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November 17, 20216min00

Davy Crockett and John Wayne Defend the Alamo

storytelling (2)

USA – DAVY CROCKETT: Republic.  I like the sound of the word.  It means people can live free, talk free, go or come, buy or sell, be drunk or sober, however they choose.  Some words give you a feeling.  Republic is one of those words that makes me tight in the throat – the same tightness a man gets when his baby takes his first step or his first baby shaves and makes his first sound as a man.  Some words can give you a feeling that makes your heart warm.  Republic is one of those words (John Wayne, as Davy Crockett, The Alamo, United Artists, 1960).

These words were not spoken by Davy Crockett.  They were penned by James Edward Grant, a friend of John Wayne and one of Wayne’s favorite screenwriters.  The speech is powerful, and a defining moment in the film.  But to get the true emotional impact, find the YouTube video of Wayne delivering this speech in the movie.  Wayne clearly believes in the words of the script and his signature delivery of the dialogue is convincing and moving.

John Wayne had wanted to make a definitive film about the Battle of the Alamo for many years, but studio skepticism and contractual issues had repeatedly thwarted his efforts.  A deal was finally made so long as Wayne agreed to appear in the film (he wanted only to direct), and the project moved forward.  The film went over budget, and Wayne committed his personal resources to get the film finished.

As his box office clout increased during the 1950s, Wayne wanted to make films that expressed his personal ideology.  “Rio Bravo” (1959) was Wayne and director Howard Hawks’ answer to “High Noon”, which they detested.  “The Green Berets” (1968) expressed strong support for the Vietnam War.  And between these two was “The Alamo”, a hymn to patriotism, bravery and legend-over-truth.

The basic story is of less than 200 Texians defending the Alamo (a mission complex converted to a makeshift fort) from nearly 2,000 Mexican troops as part of the Texas fight for independence from Mexico in 1836.  Historians disagree on the numbers of troops.  The ranges are 182-260 Texians versus 1,800 to 6,000 Mexican troops.  The cruelty of the Mexicans under General Santa Anna, giving no quarter to Texian combatants, rallied the Texians commanded by Sam Houston to defeat the Mexican Army six weeks later, leading to the formation of the Republic of Texas.

Most baby-boomers know the story of the Battle of the Alamo from the three-part Walt Disney biography of Crockett’s life, first shown on the Disneyland TV show in the mid-1950’s, and later recut into a feature film.  The Wayne version of the story appeared some five years later, expanding on the Disney myths.  Neither version deals with the political reasons for the Texas Revolution.  The myths include how and when Crockett died, the line in the dirt drawn by Colonel William Travis to divide those who wanted to stay and those who wanted to leave, and the idea that the Texians defended the Alamo to give Sam Houston time to organize his army.

Historians have dispelled many of the myths over the years, and the complex factors that motivated both sides of the conflict have been studied, discussed, debated and verified.  High school history books now speak more truth about the Alamo events, with some pushback from some current-day Texans who would like the mythology of the original tale to survive.

Accuracy aside, the mythology of the Alamo story served a valid purpose.  Schoolchildren learned about bravery, duty, patriotism, teamwork and sacrifice for the common good.  These values and concepts were wrapped within entertaining, exciting stories, full of heroes and villains, success and failure, bravery and fear.  And occasionally, there were moments when our heroes spoke to the heart of our soul and our country.  Like Davy Crockett’s speech about what it means to live in a Republic.  For those looking for a description of how it feels to live in this country, that speech is a pretty good starting point.

Our children have plenty of time to read more, study other sources, and learn what is truth and what is myth.  But first, they must be engaged, and the good guys vs. bad guys storytelling is one way to spark their interest in learning more.  So, let children enjoy the stories of our heroes and villains and our founders, and when they become more interested, more inquisitive, more mature, we can help guide them toward resources that sort the myths from the realities, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of the men and women who shaped our nation.

This is how education should work.

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