Texas Rising — in a cloud of dust and a fog of history

When I was a boy living in Texas, I loved The Dukes of Hazzard. I watch their TV show constantly, I had the General Lee in both Hot Wheels size and the large action-figure size because I also had the action figures of Bo and Luke Duke. I often had them mingle with my action figures of the Lone Ranger and Silver. At one point, I even had the General Lee as a remote-controlled car, one of the cheap ones that was still attached by a cord to the controller, but its headlights lit up and you could press a button to hear the sound of the horn playing Dixie.

20150609_202320_6_bestshot
God I miss this show.

So it was with some delight that, when I finally got around to watching episode 4 of Texas Rising on my DVR, the recording opened with a commercial featuring the older versions of Bo and Luke Duke driving the General Lee through a barn wall as they run from the country cops. It’s ridiculous commercial that I’ve seen before, but, knowing what I was about to get myself into with this TV show, it was nice to start on something that, while still absurdly stereotypical of the American South, was at least fun.

But on to Texas Rising itself. And for once, something genuinely interesting has happened in the first ten minutes. Actually, in the first five. We see and interact with, on screen, a man we previously have mostly known through reference or dialogue addressed toward: Captain Juan Seguin.

Juan Seguin, a genuine Tejano badass photo from the Texas Rising cast page)
Juan Seguin, a genuine Tejano badass (photo from the Texas Rising cast page)

This man is significant for a whole range of reasons, beginning with the fact that, as a Mexican, he bridges the conflict being portrayed in this series. He is Latino by ethnicity and Mexican by nationality but has chosen for political and national reasons to fight with the Texian army against Santa Anna. And they address that role in this scene very early in the fourth episode, as Sam Houston is outlining his plan of attack for the famous Battle of San Jacinto and “Colonel” Seguin is pointing out his place in that battle. Houston rightly suggests that Seguin and his Tejano troops visibly distinguish themselves in some way on the battlefield, because “there is such a deep-rooted hatred toward Mexicans that I fear your men will have to duck more than Santa Anna’s bullets.” (Actually, I listened to this line several times, and every time I heard “Sandinista bullets,” which can’t possibly be correct. Anyone have a transcript of this?)

But, for me, there is more to this man than the TV series has been willing to portray. Seguin, it turns out, was present at the Alamo. According to history, he was one of the men selected to carry the famous message that Texans will “never surrender or retreat” across Santa Anna’s enemy lines in pursuit of reinforcements. And, against all odds, he succeeded and rallied troops to reinforce the Alamo, but he was unable to return before the Alamo had fallen to Santa Anna.

We see a version of this at the very beginning of episode 1, when Seguin is one of three men urging Houston to support the Alamo, but his role is downplayed and the scene is brief. Yet Seguin is a key figure in the story of the Alamo, even though he was not at the final battle of the Alamo, and because Texas Rising chose to begin not with that battle but after it, showing only the ruins and the executions that followed, Seguin is robbed of his heroism and his story. (Full disclosure: I grew up not far from the Texas town that bears Seguin’s name.) He has been in the series all along, and has been referred to a number of times since that brief first scene, and has been standing in the background in a few scenes, but it is taken until now, the fourth episode of a five-episode series, to finally acknowledge this Tejano hero. And that’s a shame.

Still, it’s nice to see him finally get his due on screen, and it’s nice to see some reference to the Mexican nationals who served in the Texian army fighting for Texan independence: it’s nice to see all these Mexican-Americans get their due on screen. And this Seguin scene pays off later when Seguin is in the midst of the Battle of San Jacinto and meets a Mexican soldier who declares in surprise, “But you’re one of us.” Seguin defeats the soldier and spits at him, “I am a Tejano!”

It is odd that Houston keeps referring to Seguin in this scene as “Colonel” rather than “Captain,” considering that Seguin was not promoted to even Lieutenant Colonel until after the Battle of San Jacinto, but I suppose Texas Rising has realized they’ve been ignoring this hero too long and felt he deserved an early promotion.

This fourth episode is also playing with the old geographic problems I had with the first episode: There are scenes early on that illustrate the conflict at Vince’s Bridge, a key wooden bridge in a bayou near San Jacinto. In the film, it’s played as a stone bridge, and while there is water nearby, every character’s every movement kicks up billows of dry yellow dust that is utterly out of place in any location that would ever be considered a bayou.

Either Ephraim Knowles makes Peanuts' Pigpen look spit-shined, or this area is WAY too dusty for a bayou
Either Ephraim Knowles makes Peanuts’ Pigpen look spit-shined, or this area is WAY too dusty for a bayou

I’ll grant you, the bayous surrounding Houston, Texas, where the Battle of San Jacinto took place, are slightly different than the saltmarsh of Louisiana where I set my own novel, but I have lived in Southeast Texas and wrote a book about the bayou, and I know bayous. Whatever they’re showing you on screen is not Vince Bridge over any bayou. This is, again, a symptom of this whole series being filmed (again, ironically) in Mexico. But it still seems weird for a series purporting to portray Texas history. This is not Texas, and it’s barely history.

To be fair, this at least looks plausible as a Texas bayou, even if it isn't.
To be fair, this at least looks plausible as a Texas bayou, even if it isn’t.

Immediately following this, we see another scene where Manuel Flores, the Texian army’s Mexican spy, returns to camp with news for Sam Houston. He reports on Santa Anna’s troops and their movements, and Houston asks about Emily West. Flores reports that West has confirmed that Houston was right to wait for his attack (did you get all that?) but that now is the right time to attack. And Houston concurs.

I have to say, as an author who loves strong women characters and has written them myself, I love putting the agency for launching the decisive attack in the Texas Revolution into the voice and command of a woman. I wish this had been the case; I wish there were a historical record that would support such a story.

I also like that, of all the ridiculous creative licenses this TV series has taken with Texas history, this creative license empowers a woman as part of the revolutionary effort. If this series has been empowering women all along — had, in fact, been empowering real heroines, had not mitigated the true heroism of Susannah Dickinson in favor of Emily West, this quasi-invented character that they have fictionally fleshed out, then I would be celebrating louder than anyone else on the Internet.

But, sadly, the historical record is the historical record, and there is no direct evidence that Emily West played any role in the Battle of San Jacinto. There is only the rumor that she might have distracted Santa Anna with her “feminine wiles” by seducing him out of his pants before the attack was launched.

I have a hard time criticizing this moment in the series, frankly. As a writer, I genuinely love that the people composing the series looked at the historical record and the rumor alike and extrapolated from them that if Emily West had indeed intentionally distracted Santa Anna moments before Sam Houston’s attack, then she must have been collaborating with Houston in some way and was therefore an integral part of Texas Independence.

But my god, in a series that has made so many errors and so many leaps and so many narrative fabrications just to tell this ten-hour story, I can’t help but view this moment as yet another unnecessary invention.

And they’re not done abusing the story: as the battle erupts and Santa Anna dresses to join it, he also manages to catch Emily West monologuing.

“Antonio! I’ve waited to see the look of defeat in your eyes. You killed my brother at the Alamo! You killed [something muttered that I couldn’t make out]?”

Props to the actor: she does look fierce.
Props to Cynthia Addai-Robinson: she does look fierce.

But, alas, she never killed Santa Anna in real life, and so in the film we have Santa Anna’s loyal manservant lumbering literally out of nowhere to take the bullet, leaving West dumbfounded that someone caught her monologuing.

Look at how little Santa Anna cares that his manservant gets shot. He must be evil.
Look at how little Santa Anna cares that his manservant gets shot. He must be evil.

Weirdly, despite this carefully scripted interlude where Santa Anna is caught in flagrante delicto during the battle, he still manages to have time to don his usual uniform, ride into the battle itself, and rally his troops. This is so far at odds with at least the Texas version of these events, where Santa Anna was, at best, caught dressed as a common enlisted man cowering in submission, pretending he was not who he was, that I am baffled by the portrayal. This series has gone out of its way to mythologize and aggrandize the Texas Revolution, yet now, when they have the excuse of literally catching the bad guy with his pants down, they choose to ignore every record we actually have, even the questionable ones, and go with a new version where Santa Anna acts with some semblance of bravery and leadership.

Later, we do see Santa Anna leaving the battle like the coward the Texas legend reports him to be. Sadly, the episode shows him dropping into a subterranean cavern to hide. First, I have never read a version that mentions him hiding in a cave. (Most stories have him discovered either hiding under a tree or in tall bayou grasses.) And second, please tell me where, in any bayou anywhere, let alone near San Jacinto, are there subterranean caverns underneath the marsh land?

Why this series has chosen to return to its first and most egregious error, geography, with such a ridiculous invention in this fourth episode, I do not understand.

And, of course, it is in this cavern that Santa Anna meets the lowly enlisted Mexican soldier with whom he is destined to swap uniforms.

This is not the story I grew up with when I lived in Texas.

I accidentally captured this fade transition and got both characters onscreen together. Santa Anna is at first glad to find one of his men -- he breaks down in tears later.
I accidentally captured this fade transition and got both characters onscreen together. Santa Anna is at first glad to find one of his men — he breaks down in tears later.

To be fair, when the Mexican soldier dies of his own wounds while Santa Anna attempts to care for him, and the Mexican General/Presidente breaks down in tears over this final defeat, we are invited to feel sorry for him. We are invited to empathize with his utter downfall and his emotional breakdown in the face of it. And it’s a nice emotional moment.

And yet.

Even though we never see it on film — it’s as though the filmmakers are going out of their way to portray Santa Anna as sympathetic, even though they fail — this version of the story has Santa Anna robbing the corpse of a wounded soldier in a cave so that he can escape unrecognized.

He robs a corpse.

I might be misremembering the stories I heard in my childhood, but even Texans never painted Santa Anna in this villainous and lowly a light. And, to add to his fictional (as opposed to his real) humiliation, when he is caught in this stolen get up, it is by a boy, that young character introduced in the previous episode during a humorous interlude with Sam Houston solely so that we would know who this boy was when he captured the Mexican general.

Sure enough, though, from the first cannonshot fired to the men reassuring Houston that the Texians have won, the film time of the battle is indeed a tidy 20 minutes — incredibly, including commercials — which is almost exactly the real time of the Battle of San Jacinto. Well done, Texas Rising, on getting at least one thing right. Unfortunately, that means that the rest of this episode was indeed setup and aftermath, dragged out forever.

Some of this is okay, like the beautiful scene with Deaf Smith I’ll get to in a moment. But a lot of this padding is, as usual, problematic. Take the middle of the episode: just a little past the halfway mark, something really interesting happens in this episode, but, unlike the great midway moment last episode, this time it’s interesting only because it’s such a tremendous disappointment:

Finally, when Santa Anna is captured and exposed for who he is, held prisoner by the Texian Army, Lorca arrives in camp, demanding revenge.

It’s a wonderfully tense moment, perhaps the moment this whole series has been building toward since Lorca’s first fictional revelation crawling out of the ashes of the Alamo in episode 1. All his bluster, all his sadism and brutality in his pursuit of revenge, all the atrocities he has committed against “every brown person” — they have all led to this moment. And indeed, surrounded by the Texian army and facing Sam Houston himself, Lorca will not be denied his revenge, and he draws his pistol. The whole of the Texian army draws their arms against him. Sam Houston says, “Shoot me first,” and Lorca replies, “You don’t think I will?” Then Lorca reveals his very nature — literally, as scripted, his only reason for being in this entire series: “Fine by me! We end it now! It’s my only reason for living!”

Oh, would that it were so.

Because what happens in the next 60 seconds of climactic tension is that a crazed, vengeance-driven madman suffering from the most traumatic of post-traumatic stress is facing off against a weary but victorious Texian army with every gun aimed at him, a man who has no reason to live but to kill Santa Anna and so has no reason not to pull the trigger in this very moment and go out in a blaze of glory, instead lowers his pistol and rides away.

Would that the History Channel had more fully embraced the other fictions that they have been crafting in this series so far and let Lorca shoot Santa Anna, or at least try to. “Fine by me. We end this now.” But no: we have three more hours yet to watch.

What does Lorca do instead? He rides into the countryside with his band of loyalists and attacks an innocent family of Tejanos just going about their lives. If Lorca is a symbol, he has turned into a vicious, corrupted symbol. He started out as symbolic of the horrors of war, symbolic of the trauma suffered by those who have witnessed atrocities in battle. He was every soldier living with survivor’s guilt. It was, for a (very brief) time, beautiful and haunting and tragic to behold. But sometime in the middle of last episode, he turned into something else, a man hellbent merely on vengeance against all “Mescins,” and by the time we get to this moment in the second half of episode 4, he is representative of a violent racism.

The two redeeming aspects of this scene are that his men recognize his madness and finally stand up to him, rescuing a young boy and telling him at gunpoint that they are done killing women and children; and that when Lorca lets them go, with little choice left him, he stands distraught amid the bodies until a Mexican woman, in the background, rises from her wounded collapse with a rifle and shoots Lorca in the back.

The episode’s title this week is “Vengeance,” and I like to think that this is the moment it refers to.

Granted, this is not the last we see of Lorca, and by the episode’s end, he does attain some semblance of redemption. But I’m not sure he’s earned it, and I know for certain the series hasn’t.

Fortunately, between these Lorca scenes, we get a quiet, isolated moment among the dead on the battlefield, with this series’s best character and best actor, Deaf, played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, awakening among the corpses and finding his wounded horse. “Come on,” he says. “Come on save me.” And when he discovers how wounded his horse is — how wounded his comrade is, for indeed that’s who this horse is to him — he cries, “Oh, why did you have to go and do that?” And then he lays the horse down in the tall grass, runs a hand over the horse’s neck to comfort it, and, weeping, begging the horse to wait for him, he shoots it.

It is, without question, the most touching moment in the whole series so far. It is the kind of scene this series should have been doing all along: calmly focusing on individual characters, quiet moments of courage and despair, of camaraderie and grief, of duty and honor. No grand speeches, no side narrative to pad the story. Just these moments, Texans being human beings as they fight for everything they hold dear, however they define that. And Mexicans and Natives doing the same. If this series had been that, it would’ve been amazing. If this series had wanted to turn the brief six weeks of the Texas Revolution between the Alamo and San Jacinto into a full ten-hour miniseries, this is how they could have done it, without any extra characters, without any narrative padding. Just focusing on the key figures and showing them as human beings.

If only they had done that.

Strangely, though the episode is not without its fabrications and exaggerations and digressions, it managed to last almost the whole two hours before committing one of this series’s classic anachronisms, and once again, it is an anachronism that connects the Texas Revolution to the US Civil War: With only ten minutes left in the episode, we have a scene with Santa Anna in a Texian army prison camp, and he complains to a fellow prisoner: “If I owned both hell and Texas, I would rent out Texas and live in hell.”

My ears perked up immediately. I recognized this quote without even having to look it up, because, having written a whole novel about the Civil War and having grown up being a Civil War fanatic as a child, I knew immediately that these were not Santa Anna’s words. These are the words made famous –famous, mind you — by US General Philip Sheridan during the Civil War.

How on earth could the History Channel not only get this wrong but think they could pass that by even the most casual of their viewers? It is a shocking anachronism, a shocking inaccuracy in what is already a ridiculously inaccurate series.

I have been complaining about the problems in this series from episode one. By the time I arrived at this moment, I had been complaining about this series for almost eight full hours of television. And yet here, finally, I feel pressed upon to say to the History Channel: Shame on you.

This moment, above all the others in the episode, is absolutely inexcusable.

As for the padding in this episode: we see a bit of unnecessary but expected romance (such as it is) and an initial payoff of the bank robbery setup in the form of an attempt to loot the defeated Mexican army. And the Lorca scenes.

But there are two particularly problematic final efforts to fill out the last half hour of this episode: A fake predicament of Emily West — her capture, attempted trade in ransom for Santa Anna, her planned rescue. And a fake few scenes — just moments, really, and wholly unconnected to anything else in this episode — involving that “frontier justice” town of Victoria and the corrupt Empresario Buckley. Seriously, these few Victoria scenes last a whopping three and a half minutes, altogether, and those in only the last 20 minutes of the show.

It was nice, I confess, to witness the moment when Hays and Wallace request volunteers to defend the town and all the women in the room grab rifles and march into the streets while the Empresario stays indoors with his whiskey. The show could have made more of this moment, could have oversold the heroism of these fierce frontier women, but it played it cool and let the scene speak for itself (for once), and so, once again, the events surrounding Hays and Wallace exhibit some depth and interest, and even though nothing about them is factual, these things at least feel true. (Or so says the guy who wrote a novel about fierce women who take up arms to survive in wartime.)

So what will the series do with its final episode? Will it be, as I suspected, a padded political bore and/or a rushed connection to the US Civil War? Maybe. It’s hard to tell. The tease references the politics surrounding Sam Houston — as I’ve said, this is framed as his series — and a single scene with Santa Anna and US President Andrew Jackson. The rest of the story is tying up loose ends of invented narratives, all that padding the series has already forced into the story that are now left dangling. That aspect is indicative of just how unnecessary all that padding was — the war is over and we still have two hours left to watch — and I’m certain without even watching the last episode that this whole series could have been done effectively, with LOTS of extra character development, in (at most) six hours. But no, we’re pushing for ten, and we have two hours to go.

As a fictional Santa Anna might have said, if I owned ten hours of silly Dukes of Hazzard commercials and this ten-hour miniseries, I would gladly rent out this series and watch the Duke boys instead.

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One thought on “Texas Rising — in a cloud of dust and a fog of history

  1. I’m not in a position to comment, but maybe they invented the word “Sant’-An’-ista”. And yes, maybe some yanqui derechista screenwriter is sneaking in a little bit of his own politics on the sly. 😉

    Anyhow, I’m instantly reminded of my favourite Polka Tejana:

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