An astonishing number of historical inaccuracies were crammed into the 7.5 hours of the miniseries, so it will take a long time to get through all of them.
“The following program is a dramatic interpretation of Texas’ fight for independence. Viewer discretion is advised.”
The phrase “viewer discretion is advised” usually means that women will get out of their clothes in front of the camera. In this case, I think it means that if you are interested in historical facts, this program may not be suitable for you.
The inaccuracies start in the opening narration, before the credits, which is not a good sign. The narrator refers to the thousands of US settlers in Texas, except there were no US settlers, just Mexicans who were former Americans, what we would call American-Mexicans today. Actually, the majority of people in Texas were likely men who had crossed the border illegally, fleeing debt, prison, poverty or all three. Everyone else had sworn allegiance to Mexico. The rebels act like they had no choice but to revolt against the dictator Santa Anna, but the script conveniently ignores the detail that the leaders of the revolution, such as Sam Houston and William Barret Travis, had been trying to start a revolt for years, in order to secede and join the United States.
When Texans rebel against the dictator Santa Anna (Olivier Martinez), Sam Houston (Bill Paxton) leads a mutinous army supported only by the loyal Texas Rangers and his ex-lover Emily West AKA The Yellow Rose of Texas (Cynthia Addai-Robinson), who spies on Santa Anna. Meanwhile, Spirit of Vengeance Lorca (Ray Liotta) seems likely to kill the entire Mexican army on his own.
The mini-series begins immediately after the Alamo has fallen. Santa Anna’s army has appeared in Texas much earlier than expected, and Houston is trying to pull in the rebel army, which is spread out in multiple locations. In particular, a large portion of the rebel forces are garrisoning Goliad, but Colonel James Fannin, commander of the garrison at Goliad, refuses to retreat. The screen Houston rides to Goliad to personally tell Fannin to retreat, taking time out to face down a Comanche raiding party on the way, but the garrison had already been massacred. The real Houston was busy building an army, and simply sent messengers to urge Fannin to leave Goliad. I suspect that Paxton was a bit annoyed that his co-star Kevin Costner had used his position as executive producer to give himself a bigger role on Hatfields and McCoys, so he ensured that Sam Houston’s role in the revolution was padded a little.
There are good, easy-to-read books on the Texan Revolution, but it looks like none of the writers read any of them.
Learning that the Mexican army is only a few hours away, the screen Fannin instantly decides to abandon Goliad. However, his troops are ambushed just outside Coleto Forest, which would have provided water and cover. Surrounded, they surrender the next day.
This is an overly kind depiction of the actual battle. The real Fannin was an astonishingly indecisive commander. With 400 men, a safe water supply and solid walls, Goliad could probably have been held indefinitely. However, Fannin proved unable to make up his mind. Even the appearance of the lead elements of General Jose Urrea’s army could not force him to make a decision. Instead, he wasted a day ordering the artillery buried, dug up and then buried again. Barely escaping Goliad before the arrival of the Mexican force, Fannin ordered his men to camp in an open field in sight of Coleto Forest because he believed that Mexican troops were useless. A surprise attack by Mexican cavalry proved him wrong. The surrounded rebels held off the Mexicans until nightfall, and they could have escaped in the darkness but Fannin refused to leave the wounded.
When Urrea refused to execute the survivors, Santa Anna simply sent a direct order to Colonel Portilla, the officer in charge of the prisoners. Col. Portilla’s little speech where he calls Fannin a stinking wetback who is here illegally in his country is the best part of the miniseries, even though Portilla is supposed to be a villain. In the miniseries, all of the prisoners are massacred, but roughly a hundred men survived the real execution. Some men escaped by running away, some were spared because they possessed valuable skills and some were saved by the wives of Mexican officers.
Plagued by quarrelling commanders and a complete lack of discipline, at one point, an exasperated Houston shows his unruly soldiers two empty graves and threatens to execute the next two troublemakers. It is true that the army resisted discipline, but the writers neglect to mention that the disciplinary issues were caused by a reliance on mercenaries, not settlers. While the idea of valiant settlers fighting to protect their families and homes is attractive, much, if not most, of the fighting was done by volunteers who had arrived after the revolution had started. Recruits were offered 1,280 acres for service to the end, 640 acres for six months’ service, and 320 acres for three months’ service.
Since almost all of the public land in America had already been claimed, men flocked to Texas. For a young American male dreaming of adventure and free land, the Texas revolt was the only game in town. Most Indian tribes in the South had been pacified, and having seen the need for a professional army during the War of 1812, the Federal Army was becoming, well, a real army that had little respect for the militias. The volunteers proved almost impossible to discipline and they looted whenever they could, even Anglos, although Mexicans were the preferred target.
Dissatisfied with their pay, several of the Texas Rangers are planning to rob a bank in Galveston, and one of them claims to have robbed several banks before.
Wrong war. The first bank robberies took place almost a year after the American Civil War (1861-1865), roughly thirty years after the Texan Revolution, and the James-Younger gang was probably the first gang to rob a bank. There simply was not a lot of cash circulating in the 1830s, so most business transactions were handled with notes, basically promises to pay at a certain date, but the payment was often in goods, not cash. The writers could not even get that right.
Although he officially refuses to interfere in the Revolution, President Andrew Jackson (Kris Kristofferson) openly hopes that Santa Anna follows Houston across the border, since it would permit the American army to become involved.
This little scene only hints at the major preparations that the real Jackson had made to intervene in the Texan Revolution. Jackson had refused to officially recognize the rebels because it would mean war with Mexico, which would allow Britain, France and Spain to interfere. However, he had sent General Edmund Gaines to command the troops in West Louisiana on the border with Texas. Sharing Jackson’s belief in invade first and find a reason later, Gaines was told to prevent Indian raids across the border into Mexico, which was simply a cover for a possible invasion of Mexico. Messages took a week to travel from the frontier to Washington, and a lot could happen in a week, so Jackson had plausible deniability. Gaines prepared carefully by calling out all of the militias in the states near the region, but the governors of Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi believed that Gaines’ request was simply part of a scam to help Texan land speculators and refused to send troops.
The fictional Santa Anna is using San Jacinto as bait to lure Houston’s army into battle where it can be destroyed, but his cunning plan backfires. Alerted by Emily West that the Mexicans are asleep, the rebels win a huge victory after a fierce fight that becomes a massacre. The spycraft sounds exciting but the two camps were only separated by several hundred yards, so Houston could see the situation for himself.
Actually, the battle itself is relatively accurate, except that the Mexicans believed that it was safe to have a siesta since they had spent all day building defences in the hot sun. The Mexican camp in the screen version is missing the fortifications, while the real Texans had twice as many cannon, which enabled them to blow a hole in the Mexican defences, letting the rebels pour in. The main difference is Santa Anna’s motivation. Jealous of his generals who were winning glory, the real man had rashly pressed ahead with a fraction of his army to ensure that he obtained the final victory, and unexpectedly found himself facing a rebel army the same size as his own force on a battlefield selected carefully by Houston.
The freed survivors of the Alamo are attacked by Indians, even though the real survivors walked for several days until they were found by Deaf Smith and Henry Karnes. Admittedly, it may seem an unnecessary exaggeration but apparently the writers worried that the mini-series would not be considered a Western unless a wagon was chased by Indians.
With the obligatory wagon-chase scene out of the way, the writers should have been free to return the revolution. Instead, the Comanche are portrayed as big a threat as the Mexican army, and a considerable part of the miniseries presents settlers dealing with Comanche raids. The exaggeration of the Comanche threat is both unnecessary and inaccurate. Admittedly, there was trouble with the local tribes before the revolution and wars against the Comanche afterwards but not during the revolution.
Following the massacre at San Jacinto, Portilla captures Emily West and tries to trade her for Santa Anna who had been taken prisoner at San Jacinto, but Houston refuses, and the rangers find his hideout. That’s how it is described, his hideout. You know he is a villain, since only villains have hideouts. Lair would have been better but would have made him seem dangerous.
Joining forces with the Comanche against a common enemy, Portilla attempts to rescue Santa Anna, who refuses to be freed because he wants to meet President Jackson. He was a big fan, and Jackson never comes to Mexico, soo…. It is kind of like when your favorite band never comes to your town, so you have to drive to a big city and crash on a friend’s couch in order to see them. I totally get that, but Portilla was understandably miffed, since he had gone to a lot of work and Santa Anna could have been a bit more appreciative. Actually, there was no rescue attempt because the Mexican army had left Texas. Santa Anna had ordered his army to leave Texas in order to save his life, and his second-in-command obeyed the order to retreat, to the disgust of the other generals, who wanted to continue fighting.
Okay, there have been a few minor deviations from the historical record, surely the rest of the mini-series is accurate.
In the series, the Rangers were founded by Stephen Austin, the first American permitted to form a colony in Texas, and they are led by Henry Karnes (Christopher McDonald) and Deaf Smith (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). The rangers are the only ones who listen to Houston, so they do most of the hard work.
The writers’ decision to give the Texas Rangers leading roles in the story is understandable, since they are an integral part of Texas history, but they only really came into existence after the Revolution. The real Rangers were created in 1823 when Stephen Austin approved the formation of a small force of ten men to patrol against raiding Indians. In August 1826, the six militia districts in Austin’s colony planned for a Ranger company of 20-30 men from each district, but the plan was never realized due to a lack of funds. When the revolution started, the provisional government authorized the formation of ranger companies to guard against the Indians, but the first company had barely been formed when the Mexican invasion led to the huge retreat across Texas, and the rangers who did not go to help their families provided the rear guard.
One is coarse and barely educated, the other is smooth and refined, but they become best friends. And eventually become rangers. Hays (Max Theriot) and Wallace (Robert Baker) wander around having idiotic adventures until they are framed for murder and arrested by the slimy Empressario Buckley (Robert Knepper), who simply wants an excuse to take their horses.
True, both men became famous ranger captains, but the real men had emigrated to Texas after the revolution. Jack Hays arrived in Texas two years after the revolution with his brother and worked as a surveyor. Tired of being attacked by Comanche, he joined the rangers and became an excellent leader. Wallace went to Texas to avenge his brother and cousin who had been massacred at Goliad, and soon joined the Rangers.
According to the myth, the Mexican army was taken by surprise at San Jacinto because the dictator had just made love to Emily West and was enjoying post-coital bliss. He was not cuddling. Dictators do not cuddle. The mini-series expands her character to become Houston’s lover and a spy who provides information that enables the Texans to win the revolution.
Little is known about Emily West’s life except that she was a free woman and an indentured servant, who was working in a hotel in Texas when she was kidnapped by troops in Santa Anna’s army. However, Sam Houston’s life has been extensively researched and there is no mention of any kind of relationship between them. It would not be a problem if their affair was interesting, but her character exists simply to send information to help him win the war. At least, the writers are trying to show that she had aided the rebels by spying, and had found valuable information, rather than simply distracted Anna at a critical moment by spreading her legs.
Lorca, the sole survivor of the Alamo, becomes a spirit of vengeance, kind of like Ghost Rider but without the flaming head, who kills half of the Mexican army by himself. Lorca keeps killing Mexicans, including innocent civilians, even after San Jacinto, until a grandmother with faith brings him to Jesus.
Unlike Emily and the Rangers, who existed but have been greatly elaborated, Lorca was invented. I do not do drugs. Beer, gin, rum by the fire in the winter, that’s my thing, but I am very pro-legalization. Until I see things like Lorca, which could only be the product of a drug-addled mind. Or a very, very, very, very bad writer.
So, so, so racist. Just, so…so racist.
Emily West’s motivation to spy on Santa Anna, and hopefully kill him, is a burning desire to avenge her brother Jupiter, who was executed in front of her eyes after the Mexicans stormed the Alamo. Meeting Houston, she tells him that “Jupiter loved Texas enough to die fighting for it.” A slave, Jupiter had been bought and freed by his sister, but chose to remain with the Alamo garrison. A noble sentiment, but why would a slave fight at the Alamo, since he was fighting for the people who wanted to keep slavery?
One of the early conflicts between the Anglos and the Mexican troops in Texas was over slaves, who had discovered that slavery was illegal in Mexico. Whenever a slave sought protection in a Mexican garrison, the Anglo owner would appear with a lawyer, usually William Barrett Travis, who later became famous as one of the commanders at the Alamo, seeking the return of his property. The more law-abiding immigrants had handled the situation by making their slaves sign 99-year indenture contracts.
Essentially, the writers replaced Travis’ slave Joe, who was freed by Santa Anna and accompanied Susanna Dickinson, another survivor of the Alamo, to the main Anglo settlements, with Jupiter, an ex-slave who fought alongside his former oppressors, which would have seemed weird in a movie made in the 1950s, never mind today.
Wait, wait, there is another slave, Nate (Amen Igbinosun), who belongs to the Wykoff family, recent arrivals in Texas. Clearly, he was treated well by the family, since he risks his life to defend Pauline Wykoff (Sarah Jones), the sole survivor of a Comanche attack, and then carries her to Vitoria. It gets better, when Pauline frees him to prevent Empressario Buckley from claiming him as collateral for debt, a sobbing Nate asks Pauline why did she free him, he has nowhere to go, so she agrees to let him remain her slave. Wow. That nice white woman, taking on the burden of looking after a black man who can not take care of himself, it makes me want to cheer…or vomit.
The only free blacks work for Buckley, and are basically henchmen. Nasty henchmen. So, yes, racist.
Where is the grit?
The real army did a lot more drinking than shown. I think it is supposed to be an all-ages show, like Lawrence Welk or Hee Haw. To be fair, I liked Hee Haw, at least the girls on Hee Haw, when I was fourteen.
Many of the actors have been good in other projects. Several of the actors were on Justified, in particular Jeremy Davies, who recreates his Dickie Bennett character as Private Ephraim Knowles but for laughs. The Dickie Bennett schtick worked better on Justified, especially since he repeatedly shot people and beat on Raylon Givens like he was a pinata.
I have to ask, did anyone at History just start laughing when they saw the script? I mean, anyone who knows any history. Which should be common at a channel called History.
The dates and places are right. After watching this, a high school student would probably pass a history test but this is not meant for grown-ups.
Roland Joffe has made some beautiful films but this is not one of them. The writers’ claim to fame is that they produced Hatfields & McCoys, which was really good. This is not good. It is nowhere near good. It manages to be even worse than the recent mini-series Bonnie & Clyde.
It is like something from the fifties, not like the Ranown Westerns, but something bad. The only good thing that I can say is that the theme music is quite stirring.
If you want to learn more about the Texan Revolution, here is a link to my timeline on the revolution: Texan Revolution Timeline
And here is the trailer: