Remembering historic iconography

January 14, 2001|By Stephen R. Proctor | By Stephen R. Proctor,Sun Staff

"A Line in the Sand: The Alamo in Blood and Memory," by Randy Roberts and James N. Olson. The Free Press. 352 pages. $26.

No event in U.S. history has been more mythologized than the battle of the Alamo. Disney's Davy Crockett trilogy was, after all, the granddaddy of movies with merchandising spin-offs, generating a craze for all things Davy that eclipses even "Star Wars."

Yet, visiting the Alamo, standing where Col. William Barret Travis drew a line in the sand and dared those who would stand with him to cross over, it's hard not to be moved by the bravery of men who chose to stay and fight knowing they would be slaughtered.

America's reverence for the Alamo and its cultural ramifications are the subjects of this alternately fascinating and maddening history of the bloody siege in San Antonio that ended on March 3, 1836.

The first half of the book meticulously reconstructs the battle and the historical and cultural context in which it was fought.

The Alamo's defenders, readers learn, weren't the mythic heroes of the movies. They were as dedicated to land grabbing and slave trading as they were to freedom fighting, and many were vicious drunks.

And no matter what baby boomers remember from Disney, historians may never know whether Davy Crockett died swinging his rifle, a pile of dead soldiers at his feet, or whether he surrendered and was summarily killed by the soldiers of Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna.

The second, more compelling half of the book examines how a battle that lasted just 90 minutes -- and a defeat at that -- became integral to America's identity and how the cry "Remember the Alamo!" has been manipulated ever since.

In 1955, during the height of the Cold War, Disney used "Davy Crockett at the Alamo" to rebuke communists and union rabble-rousers, and Americans bought it, big time. Crockett merchandise -- everything from coonskin caps to underwear -- raked in $300 million, the equivalent of $2 billion today.

A decade later, John Wayne used the publicity campaign for his epic film "The Alamo" to needle John F. Kennedy. An advertisement for the film, prominently place in Life magazine, contained a thinly veiled suggestion that liberals like Kennedy had Americans longing for a return to the "honest, courageous, clear-cut standards of the frontier days."

For Lyndon Johnson, the Alamo was a favorite metaphor for explaining the Vietnam War. "As at the Alamo," he told a reporter, "somebody had to get behind the log with those threatened people."

Roberts and Olson do a sound job of interpreting this swath of history. The problem is that they don't know when to go into detail and when to paint with broad strokes. Again and again, they subject readers to excruciating details of such sidelights as the infighting over saving the Alamo building, the Disney studio's union disputes and the making of John Wayne's movie.

It's enough to tempt even a brave reader to surrender -- but don't. In the end, the strengths outweigh the weaknesses and readers come away with a deeper understanding of the scene that closes the book.

Outside the Alamo, two World War II veterans reflect on the fate of the 200-odd men who died behind those walls.

"They knew they didn't have a prayer, but they fought on anyway," one says.

"Yeh," his partner replies.

"God, what men they must have been."

Stephen R. Proctor is The Sun's deputy managing editor for sports and features. He graduated from the American University with a degree in history, and continued those studies during a recent sabbatical as a John S. Knight Fellow at Stanford University. He has a distant cousin who married Davy Crockett.

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