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Hollywood vs. The Alamo By: Catherine Seipp
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, April 08, 2004


One thing I never understand is why calling President Bush a Texas cowboy is supposed to be a compelling argument against him. You hear this all the time: from Europeans, from sophisticates on both coasts, and especially from the anti-Bush crowd here in Hollywood. But while I've never met a cowboy (or indeed anyone from Texas) I don't like, I can't say the same about Hollywood types, especially those who think they've come up with such a devastating insult.

I've only been to Texas half-a-dozen times, but that's enough to notice that just beneath the surface of the well-armed, don't-tread-on-me attitude lies a neighborly decency and courtesy that, living in L.A. as I do, always seems pretty remarkable.

Beneath the surface of the typical Hollywood hipster, on the other hand, may well be something else.

A couple of years ago my daughter and I visited a working ranch outside San Antonio. The grizzled old guy in charge had given her some chow pellets to feed the steer calves when she asked, "What's the difference between a steer and a bull?"

I thought, hmm, how's he going to explain that one to a 13-year-old girl? But he just looked her straight in the eye and said, "A steer is like a neutered puppy." Perfect. A simple, accurate explanation without getting into gory details.

A week later we were back in L.A. and standing on the sidewalk outside a Beverly Hills restaurant with my family. An actor/model/whatever type guy walked by with a Great Dane.

"Oh, that's a cute dog," my daughter said. "Is it a boy or a girl?"

The man grabbed his dog's testicles and announced proudly, "Isn't it obvious?" I was appalled, but also in the minority. (Although I suspect the dog didn't enjoy the experience either).

"Oh, so what?" said my sister, who spends her days auditioning for commercials. "He's probably a groovy young actor."

Probably so. Anyway, those two incidents always struck me as a snapshot of the difference between red state/blue state style - in particular the difference between Texas style and Hollywood's. But with the opening of The Alamo Apr. 9, I think these differences may be enlarged to wide screen proportions.

I haven't seen the film yet. But already I'm seeing Hollywood spin on how we should remember the Alamo, which was not only a quintessentially Texan, but quintessentially American event.

Here's Frank Thompson, a game show writer (Blind Date, The Fifth Wheel) and author of The Alamo, the Illustrated Story of the Epic Film, writing in the Houston Chronicle last week:

“Santa Anna really seems to have been the cruel despot that history has painted him, but his army did not march on Texas simply in order to squelch the freedom of the new settlers there, but to protect the sanctity of their own country. This was no good guys/bad guys fight, as the movies have so often portrayed it, but a conflict in which both sides had perfectly valid, if mutually exclusive, points.”

Let's consider for a moment General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna's perfectly valid points. On the same trip that my daughter learned what steers are we also visited the Alamo, the shrine to Texas liberty where less than 200 defenders (mostly white "Texians" and Mexican Tejanos held off some 2,000 Mexican troops for 13 days in 1836. Every man at the Alamo was either killed in battle or executed by Santa Anna after it was over.

I was a bit impatient as the guide began his talk in the mission's courtyard. Why was he prefacing the story of the battle with a long explanation of 19th-Century Mexican history? When were we going to get to Davey Crockett, Jim Bowie and Col. Travis's famous "victory or death" letter? But as he continued, describing how the power-grabbing Santa Anna, bored with being merely an democratically elected president, overthrew his own government in 1835, it became spellbindingly clear that the real story of the Alamo is less the bloody battle itself than the conflict between tyranny and liberty that preceded it. 

Texas was at the time part of Mexico. So when Santa Anna's coup crushed his country's nascent liberal reforms, Texas rebels seized the Alamo from Mexican troops and formed their own provisional government. Although they lost the battle, they won the war; six weeks later Sam Houston, commander of the Texas army, defeated an overconfident Santa Anna at the battle of San Jacinto and secured Texas's independence from a military dictatorship.

Santa Anna's side of the story, I suppose, would be that you can't allow citizens who don't want to live under sudden, self-anointed military dictators to just leave. And those in the habit of emphasizing the white, male oppressor aspects of Western culture might point out that Texas wanted to continue to allow slavery, which Santa Anna had outlawed in Mexico.

But given the general's taste for tinpot tyranny, his anti-slavery stance was probably less from high-mindedness than a distaste for redundancy: In a feudal tyranny, aren't most men basically slaves already?

Certainly as tyrants go, Santa Anna wasn't as depraved as the many 20th- and 21st-Century versions we know all too well. He spared women and children at the Alamo and had them escorted to safety. But like all dictators, he had his Ozymandias moments. A memorable one came in 1842, when he ordered the leg he'd lost in battle ceremoniously dug up and paraded around Mexico City for all to admire.

Those who complain about Bush's cowboy tactics argue that belligerent foreign warlords should be brought to justice rather than resisted by armies, forgetting that warlords are by definition committing acts of war, whether through the terror-bombing of cities around the world or traditional local landgrabs. And it doesn't much matter if they're old-fashioned, banana republic generalissimos or newfangled Islamic theocrats - these are not people best handled by the courts or the police.

Ordinary criminals are, but results can be disappointing, and the argument against the mythic cowboy seems to be that he's too willing to take matters into his own hands. "A writ writ for a rat, a rat writ," John Wayne said in True Grit as U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn, who was drunk and disappointed that a killer had gotten off in court and took it out on a rat caught stealing grain. But even then, remember, Rooster didn't shoot up the courtroom (although he did shoot the rat); he obeyed the rule of law and lit out after some bad guys later, to legally collect the bounty.

The uncowboy way, which many people wish Bush would practice instead of what he's doing now, is to appease and negotiate with aggressors until eventually they see reason. Maybe what distinguishes cowboys is that because they spend their days dealing with animals that are large, dangerous and rarely entirely rational, they understand that not everyone is open to reason. And that arguing a point has its limits, whether on the ranch or at war.



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