How Racism, American Idealism, and Patriotism Created the Modern Myth of the Alamo and Davy Crockett
Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson, and Jason Stanford on the Making of a Misrepresented Narrative
Not only for Texas does the Alamo have meaning, but for the
nation as a whole, it stands as a towering memory to Anglo-
American achievement in a world dominated by force. The
Alamo spells out large the word—Liberty!
–THE ALAMO, 1956
By the time Driscoll and De Zavala passed from the scene, the Alamo narrative was already migrating from the written page to the new venues of film and television. This would do more to spread the Heroic Anglo Narrative than anything before. There had already been a number of Alamo movies by that point, the first a now-lost 1911 film called The Immortal Alamo, which features a fictional Mexican spy who tries to seduce and then abduct Susanna Dickinson, playing on America’s anxieties about interracial sex at the time. But the towering achievement of early Alamo films is hands down 1915’s Martyrs of the Alamo, easily the most perversely distorted version of the Alamo narrative ever told.
A paean to early 20th-century racism, Martyrs of the Alamo was the brainchild of the filmmaker D. W. Griffith, who the year before had directed the single most racist blockbuster film in US history, The Birth of a Nation, replete with African-American rapists—actually wild-eyed white actors in blackface—and avenging Ku Klux Klansmen. Martyrs was its spiritual sequel, written by Griffith and directed by a gent named W. Christy Cabanne. It portrays the Texas Revolt as an Anglo revolt against the sexual predations of Santa Anna and his soldiers. Forget liberty, forget Mexican tyranny. The Alamo was actually about the perils of miscegenation.
The film opens with scenes of Mexican troops in the streets of San Antonio leering at Anglo women and raiding their homes, creating smoldering resentment among the Texians. Santa Anna merrily engages in orgies, indulges in opium, and forces himself on a blond woman, the girlfriend of one of the heroes, “Silent Smith,” a character probably based on the Texian scout Deaf Smith. The Texians cannot take it anymore, so they take up arms and drive Santa Anna back to Mexico. The Tejano population, naturally grateful for liberation, bows before them in awe.
Santa Anna is not gone for long, though, and soon returns with a massive army to attack the Texians in the Alamo. Mexican troops kill Crockett, Travis, and Bowie in accordance with the prevailing folklore. The racism is breathtaking. Mexican soldiers are cowards; their officers shoot those who retreat. At one point, a Mexican soldier bashes a little blond girl against a wall, killing her. Later, Sam Houston gains the white man’s revenge by riding into San Antonio with a Texian army and capturing the evil Santa Anna amid a drunken Mexican orgy. When the movie was rereleased a decade later as The Birth of Texas, a Mexican-American audience in Baytown got up and walked out.
The Texas Centennial prompted a pair of Alamo films in the 1930s, neither of note. Republic Pictures made Sam Houston the main character of Man of Conquest in 1939, which, rather than showing Houston humiliated by his divorce and fleeing Washington, depicts Andrew Jackson sending him to Texas to seize the territory, through either diplomacy or revolution. By the 1940s, the Alamo had become a story that filmmakers trotted out from time to time when a period drama was needed. Outside Texas it had no special audience, no community of hobbyists, no existential meaning.
All that began to change in 1948, when the Hollywood titan Walt Disney, angry at left-leaning labor unions, decided his films needed to do a better job shoring up “traditional” American values: patriotism, courage, self-sufficiency, and individual liberty. To do that, Disney decided, he needed to begin making movies about genuine American heroes. He told his screenwriters to find some.
The alamo narrative has always been a challenge for storytellers, in part because everyone knows how it ends, and the “bad guys” win. Another problem is the ensemble cast. Who to feature? The puffed-up Travis? The brooding Bowie? Crockett was the best-known name, but he played a soldier, not a leader, and as such deserved third billing at best. That’s what he got in 1937’s Heroes of the Alamo. Other films told Crockett’s life story but, intimidated by the Alamo’s dramatic challenges, left the battle out entirely, preferring to focus on his bear-hunting days.
Nor were modern history books exactly putting him front and center. Neither Barker nor Williams gave him much thought. In 1945’s The Age of Jackson, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called Crockett a “phony frontiersman” and a con artist who wasn’t smart enough to cut it in Washington. But alone among the Alamo’s “heroes,” Crockett had star potential. He’d shown it during his lifetime. He had been a stalwart of comic books and children’s literature for more than a century. All you had to do was ignore the historical David Crockett, the failed congressman, and embrace his alter ego, Davy. The rugged individualism, the frontier populism, the quips, the bears—not to mention a heroic death at the Alamo. It was all there, waiting for a clever storyteller to bring it to a wider audience.
Which is where Disney comes in. In 1948, the chairman of Disney Studios was in a funk. Hollywood had been plagued by labor strikes for years, and Disney had suffered his share. Like a lot of studio bigwigs, Disney was convinced Communists were behind it all. It was driving him nuts. Because Disney hated union members, many of the studio’s best animators were leaving. Meanwhile Disney’s animated films, once considered technological wonders, were losing audience to live-action movies, especially action-packed westerns. Disney hatched an idea to solve all his problems at once, by making live-action movies and imbuing them with “traditional” American values centered on families and patriotism. He wanted dramatic story lines with a hero who faced adversity, experienced self-discovery, and instilled viewers with a moral. He wanted heroes who battled a more powerful foe, a corrupt government, a tyrant, a criminal.
Disney’s writers pored over history books and folklore. Their first discoveries, such as Don Diego “Zorro” de la Vega, were featured in live-action shorts that played before Disney’s animated films. These shorts were the perfect length for a new medium, television, that was sweeping America. Most studios were dismissing it as a fad. Walt Disney sensed it was far more than that.
Disney taught the world the myth of Travis drawing a line in the sand and showed Crockett crossing it first in the name of liberty.
Disney produced its first television programming, a pair of Christmas specials, in 1950 and 1951, and saw how Disney television could drive viewers to Disney movies. It was Walt’s introduction to corporate synergy, and he proved a genius at it. His brother Roy approached executives at NBC and CBS in 1953 offering a television series if they would help finance a Disneyland theme park, creating another revenue stream. Both passed. But ABC, the perennial last-place network, was desperate. The two sides cut a creative deal for the era: In return for ABC buying a third of the stock for Disneyland, Disney agreed to produce an hourlong weekly television show for the network.
Walt Disney’s Disneyland debuted on ABC on a Wednesday evening, October 27, 1954, and proved an immediate hit. When the producers proposed an episode based on Crockett, Disney was skeptical. Crockett was no longer what you would call a household name. The writers, though, crafted a story line Disney could not resist. The trick was to treat all of Crockett’s boasts as fact, and then make his death at the Alamo the climax of a three-part miniseries. Part one would focus on Crockett’s time killing Native Americans, and of course bears, the next would cover his time in Washington, and the final episode would end with glory at the Alamo. The miniseries showed little resemblance to the facts of history, but there was no doubt it was a great story, that of an honest man betrayed by the world who nevertheless sacrificed himself so others might live. If that sounds a little familiar, a little, shall we say, biblical, well, that was very much on purpose.
When the miniseries’ first episode, “Davy Crockett: Indian Fighter,” aired December 15, 1954, American families saw hunky Fess Parker portray Crockett not as a boastful bumpkin but as a saintly stoic who, whether striking a deal with a Native American chief or President Andrew Jackson, was always fair, principled, and above all committed to liberty.
“We had no idea what was going to happen to Crockett,” Walt said years later. “Why, by the time the show finally got on air, we were already shooting the third one and calmly killing Davy off at the Alamo. It became one of the biggest one-night hits in TV history, and there we were with just three films and a dead hero.”
Crockett fever hit with gale force after the second episode, in January 1955. Within days boys across America were imitating the Tennessee frontiersman, gunning down imaginary Native Americans and singing the show’s bouncy theme song. By the time the third and final episode aired the next month, Disney was raking in millions from Crockett memorabilia, none more iconic than coonskin caps. The price for a pound of raccoon tails—yes, that’s apparently a thing—spiked from 25 cents a pound to eight dollars.
The third episode brought a Disneyfied version of the Alamo into millions of American living rooms. Disney taught the world the myth of Travis drawing a line in the sand and showed Crockett crossing it first in the name of liberty. When the Mexican troops charge, Crockett is on the wall, shouting, “Here they come!” He fights to the last, swinging Old Betsy at Mexican soldiers as they overwhelm the Texians. Most Americans had little sense that they were being sucked into what was essentially a biblically inspired fable meant to prepare Americans for the Cold War.
Within two months, Americans spent $100 million on Crockett merchandise; an astounding 10 percent of all children’s clothing sold in 1955 was affiliated with Crockett. The craze didn’t last long; seven months later, raccoon tail prices had returned to pre-Disney levels. For a moment, though, “Davy was the biggest thing since Marilyn Monroe and Liberace,” Variety reported.The message, a not too subtle one, was that dying in defense of freedom was a heroic act.
Snobby writer types tried their darndest to explain that the Disney Crockett was hooey, but it was no use. In Harper’s, the Texas-born John Fischer termed the historical Crockett a “juvenile delinquent,” a deserter “who weaseled his way out of the army,” an “indolent and shiftless” farmer, “an unsuccessful politician; a hack writer” and king of nothing save maybe “the Tennessee Tall Tales and Bourbon Samplers Association.”
Fischer even poured water on the Alamo. In one of the earliest-known examples of Alamo revisionism, he portrayed its defenders as drunken bigots too stupid to retreat from what became “the worst military blooper in American history, short of Pearl Harbor.” In their defense? “They died well,” Fischer sniped. “From a military standpoint, that is about all that can be said for them; and it is the only solid fact about the Alamo which most Americans ever hear.”
Crockett fans reacted to this kind of disparagement with outrage, a foreshadowing of the coming culture wars. As described in the book A Line in the Sand, all the critics got angry letters; when the New York Post’s liberal columnist Murray Kempton deigned to author a four-part series debunking the Crockett legend, fans actually picketed the paper. “Davy killed a b’ar at 3,” one placard read. “What did Murray Kempton ever shoot—except the bull???”
The modern conservative movement had begun in the early 1950s, and its de facto founder, William Buckley, placed the attacks on Crockett in a political context.
“The assault on Davy,” he said on a radio show, “is one part a traditional debunking campaign and one part resentment by liberal publicists of Davy’s neuroses-free approach to life. He’ll survive the carpers.”
Despite the haters, Disney’s Crockett clearly gave mainstream America something it needed in the mid-1950s, a measure of comfort in frightening times. The Cold War was under way, and after fighting to a draw in Korea, Americans worried about the spread of Communism. Looking across the oceans at Russia and China, the United States appeared surrounded and outnumbered, just like the men at the Alamo. Americans found comfort in Disney’s fanciful Crockett and, strangely, inspiration in his martyrdom. The message, a not too subtle one, was that dying in defense of freedom was a heroic act.
Excerpted from Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth. Used with the permission of the publisher, Penguin Press. Copyright © 2021 by Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson, and Jason Stanford.