CBS, 1986, 144 minutes
Cast: Sam Elliott, Claudia Christian, Devon Ericson, Ned Romero, William Russ, John P. Ryan, Bo Hopkins, Michael Beck, James Stephens, Richard Yniguez, G.D. Spradlin, John de Lancie and Katherine Ross
Screenplay: Frank Q. Dobbs and John Binder
Producer: Frank Q. Dobbs and Paul Freeman
Executive Producer: J.D. Feigelson
Director: Peter Levin
The background to the Texan Revolution is simple. Mexico had allowed American immigrants to settle in relatively remote and empty Texas. The native population was soon outnumbered by the immigrants, many of whom were from the southern states, so they wanted to continue their practice of slavery even though it was illegal in Mexico. More important, this was the Age of Expansion. Americans were used to settling and absorbing an area, regardless of what the original population thought, so conflict was inevitable. After a series of confrontations, open warfare began in October 1835, and the rebels had gained control of Texas by early December. Believing that the Mexican government would not be able to respond until spring, attention shifted from building an army to debating whether or not to declare independence. However, Santa Anna moved faster than expected, and his army appeared in Texas in the middle of winter, besieging the Alamo in February 1836. Caught unprepared, the rebels were unable to reinforce the Alamo, which fell after a thirteen-day siege. When the garrison of the fortress Goliad was captured and executed two weeks later, Sam Houston, recently appointed commander of the Texan army, ordered a retreat, which became known as the Runaway Scrape as thousands of Texans fled towards the US border. Confident that the revolution had been broken, and eager to win more glory, Santa Anna rashly advanced with a small part of the army to deliver the final blow, but suffered a surprising defeat at San Jacinto on April 21. Captured after the battle, Santa Anna signed a treaty recognizing the independence of the Republic of Texas.
When Governor Sam Houston’s (Sam Elliot) marriage to nineteen-year-old Eliza (Claudia Christian) fails because he learns that she loves someone else, the scandal forces him to resign as governor. Leaving Tennessee, Houston goes to live with the Cherokee, and starts a relationship with Chief Jollys’ (Ned Romero) cousin Diana Rogers (Devon Ericson). While representing the Cherokee in Washington, Houston savagely beats a congressman who spread rumors about him, and then uses his trial by Congress as an opportunity to speak for the Cherokee. Revitalized, Houston thinks of taking the west coast from the British, but President Andrew Jackson (G.D. Spradlin) convinces him to take Texas from Mexico instead. Arriving in Texas, Houston discovers that the Anglo colonists are suffering under a different legal system. Hoping to prevent a revolution, Stephen Austin (James Stephens) goes to Mexico City to demand that Texas become a free state but is thrown into prison. When he is released two years later, Santa Anna has ended legal immigration and executed thousands in Zacatetas, which sparks a revolt. Disobeying Houston’s orders to destroy the Alamo, Jim Bowie (Michael Beck) and his garrison are trapped when Santa Anna appears with an army earlier than expected. Aware that his army can only handle one fight, Houston retreats to save his army for that fight. The situation improves when American soldiers volunteer to fight with the rebels. Houston leads his army to San Jacinto, where the Texans win a massive victory. Santa Anna (Richard Yniguez) is discovered when the prisoners stand when he is brought in, and agrees to order his army to return to Mexico in exchange for his life.
While I have a few criticisms, I need to stress that overall the script is an astonishing faithful presentation of Houston’s life, although the fictional version is a more dynamic individual than the real man.
Houston is surprisingly tender, probably much more understanding than than the real man, and sleeps alone on his wedding night. Learning that Eliza only married Houston to satisfy her father’s ambition, he states that the marriage was not consummated and divorces her, to her father’s disgust. In reality, the marriage lasted for three months before Eliza left Houston, and the huge scandal forced him to resign. The exact reason is still hotly debated among Houston biographers, but several explanations have been proposed, including his heavy drinking, his partially healed war wound and his discovery that she actually loved another man but had been forced by her family to end the relationship.
This is the first movie I have seen to show that that the Cherokee lived in proper houses and tried to live like whites, even owning slaves. The script claims that Houston had persuaded the Cherokee to peacefully sell their land in Tennessee and move to Arkansas to avoid being killed for the gold in their hills. While it is true that they were forced to abandon their homes after gold was discovered in Cherokee lands in Georgia, Houston was not involved in the negotiations. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 gave President Jackson authority to negotiate treaties with Indian nations where they exchanged their lands for land west of the Mississippi River, and he employed the threat of slaughter by state militias to speed up the negotiation process.
After helping to negotiate a peace between the Cherokee, the Osage and the Choctaw, the screen Houston gets drunk and reveals his plan to unite the tribes to resist the white man by taking Texas as a place for Indians, but the real man did not play a major role in the Cherokee nation and he never planned an Indian republic. Instead, his life simply fell into a downwards phase. Despite marriage to Diana Rogers, a fur trader’s daughter, in May 1830, Houston’s trading post failed to generate much profit, mainly because he drank much of his stock. In fact, he drank so much that they started to call him “Big Drunk” and he began to lose his standing among the Cherokee.
When he accompanied a Cherokee delegation to Washington in 1832, Congressman William Stanbery of Ohio brought up old accusations of corruption, and Houston responded by giving him a savage, public beating. He received a mild reprimand after a month-long trial but gained priceless national exposure. Although the miniseries compresses the trial to a single day, it does show that the massive media attention revitalized Houston’s political career.
While the movie’s chronology of the revolution is basically accurate, it skips over the numerous armed confrontations over runaway slaves and the 1833 convention that prepared the petition to become a state which Austin delivered to Mexico City. Instead, the miniseries simply shows the opening battle of the revolution, when Mexican troops are quickly driven off at Gonzales, and then fast forwards to a sneak attack that captures the Alamo in an afternoon, even though it actually fell after a lengthy, bloody siege. The decision to simply present the opening and closing battles of the initial revolt was likely due to the limited budget.
Credit to the screenwriters, they did their research. When the American soldiers arrive to volunteer with the rebels, their leader informs Houston that Jackson sent General Gaines to the border, looking for a reason to interfere. Admittedly, the real Jackson wanted an excuse to intervene in the revolution but it had to have a legal basis, otherwise Britain, France and Spain would have the opportunity to interfere. However, he had sent General Edmund Pendleton Gaines, who shared Jackson’s belief that the best defence was an offence, to command the troops in West Louisiana on the border with Texas. While his orders stressed the neutrality of the US, Gaines was also told to prevent Indian raids into Mexico, which was simply a cover for a possible invasion of Mexico, since the Mexican army was able to deal with any such raids on its own. Messages took a week to travel from Washington to the frontier and a lot could happen in a week, so Jackson had plausible deniability.
The San Jacinto battle scene is a correct if dull recreation of the battle. The Texans are in the cool shade of the forest, and Mexican army has spent the night building defences, so they have a siesta, enabling the Texan army to quietly cross the space to the Mexican camp. Houston makes his troops wait until they are at point-blank range before firing. The Mexican soldiers are routed and massacred in a scene similar to the Goliad massacre, where the rebels clearly do not take prisoners.
Sadly, while the script is surprisingly accurate, the acting is mediocre. Katherine Ross’ cameo as a shell-shocked Susannah Dickinson hints at what could have happened with a better cast.
Although Houston receives a more heroic portrayal than the real man deserves, Sam Elliot is a pleasure to watch.
The miniseries is worth watching as a moderately entertaining history lesson, which is more than can be said about most of the movies on the Texan Revolution.