Movie Review- “The Alamo” (2004)

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True appreciation of John Lee Hanc0ck’s… 2004 epic cannot be achieved until viewers acknowledge it is not a remake of the 1960 John Wayne film of the same name.  Wayne’s version is jingoistic in message, clumsy with history, and two dimensional about characterization.  Hancock’s film shows the defenders as flawed freedom fighters, not hokey legends spouting patriotic platitudes.  Historical accuracy often weighs down otherwise  entertaining scripts; “The Alamo” walks the fine line between epic film making and history lesson.

Gone to Texas

Gone to Texas

Billy Bob Thorton steals every scene… as the most human David Crockett yet put on screen.  Larger than life against his will, Thorton’s Crockett is a reluctant warrior forced to the Texas frontier out of political necessity.  His fiddle playing and homespun Tennessee wisdom are awkwardly received by the firebrands dominating Tejas politics-  Dennis Quaid’s Sam Houston balances the bottle with his ambition, while Jason Patrick broods as Jim Bowie- dying a slow consumptive death, mourning the life he could have had in Texas.  William Travis, as portrayed by the understated Patrick Wilson, receives the most extensive reevaluation; long thought of as the rigid, inexperienced amateur, Hancock and screenwriter Stephen Gaghan more accurately show Travis as a deeply flawed man seeking redemption as a soldier in Texas.  The well fleshed out performances are the strength that help the film stand on its own- and eliminates any comparisons to the two-dimensional caricatures of the 1960 version.

Victory or death

Victory or death

There is just enough action… to keep the pace of the film moving- at times it does get bogged down with dialogue.  Thorton serves as comic relief and his scenes are always the most enjoyable (his harmonic interlude to the Mexican march of “Degüello”is the most powerful of the film.)  Hancock is careful to use the historical record to dramatic effect- gone is the infamous line in the sand drawn by a wooden Travis- replaced with a painful, but honest appeal to troops facing certain death.  Travis’s stirring letter to the Texas government provides proper context to the heroism of the defenders.  Historical details are presented accurately(the final assault occurred before daybreak) and Hancock does an admirable job preventing the film from being just another dry history lesson.  The film presents both points of view while, for the most part, avoiding the politically correct preaching of recent historical epics (see Kingdom of Heaven, Cold Mountain, Last Samurai.) The film does labor through Houston’s victory at San Jacinto, carrying the narrative well beyond the walls of the beleaguered mission.  Focusing squarely on the Alamo is difficult with a script so rich in Tejas political maneuvering.
To many film fans… John Wayne will always be the burly incarnation of Davy Crockett, bravely meeting death at the point of a Mexican bayonet.  It is more difficult to imagine Crockett being executed after surrender, regardless of what the historical record tells us.  Hancock’s retelling of the story fits perfectly into film history as the perfect blend of character, legend, fact- even fiction.  The critical analysis is that the film does justice to all those involved- a rare feat in an industry willing to sacrifice accuracy for self-righteous story telling.

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The Marble Face

George Washington achieved iconic status during… his lifetime.  His peers held him in such esteem that by the time of his death most Americans were left unaware of the life he led.  Washington quickly faded in the collective memory- he became a statue, figuratively as well as literally.  This dehumanization has caused Washington’s name and reputation to plummet in our national remembrance.  Recent polls of some 600 historians show Washington ranking #3 behind Lincoln and FDR.  Many of the same writers cite unwarranted “hero worship” as the reason for the decline.

Myth or man?

Myth or man?

What troubles many delusional historians… is that Washington was aware of his image as the great patriot-hero.  This was an image he went to great lengths to protect.  This type of self-awareness irks 21st century sensibilities, but was common and accepted in the 18th century.  Washington was not as well read, educated or worldly as his peers, but he always acted appropriately, worked efficiently, and governed wisely.

Remember

Remember

Washington should still be first… in the hearts and minds of his countrymen.  His great strength was character- the ability to lead men without ruling them.  The example he set has endured through the trials and tribulations of our republic- he is truly, the essential American.

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Mr. Madison’s Mind

Historians are often baffled by James Madison… In 1787, there was no stronger voice for nationalism and strengthening the federal government; yet, by 1790 he was battling one-time ally, Alexander Hamilton over the very powers they helped create.  Madison had become an advocate of limited government in less than a Presidential term.  What happened?

With friends like these...

With friends like these…

Madison was the “Father of the Constitution”… and creator of the Bill of Rights-  the commonly held description of our most overlooked Founder.  We view this change in his political outlook as inconsistency, or even a problem.  This opinion hangs on the assumption that Madison was responsible for the final draft of the Constitution.  He authored the Virginia Plan, the radical framework that altered the course of the 1787 Convention.  Of the document produced in September, Madison said,  “It ought to be regarded as the work of many heads and many hands.”  Most historians assumed Madison was being modest- in fact, he was expressing his displeasure with the process.  Madison wanted a Federal government that could control the wildly inconsistent passions of state governments, but he did not advocate a massive consolidation of power.

Author of the Virginia Plan

Author of the Virginia Plan

Federalist #10 is Madison’s warning aboutthe dangerous passions that consumed state governments.  From 1784 to 1787 he toiled in the Virginia legislature, witnessing the worst governance(or lack thereof) he could imagine.  The Federal government he envisioned would temper these passions(and blunders)  and provide the regulation to help the Union move forward. Madison opposed Hamilton’s financial programs because he feared they brought the same economic passions driving policy in the states  into Congress. The very threat Madison looked to alleviate caused his split Hamilton.  Madison remained consistent to the end. 

 

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Terror at Home

The assassination of William McKinley by an anarchist… was still fresh in the minds of the US Justice Dept.  The triumph of the Bolsheviks in 1917 prompted radicals in America to step up their campaign of violence.  Anarchists agitated through organized labor and started a campaign of violence not seen since the end of the Civil War.

Domestic enemies everywhere

Domestic enemies everywhere

April, May, and June of 1919 was a time of terror… from a foreign threat hiding among us.  Eastern European radicals first sent 30 letter bombs to businessmen and law enforcement officers  around the country, killing two people.  In June, the anarchists struck again, placing packaged bombs at the homes of government officials, including Attorney General, A. Mitchell Palmer.  Two more people were killed- flyers were distributed around the country declaring war on capitalism.  The American people demanded action.

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Palmer responded by setting into motion… the newly created investigative bureau, headed by 24 year old J. Edgar Hoover.  The orders were simple- find the radicals, arrest and deport them.  Hoover launched sweeping raids in 23 states.  Over 3000 people were arrested, many without warrants or indictments.  Communist organizers, Eastern Europeans, and union agitators were targeted.  As the raids grew in intensity, critics emerged to challenge their constitutionality.  By 1920, the public seemed to lose interest in combating the terror threat posed by the anarchists.

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Palmer once was considered a Presidential hopeful… but the raids ultimately cost him his political career.  American public opinion turned against the heavy handed tactics of Hoover’s FBI, despite the threat still posed by anarchists.  This was clearly on display during the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti in 1920- Two self-confessed anarchists tried for murder and robbery, and public opinion was decidedly against the government’s case.   The violence continued with little public outcry….

 

 

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Ending Impunity

America’s war on terrorism has deep roots… deeper than many care to remember.  The President has the duty to protect the citizens from threats abroad and in our backyard.  US Grant did just that during Reconstruction in the South.  The terrorists were the Ku Klux Klan.

Extraordinary power

Extraordinary power

The Klan was terrorizing former slaves… and in many cases, killing with impunity during Reconstruction.  Local law enforcement and state militias provided little relief.  Grant speedily signed a third Enforcement Act, designed to bring law enforcement under Federal control.  Klan atrocities had grown so prevalent, no accurate statistics can measure the true impact.  The law gave Grant the power to:

  • Suspend habeas corpus in counties deemed “detrimental to implementation of Federal law”
  • Use US military forces in the execution of the law
  • Try the offenders in Federal court.

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Grant ordered sweeping raids across… Louisiana, South Carolina, and Georgia in 1871.  Federal troops arrested hundreds and forced many hundreds more to flee.  Federal courts, many with black jurors, handed down the stiffest of penalties.  The power and influence of the Klan was broken.

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In an all-too-common pattern… the extreme measures polarized the American people.  Grant’s actions were necessary, but American voters were swayed by the perceived improprieties.  Reconstruction came to a crashing halt in the election of 1876.

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Thoughts and Clarifications on the Current Confederate Purge

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Revisited Myth #53: Kitchens were separated from the main house in colonial days because of the fear of fire.

Originally posted on History Myths Debunked:

Williamsburg kitchen with outdoor bake oven attached to chimney Williamsburg kitchen with outdoor bake oven attached to chimney

As the story goes, kitchens burned down a lot and it was easier to rebuild your kitchen than your whole house. While fear of fire may have influenced some people, if it were the main reason for building separate kitchens, how come only the people living in southern colonies feared fire? Separate kitchens were not a common feature in northern colonies; they were very common in the south.

Actual reasons have more to do with the heat and odors from the kitchen fire, which in the south would not have been welcome most months of the year. Early on, many southern houses had basement kitchens. Hugh Jones, a mathematics teacher at the College of William and Mary noted in 1724 in his book, The Present State of Virginia, that planters often kept their “kitchen apart from the dwelling house, because of…

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