Stephen Hardin: On the Set of the New Alamo Movie

Eric Hoover, in the Chronicle of Higher Education (subscribers only) (April 13, 2004):

When boys in Texas go to bed, sleep gallops them off to defend the garrison in San Antonio. At least that's where dreams took Stephen L. Hardin when he was growing up in McKinney, just north of Dallas. Instead of reading books aloud at night, his father made up stories, sound effects and all, about Davy Crockett, always ending with the line, "And then Davy rode off to the Alamo."

Mr. Hardin was in the second grade when his parents dressed him up in a bow tie and took him to a theater to see John Wayne's The Alamo, in 1960. During the film, the young Mr. Hardin felt his eyes grow big as cannonballs. A fire lit in his gut. When the lights came back on, he saw men weeping.

That first glimpse of the past in motion set him on the trail of Texas history, which he now combs for a career. Mr. Hardin, a professor of history at Victoria College, has written three nonfiction books about his home state, including Texian Iliad: A Military History of the Texas Revolution (University of Texas Press, 1994). He has learned enough about the Alamo to know that much of what he saw in Wayne's film was pure bunkum.

But Mr. Hardin remains grateful for the number that the Duke did on his imagination, so much so that when Hollywood came knocking half a lifetime later, seeking his help with the most ambitious Alamo film ever, he could only say yes. He knew, though, that he was stepping onto a battlefield of expectations.

The Walt Disney Company has spent more than $100-million on The Alamo, which was scheduled to open last week, and the studio is banking on a blockbuster. Yet money may not be the best measure of the film's success. For many Americans, the story of fewer than 200 men fighting overwhelming odds carries a mountain of emotional weight. The same goes for hordes of historians and Alamo buffs, some of whom still debate -- ferociously -- the details of the 1836 siege and its aftermath. So moviegoers and scholars alike have many reasons to scrutinize the latest version of a seminal American story.

That's why John Lee Hancock, the film's director, asked Mr. Hardin and Alan C. Huffines, another Texas historian, to help him get the details right -- down to the buttons on the soldiers' uniforms. The film condenses reams of contemporary scholarship into elaborate portrayals of the battle and its participants. The narrative also offers the perspectives of diverse characters, including that of Juan Seguín, a Mexican-born soldier who fought against the Mexican army. And like many prominent historical books of the last decade, the film reveals the warts of its heroes: Col. Jim Bowie, Crockett, Gen. Sam Houston, and Lt. Col. William Barret Travis.

Still, even in his meticulousness, Mr. Hancock did not attempt to sever every thread of myth from the story. As a native Texan, he knew better. The Alamo neither canonizes its protagonists nor kicks them in their shins. And even though the depiction of Crockett's death -- the most controversial of all Alamo-ments -- conforms to the so-called revisionist account, the scene is also a cinematic nod to his heroism.

"It's a tough thing to separate the mythology of the Alamo from the new facts that historians have learned," Mr. Hancock says. "But I've tried to embrace them both."...

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