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, 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. (Scoll to the bottom to read the rest of their coverage.)
Well, butter my butt and call me a biscuit. The final episode of Texas Rising was flat-out fun. Some surprises (a few unexpected deaths), some good lines (Deaf Smith: “I couldn’t sneak up on a dead mule”), and not too many bad ones (Lorca: “Your pain draws light into the world . . . my pain repels it”). A mix of the elegiac and the amusing that I’d give a solid B.
Sure, the historical inaccuracies are still there: the mountainous terrain, the post-Civil War clothing and other anachronisms (e.g., the song “The Yellow Rose of Texas” wasn’t published until 1853), the history distorted for drama’s sake (though Mexico had occasionally allied with the Comanche against common enemies such as the Apache, by the early 1830’s relations had deteriorated, and there’s no evidence of any joint military actions during the Texas Revolution), et cetera. But I suppose I’ve grown accustomed to them—they’re just not as annoying as they were.
It helps that Bill Paxton seems to have relaxed into his role as Sam Houston—take the man out of his uniform, give him a few drinks and a limp, and he’s a lot more fun. Oh sure, Kris Kristofferson is a bit wooden as Andrew Jackson, but the 69-year-old president was not in good health at the time—and after all, they did call him Old Hickory. Even the banter between the Rangers felt more natural, and damned if I haven’t developed an affection for a few of them. Yes, too much of it is still played for laughs (well, they’re trying to play it for laughs)—and did Buckley, the Snidely Whiplash empresario, really twirl his mustache?—but overall this episode was more enjoyable and affecting than the others. Denouement, it appears, suits this production.
I hear you, but I’m still more of an episode four guy myself. The San Jacinto battle sequence of last week was the high-water mark of this extremely perplexing miniseries, and it seems to me that with this last installment the filmmakers reverted to their default mode of mistaking random incidents for narrative thrust. Case in point: that strange scene where Rebecca gets accidently shot (in the eye, it looks like) as the old doctor and the lascivious black-clad ranger Vern struggle over a pistol. We’re obviously meant to care deeply about her tragic death—especially after she had just dumped her surprisingly understanding fiancé and fled to the arms of Kit Acklin at last—but my only response was a tepid Rebecca-we-hardly-knew-ye. Kit is allowed to hold her in her arms and sob for a moment, but you can almost hear the director yelling “Cut! Let’s move on!” so disinterested does the movie seem to be in this barely-there subplot.
The highly competitive prize for coughing up the most blood in this episode goes to Ray Liotta’s tortured character, Lorca, who is clean-shaven and has found peace enough to pass out licorice to children at a church social when he is blasted away by the Tejano kid whose family he wiped out a few episodes back. Lesson: shouldn’t have gone on that murderous rampage.
Also during this last week of Texas Rising we lost not just Colby, the underaged Texas Ranger who captured Santa Anna, but Brendan Fraser’s Comanche son and the Rangers’ cook, Beans. But of course, the big death scene belonged to Deaf Smith, who, with his hydraulically wheezing last words—“Charmayne . . . I reckon I’ll be riding her again soon”—proved what you and I have been suspecting, that he really did love his horse more than his wife.
In my opinion, His Eminence Kris Kristofferson fared better as Andrew Jackson than it looked like he might when we first glimpsed him in episode one. I came to like his bushy white eyebrows and the crafty and amused look on his face as he and Santa Anna sized each other up. And there was at least a hint of the complex international chess game in progress when the two leaders met in Washington. But that’s the big problem with Texas Rising: hints of situations, hints of characters, about a foundational time in our history that demanded a fully thought out story.
One last observation before I turn it back to you to continue our lightning round wrap-up. Did it seem to you that the newly independent Republic of Texas was suddenly a very small place, with very few people in it, all of them gathered in one saloon in Victoria?
Hey, those random incidents are what I liked about this episode; I found myself wondering who would be killed off next, and what the screenwriters’ methods for determining this were. Perhaps they were blindfolded and tossing darts at a character list? I agree, not all of it makes sense, and we don’t know some of the victims enough to care. But I gave up on dramatic coherence a long time ago.
Ah, Victoria . . . As we both know, not much happened there during the Texas Revolution. Mexican troops under Urrea passed through on the way east, and then again on the dreary, soggy retreat back into Mexico; and of course, Fannin and his Fort Defiance garrison were heading there when they were waylaid by the enemy at Coleto Creek. Other than that, nothing of any consequence occurred there. Still, after watching Texas Rising, non-Texans (and even some Texans) couldn’t be blamed for thinking that it was the Paris of the province, or maybe Rick’s Café Américain Bar, in Casablanca. Everyone comes to Vic’s, apparently, or at least they did back then . . . You would never know that the more important towns of the time—San Felipe and Gonzales, for instance—even existed.
Another of the many odd subplots revolves around the repeated attempts to involve Indian tribes (or, to judge by the size of them depicted here, Indian reading groups) in the Texas Revolution. In fact, the Indians mostly stayed away from the conflicted areas and focused on sporadic raids on settlers and settlements to the north. And why didn’t we see the Comanche attack on Parker’s fort in May 1836, and the kidnapping of Cynthia Ann Parker, probably the most famous captivity story of the Texas frontier? Maybe it was too obvious—or, more likely, they’re holding it back for Texas Rising, Part Two.
Speaking of size reminds me of a continuing irritant. When Buffalo Hump yells, “A storm of fire and blood will sweep every white eye into the sea,” and he’s surrounded by a half a dozen warriors, I’m not filled with dread as intended. Too many action sequences delineate a mission or plan—the rescue of Emily West, the demolition of Vince’s Bridge, the Indian attack on Victoria, even the Battle of San Jacinto—that never appears to be in doubt, and therefore is not very exciting. They all proceed too easily, even jauntily, chiefly because the Mexican or Indian force involved never seems to be very large, or dangerous, or smart. I know budgetary constraints are part of this, but might there also be a disregard for the audience and what we’ll accept?
I’m sure the budget is a significant reason for all the static action in Victoria in this episode, and in the Texian and Mexican camps earlier. Moving a production from one locale to another is hugely expensive, so movies have a tendency to shelter in place whenever possible. I’ve heard that Texas Rising cost $45 million, a fair amount these days for a feature. But when that money is spread out over ten hours of a miniseries the seams really start to show. No doubt the budget is also why—as you point out—there are only about twenty Comanche, and why they tend to congregate at a pile of rocks in the middle of nowhere instead of in a populous village. For all its big action set-pieces, this series has had a cramped, under-populated feel, and the horsepower of a go-kart. A good, tight script could have made that $45 million go a lot further. That fantasy script would have focused on a few indisputably interesting characters like Houston, Santa Anna, Deaf Smith, Juan Seguin, and maybe a credibly written version of Emily West. It would have kept the Rangers but left out all the Rangerin’ hijinks, along with Lorca and his vendetta, the go-nowhere plot about the proposed bank robbery in Galveston, and the icky tragic love stories. But of course, that’s not the movie that History wanted to make, only the one that we might actually have wanted to see.
Speaking of what might have been, I was a tiny bit moved and a whole lot frustrated by one of the final scenes, in which Juan Seguin walks out of the Alamo church carrying a box containing the ashes of the slain defenders and inters it with military honors. That might have been a powerfully emotional moment if Seguin had been given enough screen time for us to understand who he was, and what he sacrificed as a Tejano to join the Anglo colonists in fighting against the dictatorship of Santa Anna. As it was, I just sat there wondering why they didn’t even bother to get the look of the Alamo church right.
I think we’re sorrowfully (though some would probably accuse us of joyfully) edging to the conclusion that Texas Rising might be near the bottom of historical dramatizations of the Texas Revolution. There were some good or at least bearable parts. We both sort of liked Bill Paxton as Sam Houston. We thought Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Deaf Smith managed to muster some gravitas. I gave cautious approval to the San Jacinto sequence while you found much-needed diversion in the random killing-off of minor characters. And you could make a case that its misguided gumption alone puts it into a different class than other dreary made-for-TV efforts like The Alamo: Thirteen Days to Glory, and James Michener’s Texas. What do you think? Is Texas Rising a triumphant stand-alone curiosity or just another in a run of bad miniseries about Texas that we are forever condemned to endure?
The Mighty Might-Have-Been: I’ve resisted going down that road, since it’s too easy for us and not quite fair to the film’s creators. But just for the hell of it . . . Besides your excellent suggestions, I’d add these, from a historical perspective: 1) a better sense of the background—the causes and motives behind the Revolution; 2) a more accurate depiction of the Runaway Scrape, that terror-stricken scramble across a rain-soaked Texas by thousands of noncombatants; and 3) more character development and less lame hijinks.
But you’re right, that’s clearly not the series the film’s producers wanted to make. This was always focused on the early years of the Texas Rangers. And if there’s a Texas Rising Part Two, I predict a lot fewer name characters and a lot more Ranger shenanigans.
I hesitate to rank Texas Rising in the panoply of Texas history TV movies. Made-for-TV films usually don’t age as well as their feature film brethren—when the Custer miniseries Son of the Morning Star first aired, in 1991, it was highly praised; I watched it recently, and it’s decidedly mediocre. The good news is this: that vivid, sweeping, Lonesome Dove-like epic about the Texas Revolution that you and I can see on the movie screen in our minds has yet to be made—and maybe it will. Any ideas, casting or otherwise?
Russell Crowe was originally attached to play Sam Houston when Ron Howard was developing The Alamo, the $100 million dollar Disney feature that was ultimately directed by John Lee Hancock. I always thought that Crowe, at least in terms of bearing and physical resemblance, was about as good a Sam Houston as existed in the universe of bankable stars. But we’re back to might-have-been land. By the way, I’m a fan of Hancock’s film. It was a famous financial disaster for Disney and suffered from some waylaid narrative linkages, but it was a serious attempt to portray the look and sensibility of the time in which it was set. Over the decades, I’ve also developed a fondness for John Wayne’s 1960 version, a fondness that is not based solely on nostalgia. The Alamo was, in its way, as historically negligent as Texas Rising, and full of windy lectures about freedom, et cetera. But when you watch it today—or at least when I do—it’s fairly stirring and coherent.
You and I have aired a lot of opinions about Texas Rising during our watch-a-thon, and we’ve seen a lot of comments from readers, some of whom liked the show, though most seemed to have been outraged by the heaping historical liberties to which it helped itself. The two of us, of course, make up a highly finicky viewership. Having each written books set during this time period, we’re stuck on the scholarly end of the scale and have a low tolerance for wonky costumes, locales, and characterizations. But what’s interesting about the Texas Rising phenomenon—for our purposes let’s call it a phenomenon and not just a misfire—is the fact that it’s not just historians and professional grumps who have been calling it out for historical inaccuracy but ordinary viewers who turned out to have an investment in seeing their state and their nation’s past portrayed with a reasonable degree of authenticity. “Don’t Mess With Texas”, the honchos at History proclaimed in their advertising material for Texas Rising. But they did mess with it, and now they’ve heard about it.
Hey, if Texas Rising gets picked up for another season, do you want to do this all over again? Nah, didn’t think so.
Over and Out, Victory or Death!
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 . . .”