Wednesday, August 31, 2005

The Alamo

The point of legends is their adaptability. Freed from the requirements of realism, a legend can be reinvoked for diverse purposes as circumstances demand.

John Lee Hancock's The Alamo is, as Philip French notes, "clearly a post-9/11 movie," whose message, French argues, is that the war it portrays is "a war that should not have been fought, but having engaged with a monstrous enemy, it must be carried on, however reluctantly."

But if we can indeed follow contemporary parallels, then the movie is hardly the "decent, rather half-hearted liberal affair" that French contends.

The story of the Alamo is, in the first place, a story of traumatic defeat: the Mexican army's massacre of some 180 defenders holed up in the former mission near San Antonio. In the second place, however, it tells of the power of memory to stir a victorious counter-attack: Sam Houston's subsequent defeat of General Santa Anna at San Jacinto, spurred by the shout "Remember the Alamo!"

And the prime ideological justification for the war against Iraq (especially now that talk of Weapons of Mass Destruction has faded) likewise invokes the memory of trauma to stir resolve against a "monstrous enemy": "Remember 9/11!"

The connection between 9/11 and Iraq is specious, of course, but in so far as The Alamo is indeed a 9/11 allegory, it naturalizes and secures the relation between this trauma and subsequent US bellicosity.

Santa Anna portrayed by EcheverriaAnd The Alamo's Santa Anna, played with some panache by Emilio Echeverría, is indeed the very model of a modern tyrant: cowardly and effete, more concerned with pomp and appearance than tactics or efficiency, he callously sacrifices his soldiers and ignores his officers' pleas to respect the rules of war.

For this is the trauma according to Hancock: the fact that Santa Anna plays "dirty" in his assault on the Alamo. (By contrast, for Christy Cabanne's 1915 Martyrs of the Alamo what's at issue is the threat that the Mexicans pose to the honour of Texan womenfolk.) The point, however, is somewhat undermined by the fact that the Alamo's defenders are themselves not the most clean-cut of heroes: Jim Bowie is an unabashed slave-owner, William Travis a dandy with a shady past, and Davy Crockett a troubled character overshadowed by his own mythology.

In the end, though, there is one constant in all the various re-tellings of the Alamo legend: it is a tale about the constitution of an American people.

The mission's defenders are a rag-tag bunch of volunteers and regulars, brought together for a variety of motives, often disreputable. It is only in the face of a foreign aggressor that their internal conflict, essentially between the principle of a citizen militia and the imposition of military hierarchy, is resolved in favour of the state: both the state of Texas and statehood itself.

Ultimately, this is the narrative of how the Tennessee Mounted Volunteers and the New Orleans Greys and other disparate powers come together to defend the idea of a unitary power, which eventually will become the 28th State of the United States of America.

(Cross-posted from Latin America on Screen.)

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