the Soviet Union, as the Duke’s soliloquy as Crockett opened with, “Republic. I like the sound of the word. It means people can live free, talk free, go or come, buy or sell, be drunk or sober, however they choose.”
A commemoration of the Alamo doesn’t have to be a myth-buster or explore uncomfortable questions about slavery in the Republic of Texas. But I caution us against showing children a historic tale at the Alamo before they walk a few yards away to see for themselves that Davy Crockett never blew a hole in the chapel wall with his final act of heroism. They have the rest of their lives to become cynics.