Texas Rising — a yellow rose blooms, but mind the thorns

So, before I get into the third episode of Texas Rising, I would like to start with the show’s own disclaimer: “The following program is a dramatic interpretation of Texas’ fight for independence. Viewer discretion is advised.”

I suppose the “viewer discretion” they advise is to focus on the “interpretation” part and not take any of this too seriously.

Which is just as well, because on my cable guide, the write up for this episode claims that Sam Houston is going to push his army south to force a final standoff with Santa Anna, and indeed, the episode opens on April 13, 1836. There are only eight days left before the final defeat of Santa Anna, and we get all but the last of them in this episode, which ends on April 20, one day before the Battle of San Jacinto and the capture of Santa Anna.

For readers not raised in Texas and already branded and tattooed with the state’s history, I’ll go ahead and spoil that final battle for you: it lasts 18 minutes. And, incredibly, the teaser for next week’s episode seems to suggest that its entire two hours will focus on that 18-minute battle. Granted, there’s going to be some run-up to the battle, and we’ll probably see its immediate aftermath with Santa Anna (famously captured while disguised as a lowly enlisted soldier) dragged into the Texas camp. But even assuming they show the 18-minute battle from multiple angles and so double its screen time, we’re still looking at almost 90 minutes of  . . . what, exactly?

This whole series has such a plodding, tedious pace. And we see that in just the first ten minutes of episode three: how does Texas Rising plan to fill out all this extra time it’s scheduled for itself? By inserting a bank robbery, because what Western would be complete without one? As though the heroism and the politics of the Texas Revolution aren’t interesting enough all on their own. Seriously: episode three includes a subplot in which the lone (and invented) Louisiana Cajun in the Texian army plots a Galveston bank robbery while they’re on the march (presumably to play out in a future episode).

Most of this middle episode is full of those sorts of foolish filler scenes, though there are a few bits that are at least interesting. I will confess, for just the few brief scenes he’s in, it was fun watching Ray Liotta’s Lorca, especially his early moment dumping a basketfuls of snakes on passing Mexican soldiers. His character, while purely symbolic and mostly unnecessary, is actually one of the most interesting things on the show. Even watching him sharpen swords is more interesting than most of what else happens in this series.

Jack Hays Max Thieriot), as he appears on Texas Rising
Jack Hays (Max Thieriot), as he appears on Texas Rising

Also, following the blue-blood John Coffee “Jack” Hays and the lumbering William “Bigfoot” Wallace as they track down stolen goods is an obnoxious waste of screen time in terms of telling a story about the Texas Revolution, but the characters are actually fun. I enjoy watching these two types play off each other, and, in this episode, when they chase down a roving band of thieves, the resulting saloon fight is fairly well done, especially the climactic, gut-clenching stab in the stomach for one of the bad guys.

Still, their adventures are a needless digression from the history: both men are historical figures and were famous for their service in the early Texas Rangers, but most of their exploits occurred after the Revolution. (Hays did see action at Laredo during the Revolution, but it’s not what he was famous for.) They’ve been included here simply to work in their names and pad out the story.

Capt. John Coffee
Capt. John Coffee “Jack” Hays of the Texas Rangers (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is even more evident when the two men get wrapped up in the corrupt local dictatorship of “Empresario Buckley” and his regime in Victoria, as well as his role in selling off bad homesteads.

There is a lot to complain about in this storyline, actually. I’m first troubled by the insistence of including a white homesteader getting attacked and slaughtered by a gang of Comanches. In the episode, the scene was well filmed and for the most part well acted — at least by anyone who wasn’t a Native American, whose characters, sadly, remain gross stock figures whose only job is to whoop and shoot arrows.

I’m not saying that such attacks never happened in Texas, because of course they did. It’s worth noting (and the series only hints at this but at least it hints) that these white settlers were in fact interlopers on Mexican and, in this case, Native land. So of course these attacks occurred. But we already know that. We know that from history, and we know that from the countless television shows and movies for as long as there have been such things, and from the countless books and stories that preceded them, that the “scary savage Indian” always attacks the “simple salt-of-the-earth” pioneer. These are bad clichés, and so I’m not sure how they serve this narrative about the Texas Revolution.

I would much rather have seen the ways in which the Comanches supported the Mexicans in the war (which they did), and I would have liked to have seen portrayals of the roles other Native peoples played in the Revolution. (It’s worth noting that, for all the screen time they give these ham-fisted scenes with the Comanches and that brief fight sequence with the Karankawa in episode 1, the cast page of the series website does not include a single Native character.) I would also like to have seen a more honest portrayal of the kind of invasion that white settlers represented in this part of the world, rather than the occasional dialogue hints that are seeded into the episode. As it is, this “Indian attack” scene, while broadly effective, also feels exploitative and cheap.

Empresario Buckley (Robert Knepper), who boots are even more
Empresario Buckley (Robert Knepper), whose boots are even more “evil” than his mustache

This event eventually gets connected to the man who sold this attack-prone land to the white homesteaders in the first place, the cruel and almost surely invented Empresario Buckley of Victoria, Texas. We get a long sequence of scenes of him arresting Hays and Wallace, of him explaining his sense of “frontier justice” to them as they ride into Victoria, and then of his mustache-twirlingly villainous attempts to torture them into confessing to crimes they never committed. This is all just more cheap padding based on Western tropes and stereotypes, whose only purpose is to drag out what should be a four-hour miniseries to ten hours.

And then, of course, the sole survivors of the homesteading family arrive in town, the white woman and her loyal savior slave, and Buckley invites his captives to hunt down the Comanches for him. Killing Comanches is, in fact, why both Hays and Wallace became famous (or infamous, depending on your view of history), but again, they earned that reputation after the Revolution, not during it. Here, it’s just filler.

Speaking of creative license, there is another instance of the show placing music too early in history, but this time, they use it to interesting effect: There’s a story that the song “The Yellow Rose of Texas” is about Emily West, the character who has been plotting to assassinate Santa Anna and the woman with whom Santa Anna was allegedly having sex when the Battle of San Jacinto began. This is conjecture, based on a second-hand story in a British man’s diary years after the battle, but it is a common legend in Texas.

In this third episode, not quite halfway in, Emily West finally resolves herself, Hamlet-like, to kill Santa Anna — and of course, as in history, she fails. But then, several minutes later and exactly halfway through the episode, we are at the Texas camp, where the Army is preparing to march to battle the next day, and there’s the sound of a guitar and men stamping feet and clapping. For those not in the know, the tune being played in the scene is “The Yellow Rose of Texas.”

Manuel Flores (Gerardo Taracena) playing
Manuel Flores (Gerardo Taracena) playing “The Yellow Rose of Texas”

What makes this interesting is that, while we have no record of the song before it turned up in travelling minstrel shows in the 1850s, the film places the song in the Texas camp, marking it as an explicitly Texan song, and the man playing the song is Manual Flores, the Mexican spy who works for the Texian army. He mumbles some vague sounds that aren’t quite words, and certainly aren’t lyrics, but the song is clearly “The Yellow Rose of Texas.”

It is an interesting way of honoring the historical record but also fabricating legend without laying any particular claims to the historicity of this moment. When History Channel productions work, this is how they work: they take licenses not to distort or flat-out change history, but to represent it dramatically. Finally, in this moment, halfway through the third episode or, to look at the larger picture, exactly halfway through the entire series, we have a moment that feels worthy of a History Channel production.

Still, I feel nervous about the next two episodes. Apart from the apparent decision to drag out the final battle over the whole of episode 4, I remain suspicious that they’re going to use episode 5 to link the Revolution to Texas’s involvement in the Civil War.

In some respects this makes sense, because, despite all the digressions, this is being framed as Sam Houston’s story, and Sam Houston is notable not only as the hero of the Texas Revolution or as the only governor of a US state to also serve as president of a sovereign country, but he is also notable as the only governor in the South to oppose secession — and, thanks to him, Texas was the only state in the Confederacy to vote on secession by popular referendum.

There’s a part of me that wouldn’t mind seeing that on film, but that really has nothing to do with the Texas Revolution except for Sam Houston. But I suspect that’s the connection they’re going to make because there was a moment, right at the 90-minute mark (30 minutes before the end of this episode), where Sam Houston rallies his troops at a fork in the road, literally offering them the choice to march toward battle or away from it. Of course, they enthusiastically vote for war, and when one of his advisors questions why Houston even bothered with the vote, Houston responds that men will always fight harder if they think they have a choice in the matter. So this is almost obviously a set up for the vote to join the Confederacy.

And that’s my problem: If I’m right, the fourth episode is going to drag on interminably and then the final episode is going to sweep through 25 years of Texas history, losing all political and historical nuance in the process. Of course, this series hasn’t bothered with much nuance so far anyway. Still, it’s going to drive me mad watching that, and if that’s not where they’re headed, I don’t know why they’re pushing Civil War themes so hard, nor do I have any idea what the final two hours will have in store for us.

But whatever those final hours are, I strongly suspect that the next episode — the two-hour reenactment of an 18-minute battle — is going to be about as exciting as watching adobe dry.

At least they’ve advised viewer discretion.

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One thought on “Texas Rising — a yellow rose blooms, but mind the thorns

  1. I’ve mentioned much of the following about Native Americans and British sailors etc. before, so please bear with me.

    I’m making a mental note to avoid this drama, if it should come onto a TV channel here in the UK. I think the vogue for what I sometimes call the ‘Interesting Injun’ character – a modern, liberal, hippy version of the ‘Noble Savage’, where the Native American is a proto-eco-warrior – passed with shows like ‘Dr Quinn, Medicine Woman’. Native characters seem to have been airbrushed out of American popular history – again! – except where they are bussed in to whoop and shoot arrows, as you said. I believe the American culture of today demands comforting stereotypes rather than truth.

    Interestingly, I can remember my parents, when I was little, saying that ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas’ was originally sung by British sailors who had jumped ship to fight in Santa Ana’s army. I don’t know where they got that idea from. Of course there were such British mercenaries in the Mexican army – anything was better than the Royal Navy in the early 19c! But I don’t know where my parents got the idea about the song. As you say, the first documentation was in the 1850s.

    We all know songs like this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wuwBGX-FUEE
    which is a genuine English sea shanty referring to Santa Ana (ignoring the fanciful treatment it gets at the hands of the Kingston Trio).

    Thanks for this post. I’m loving your continuing critique of the show. To my mind it appears to be crude propaganda, about as credible as Joseph Goebbels’ version of the sinking of the Titanic, maybe even less credible. Unfortunately it will be the only version of history that a lot of people will get. It’s there on the screen, ergo it must be true.

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