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Stateside: Is Santa Anna in the White House?

Stateside with Rosalea

My 02/1836 Inquiry: Is Santa Anna in the White House?

One of the more interesting articles in the Qantas in-flight magazine for April was about John Lee Hancock's movie, The Alamo. Apparently, Hancock tried to make an historically accurate portrayal of the events, taking into account the motivations of both sides, but ran into the problem of preview screenings these days generally being for 15-year-old boys, who want just another action movie, with all the larger-than-life simplicity that that implies.

The writer/director - decrying the way that pre-views have now become re-views - dug his heels in but still had to make some changes, delaying the movie's release from Christmas until this past Friday. A glance at the headlines of all the reviews an internet news search brings back reveals the wide variety of responses to this movie. Many of the reviewers watched the video of the John Wayne version of the myth so they would have something to compare this new version to. Others debated whether the events and character portrayals were indeed historically correct,

Well, I don't remember the John Wayne movie, even though it's probable that I saw it when it was released, but I have to say that most of my knowledge of the history of North America actually does come from entertainment: the radio stories about Daniel Boone, who "was a man, he was a big man. With an eye like an eagle...", and TV's "Davy, Davy Crockett, king of the wild frontier." So it was with a relatively blank, if not downright smudged, slate that I went to see The Alamo on opening night.

For someone like me, who knows nothing about the circumstances of the siege at the Alamo, the film was informative - although I had to work a bit to piece together the back story. At that time, Texas was under Mexican rule, the Spanish having been recently ousted. But entrepreneurial settlers from the neighbouring United States to the east figured they could go in there and finish up the slaughter of the Indians, kick out the Mexican settlers who were trying to make a go of things, and reward the mercenaries who would do this work with several hundred acres of land each.

And while they were about it, why the hell not create a republic and declare a president? Those damned folks up in DC didn't understand what it was like to be on the frontier anyway, so why become one of the United States? The Mexican Army had already been whupped the previous summer, and no one expected it to be coming back in the wintertime, so the mercenaries began to assemble in San Antonio, and the seasoned commander in charge of the Alamo - the town's fortified former mission - went off for some R&R and left it under the command of a newcomer.

I won't spoil the story for you by telling you the ending, or even the middle, let alone the beginning! One of the reasons I went was to evaluate the criticisms I'd read of the movie. Things like how the Mexican general, Santa Anna, was made out to be a Saddam Hussein figure. Well, I guess there was that aspect to it - the movie portrayed him as dining and drinking well, off fine china and from crystal glasses that were transported from battlefield to battlefield on pain of broken bones if any of it got smashed. And there was the needless pretty-girl-in-doorway next-seen-in-his-bed scenes that one hopes were only added afterwards as a pathetic sop to the adolescent preview audience.

According to the movie, Santa Anna did irrational things in battle, like sending soldiers to scale the walls of the Alamo when, if he'd waited one more day, an 18-pounder cannon would have arrived and he could have knocked the walls down from a distance. I'm not sure if his behaviour at this time of his life was already affected by late-stage syphilis, which is what schoolchildren in Mexico learn about him, for that subject wasn't touched on in the movie. And while the film portrayed him as vain, bad-tempered, and not likely to take advice, it also had one character say that at least the general only wanted to protect Mexico, not take over the whole world as the low-life invaders wanted to. (This was the period where the US saw westward expansion as its Manifest Destiny, after all.)

Yes, the Mexican Army's uniforms all did stay clean for the most part, which was another criticism I read of this movie. But, hang on! I don't recall seeing many dirty US Army uniforms in all the TV coverage we get of the wars that this century's "Napoleon of the West" is waging. And surely, when Santa Anna comments that soldiers are as expendable as chickens so why not send them to their deaths just cos he feels like attacking now instead of waiting, there is a parallel to modern times when wiser counsel again did not prevail?

The Mexican army was, after all, trying to evict a minority who had come in from outside the borders of a supposedly sovereign nation and tried to take it over. And didn't Mexico use shock and awe tactics by pitting the might of a large army with sophisticated weaponry against a few defenders of some crumbling mud brick walls in a desert landscape? You can't really make a direct parallel between Santa Anna and the Bushes, of course, because - despite being commander in chief of the armed forces - neither Bush has been a general in the field.

All the same, I suppose that most people who see this film will equate the Bushes and the USA not with the vain side of Santa Anna, but with the mythological bravery of those inside the Alamo. There's scant comfort for you in that interpretation, my friends. Internal jealousies between commanders of the militia and army regulars, unbridled egos, and faulty intelligence - such as not thinking the Mexican Army could or would travel in wintertime - all contributed to the siege at the Alamo being the inevitable outcome of the Texians' expansionary dreams.

It's a different world now, and it's a scary thought that there might be people in control of this country's policies who suffer from Alamotitis. In this era of distributed warfare, there's no way a modern-day Sam Houston can lure Santa Anna's army to its defeat on a single battlefield, as happened back then. And a siege in any one country in the world merely leads to a siege mentality in them all.

7:30pm PST

Saturday, April 10, 2004


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