Texas Rising — and quickly falling

I grew up in Texas, where the hagiography of early Texans and the aggrandizing of our heritage (or, at least, our Anglo heritage) was mandatory.

People think I’m participating in the tradition of tall tales when I say a thing like that, but it’s true: in Texas schools, you learn Texas history before you learn American history, and there are no Benedict Arnolds — every Texan is a hero.

But even in Texas, where everything is bigger, some heroes are bigger than others, some events more epic than most. And no story is more important in Texas history than the Texas Revolution, no heroes more celebrated than Sam Houston, Stephen F. Austin, William Travis (he of the “line in the sand” fame, or so went the stories I grew up learning), Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie.

I won't mess with Texas, but I'm about to mess with Texas Rising.
I won’t mess with Texas, but I’m about to mess with Texas Rising.

These events have been the subject of dozens of films over the years, but recently, they’ve begun airing as Texas Rising, a miniseries on the History Channel, and, as I did a few years ago with Hatfields & McCoys, I’m tuning in.

When I watched Hatfields & McCoys, I was in the middle of the first major revision on my first published novel, Hagridden, and though the story in that miniseries took place a few decades after the events of my novel, the miniseries was useful just for the mood it set. Now, I’m drafting a new novel, this one set mostly in Texas a few decades after the events in Texas Rising, but once again, the mood seemed like it might prove helpful. In fact, a few of the characters in my novel behave the ways they do because their fathers fought or failed to fight in the Texas Revolution and later the Mexican-American War, and this fierce Texas rebellious independence still haunts the people in my story.

But I have to say, I hadn’t made it ten minutes into this miniseries before I had my doubts. After an opening scene exhibiting the cruelty of Mexican general Santa Anna, the action shifts to a “Texan Army Camp — Gonzales,” the camera panning up and away to reveal a dusty cliff overlooking a dry valley far below. It’s a scene out of every classic Western you can name — and a landscape utterly unlike Gonzales, Texas, where the land is low and flat, ribboned with the San Marcos and Guadalupe Rivers and even in drought a fairly green place.

The real Gonzales today, fairly near the historical Texas camp (photo by orlando-ska via Panoramio)
The real Gonzales today, fairly near the historical Texas camp (photo by orlando-ska via Panoramio)

They make the same mistake only a few minutes later, locating the smoking remains of the Alamo and a subsequent running battle nearby in a flat desert landscape utterly unlike the Béxar area. (The whole series was filmed, ironically, in Mexico.)

The burning Alamo and the surrounding flat desert, as seen through a telescope in Texas Rising
The burning Alamo and the surrounding flat desert, as seen through a telescope in Texas Rising
“The Fall of the Alamo,” by Theodore Gentilz (1844). Notice the rolling hills in the background and the small forest on the left.

These seem striking and blundering geographic mistakes so early in what is supposed to be a film for the History Channel.

The scene with Sam Houston is hackneyed, full of cliché and overly “purposeful” dialogue, using characters’ speeches in the service of exposition, and even then it resorts to the emotional shortcut of swelling music to sell Sam Houston’s case, and never mind Bill Paxton’s (actually quite effective) acting skills. And the later scene of the running battle — a dramatized (and invented) attack by Karankawas on the wagon of Susanna Dickinson as she left the ashes of the Alamo — is likewise steeped in cliché, a “cowboys-and-indians” affair lifted without any sense of irony from ’50s-era TV Westerns.

This scene seems even more egregious considering the invented character of Billy Anderson: the usually-fun Brendan Fraser as a white man raised among Natives and serving the nascent Texas Rangers as a scout. He’s supposed to be a kind of Texan Natty Bumbpo, I suppose, and I understand his role as “a man torn between two cultures,” but his deep-throated “wise Indian” voice and his cliché braids and preference for the bow and arrow feel too much like redface here, and combined with the stereotypical portrayals of practically every Native in the series, it’s a hard act to swallow.

This is not the Susanna Dickinson history remembers.
This is not the Susanna Dickinson history remembers.

This “cowboys and indians” scene is also problematic for how it treats the real-life Susanna Dickinson, who, following the massacre at the Alamo, had the strength and presence of mind to personally stand up to Santa Anna and refuse his offer of special treatment. It’s a record that seems far removed from the weeping, terrified portrayal in this scene. Instead, the filmmakers gave Dickinson’s strength — and her role in relating the events at the Alamo to Houston — to Emily West, a woman (improbably) rumored to be the inspiration for “The Yellow Rose of Texas” but who was never at the Alamo.

There are some interesting moments early in the first episode when the series tries to explore the tenuous racial relationship between white settlers-turned-Texians and the Mexican nationals then in command of Texas, with alliances as well as racial slurs, but here, too, the series flubs its history, tossing around slurs like “bean-eater” that would not come into fashion for at least another 75 years.

To be fair, in the second episode, there is a clever scene in which a Mexican soldier derides a Texian soldier as an illegal immigrant, (rightly) turning current Texas prejudice on its head. It’s a smart move that is mostly rooted in historical fact, though again, I have a problem with the language: the Mexican, accusing the Texian of illegally crossing the Sabine River into then-Mexican territory, calls the Texian a “wetback,” which is a clever usurping of the slur, but alas, the word is nearly a hundred years too early.

Texas Rising also places Emily West — inaccurately — in the Alamo on the excuse that she’s there to free her brother from slavery, an odd narrative device considering that American settlers were flooding into Texas in part because they wanted to prime it for entry into the Union as a slave state and, despite the nominal Mexican ban on slavery in Texas, slavery was widespread in the territory. There was at least one slave at the Alamo, but he wasn’t Emily West’s brother, he was Joe, the slave owned by garrison commander William Travis, and he was allowed to leave the Alamo but he wasn’t freed.

In other words, the production here seems muddled in its inaccuracies: on the one hand, it resorts to old-fashioned and sometimes racist clichés regarding its treatment of the Native and Mexican populations in the area and their roles in the Texas revolution; on the other hand, it plays politics with the Mexican-Texian relationships and engages in strange and unnecessary revisionism regarding Texas’s history with black Texans and slavery. This latter is even more surprising given the film’s insistence on linking the Texas uprising to the later Civil War: about halfway into the first episode, a man takes up a guitar to rouse a demoralized and retreating Texas army and begins playing “Dixie,” the unofficial anthem of the Confederacy. “Dixie” has a disputed origin, but it wasn’t popularized until the 1850s and we have no record of it at all until — at the absolute earliest — the mid 1840s, at least half a dozen years after the events of the Texas Revolution. So clearly its only purpose in this miniseries is to link the Revolution to the Civil War.

I’m all for a little narrative license in historical fiction — sometimes you have to bend the truth to tell a good story. But in historical fiction rooted in factual events and figures, you have to begin with some version of the truth in order to bend it, and Texas Rising seems more interested in beginning with mythology and legend and only peppering in small “truths” when it’s convenient. Perhaps I’m expecting too much of a channel that airs shows like Ancient Aliens, but History also is home to the solid Vikings series and gave us the mostly excellent Hatfields & McCoys, so while I wasn’t expecting textbook historical precision in Texas Rising, I had some hopes for at least a pretense of honoring some historical truth.

There’s also the problem of pacing. Because the series opens after the fall of the Alamo — which, as every Texan knows, occurred on March 6, 1836 — and will presumably end with (spoiler alert?) the humiliating fall of Santa Anna on April 21 of that same year, the whole ten-hour miniseries covers only six weeks worth of history. Sure, one might assume you’d need ten hours spread out over a month of Mondays to cover that span of time, but the events in the six-hour Hatfields & McCoys spanned more than a generation and even it felt slow at times. To cover so brief a period as six weeks in so long a series at Texas Rising requires glacial pacing, something highlighted in the second episode, which focuses largely on how slow Houston is to engage Santa Anna’s army. That, at least, is a clever bit of historical accuracy, but it doesn’t make for very engaging television, and I actually was working on this post even while the second episode was playing — that’s how little it held my interest.

Not everything in the series is problematic. There are some good performances here. Bill Paxton, despite the beef-fisted jingoistic dialogue he has to work with, manages a fairly solid performance, and though Emily West doesn’t belong in this part of the story, Cynthia Addai-Robinson does a good job of conveying both the strength and the human fragility of her character. The real scene-stealer, though, is Jeffrey Dean Morgan. His Erastus “Deaf” Smith could be another of the series’ lame clichés — he’s written as the “strong, silent cowboy” type — but his confident delivery and emotional facial expressions lend his portrayal a wonderful gravitas, and he’s a pleasure to watch.

I’m also fascinated by Ray Liota, who, like Tom Beringer in Hatfields & McCoys, so completely disappears into his character that I didn’t recognize him. Unfortunately, he didn’t have much to do in the first episode and in the second his only real moment of focus was a ranting speech in which he espoused well-written but ultimately overblown pseudo-religious and blatantly racist anti-Mexican rhetoric. He gets away with that because his character is more a symbol than a person, and of course, like so much of Texas Rising, his character is a total fabrication — there were no combat survivors at the Alamo, “left for dead” or otherwise (Santa Anna executed any combatants left after the battle, and he burned the bodies just to be sure) — so I’m not yet sure what role Liota’s Lorca is going to serve in this story. But he’s making the most of what little he has to do, and I’ll be interested to see what else he gets up to, however much it departs from the reality of the Texas Revolution.

all actor images courtesy the Texas Rising pages at History.com

Still, I’m pretty disappointed in the series so far. I suppose that if Texas is known for anything, it’s for proud tall tales and patriotic self-aggrandizing (and politicized and inaccurate textbooks), so in that respect, I suppose Texas Rising is perfect. But as someone who grew up in Texas — and as someone writing a novel about Texas rebels and vigilantes — I wish this miniseries had avoided at least some of the stereotypes about Texas and presented us with a more honest, nuanced, human story, one worthy of the real Texas history this series purports to convey.

But as it stands, what I really I wish is that I didn’t have another six hours of this to sit through.

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6 thoughts on “Texas Rising — and quickly falling

  1. History is very difficult to dramatise from the ground up. It’s different when one has a novel – say ‘Wuthering Heights’ or ‘Emma’ – to go on, because that will have ‘fixers’, by which I mean contemporaneous references, speech patterns, vocabulary, etc., on which the dramatist or screenwriter can draw. Imagining history for Hollywood or for the TV has always been problematical. In the USA, where American exceptionalism and a strong National Mythos holds sway over the country’s emotional life, just about any historical oeuvre is almost bound to be a predictable melodrama with stereotypical characters and recognisable tropes. Such dramas always depend on the image the watching public has of their past and their heroes. Sometimes stereotypes develop – the Native American morphs from savage to ‘Noble Savage’, and again to eco-warrior, to suit the prevailing view, the African-American morphs from Stepin Fetchit to a figure of inner strength in times of adversity, Italian-Americans lose the gangster- and Irish-Americans the cop-stereotype, and so on – but they don’t dissipate, they remain in some way stereotypical, or innovative stereotypes replace them.

    Stereotypes are necessary to a degree, as something recognisable, a point of reference for the viewer; but when the whole drama depends on them, then accuracy flies out of the window. The problem of historical inaccuracy isn’t confined to America, by the way. I recently watched a fairly good British TV drama series called ‘Banished’, about the penal colony in Australia that became the city of Sydney. Characters consistently used the term ‘grass’ (verb or noun) for the act of informing, or for an informer. As the drama was set in the late 18c, and as ‘grass’ is a 19c slang term (short for ‘grasshopper’, which is actually London rhyming slang for ‘copper’, rather than for a copper’s nark) this grated every time I heard it, rather as ‘bean-eater’ did for you.

    Pandering to our myths and self-images is only one part of the problem. Lack of research is another. If the screenwriters had simply done their homework, then no ‘bean-eater’ or ‘grass’ would have been spoken of. These days, for heaven’s sake, research is a damn sight easier – start with Google!

    Why I appreciated ‘Hagridden’ was because it generated an atmosphere way beyond the stereotypes of North and South, or ‘North and South’ for that matter*. I don’t know about you, but I have had enough of the ‘noble but wrong’ South and the ‘degenerate but right’ North, just as much as I have had enough of, say, the equivalent Cavaliers and Roundheads of the English Civil War, or the aristos and Jacobins of the French Revolution. Heck, I’ve even had enough of the stereotypes of the Spanish Civil War, and that is a conflict where I have specific partisan ties, because of my own politics. History isn’t like that. It’s complex and fragile, and our heroes often fart in company.

    *The TV series, not the Elizabeth Gaskell novel.

    1. North and South! Ha! We own both those miniseries on DVD — the Civil War one is corny melodramatic fun, and the Gaskell is a wonderful political romance. But in book form, we only own the Gaskell. 🙂

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