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In Search of Rawhide Heroes

When Orson Welles was asked to identify the great directors who inspired him, he replied simply, “The old masters. By which I mean John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford.” Watching the characterization of David Crockett in the recent film “The Alamo” reminds me that John Ford is not around to do it right. Hollywood can no longer fathom, let alone accept, the character of the people on the American frontier and the spirit that animated their times. There are occasional exceptions, but for the most part Hollywood has lost the ability to empathize with those bold and adventurous Americans who pushed the frontier westward from the Appalachians to the Pacific Coast.

The very essence of the Scotch-Irish frontiersman David Crockett has been twisted and distorted in his latest movie incarnation. He suffers from some kind of modern angst, is full of self-doubt, tortured by his past, and bedeviled by his image. This is not a man who would inspire the loyalty and courage of those around him, as did the real Crockett. Moreover, the movie suggests that Crockett really never did much of anything, that he was a creation of early-day mythmakers, especially James Kirke Paulding, who wrote the “Lion of the West,” a play about a fictional character named Nimrod Wildfire.

For modern Hollywood, the strong and iron-willed Crockett must have been the creation of writers and thespians—and that is how he is portrayed. The reality of having to live up to his image is the theme that animates “The Alamo’s” Crockett. When Crockett learns that the war is not over and that he will actually have to defend the Alamo, he is stunned. Shock and fear are written all over his face before he recovers his composure. What do the screenwriters and director want us to believe—that Crockett was a Sylvester Stallone or an Arnold Schwarzenegger who had been suddenly called upon to do the real thing? David Crockett had been doing the real thing all his life.

At one point Jim Bowie tells Crockett that “those are not bears out there” as if Crockett had never fought anything that shot back. The movie does eventually reveal that Crockett fought the Red Stick Creeks in the War of 1812 but distorts his participation beyond recognition. “I wasn’t ever in but one real scrape in my life,” says Crockett as he begins a gripping soliloquy. He then describes the battle at Tallusahatchee as if it consisted only of Indian men, women, and children crowding into a cabin for protection and pleading for mercy. “They wanted to surrender,” says Crockett, “but this squaw loosed an arrow and killed one of the fellas, so we shot her and then ….Then, we set fire to the cabin. We could hear ’em screaming to their gods in there. We could smell ’em.”

There was a bit more to the fight, although to describe it and to explain why the Tennessee boys were in a fight with the Red Sticks would interfere with one of modern Hollywood’s favorite themes: evil white man versus noble red man. At Tallusahatchee were dozens of cabins and some 200 well-armed Red Stick Creek warriors. Hoping for surprise, the Tennessee militia cavalry approached the village shortly after sunrise but the Indians, said Brig. Gen. John Coffee, the cavalry commander, “began to prepare for action, which was announced by the beating of drums, mingled with yells and war whoops.” Coffee had his volunteers encircle the village and then sent a portion of his force in a feint at the center cabins. The Red Stick warriors, not knowing the strength of the whites, thought they could overwhelm the small force before them and charged. The Tennessee boys fired once and retreated, with the Indians whooping and pursuing. The trap sprung, Coffee’s main force swiftly closed on the surprised warriors who raced for their cabins.

“The enemy fought with savage fury,” said Coffee in an after-action report, “and met death with all its horrors, without shrinking or complaining: not one asked to be spared, but fought as long as they could stand or sit. In consequence of their flying to their houses and mixing with the families, our men, in killing the males, without intention, killed and wounded a few of the squaws and children.” For those cynics who think that Coffee might have written a disingenuous report, they will have a difficult time explaining the 84 women and children taken prisoner. One of the children, a ten-month old boy orphaned by the fight, was about to be killed by squaws when the troops intervened. He was carried to Andrew Jackson, the commander of the Tennessee militia, who took him into his tent and coaxed him to drink a mixture of brown sugar and water. The boy became Andrew Jackson Jr.

No such concern was demonstrated when the Red Stick Creeks attacked Ft. Mims and slaughtered some 200 women and children—the massacre that roused Crockett and other Tennessee frontiersmen to volunteer for service in the militia. At Ft. Mims—not much more than a palisade of logs around the homestead of Samuel Mims—the “fearful shrieks of women and children put to death in ways as horrible as Indian barbarity could invent” could be heard a half-mile off. The Creeks grabbed small children by the ankles and, swinging them through the air, dashed their brains out on logs. They split open the bellies of pregnant women and, while the women were still alive, ripped out their fetuses. Men, women, and children were scalped and dismembered. A gripping soliloquy about this horrific slaughter was missing from “The Alamo.”

Tallusahatchee was not Crockett’s “only real scrape.” A week later he was at Talladega when more than a thousand Creek warriors came rushing out of the woods “like a cloud of Egyptian locusts, and screaming like all the young devils had been turned loose, with the old devil of all at their head,” said the real Crockett. When the furious fight ended, 300 Red Stick warriors lay dead on the battlefield and dozens of others were probably dying elsewhere. Fifteen of the Tennessee boys died in the battle, and more died later of their wounds. Crockett would continue to fight in the war with the Red Sticks and in the Seminole campaign that followed, serving two three-month enlistments and rising from private to sergeant.

Not only are Crockett’s accomplishments denigrated or omitted in the movie, but there is a sad and melancholy air that surrounds Crockett, unlike his real counterpart who wrote that Texas “is the garden spot of the world. The best land and best prospects for health I ever saw, and I do believe it is a fortune to any man to come here.” “The Alamo’s” Crockett is generally so downcast that Santa Ana’s troops would not have needed to kill him—he would have committed suicide. He seems enveloped by ennui, lacking energy and vitality, although he briefly comes alive in a great fiddling scene—Crockett was an accomplished fiddler and played often during the 13 days of the siege—that provided a rare inspirational moment. The real Crockett provided many for those who served with him and was forceful and energetic. “The Hon. David Crockett was seen at all points,” wrote William Travis after a battle during the siege, “animating the men to do their duty.”

The director of “The Alamo,” John Lee Hancock, said that he would make certain that his Crockett did not remind anyone of John Wayne’s Crockett. He succeeded wildly. While Wayne’s Crockett looked like a caricature of John Wayne at times and was given to stilted speechifying (Wayne made the mistake of directing himself), he was someone you would not want to fight and someone men would follow. Hancock does not even have his Crockett don buckskin, and Crockett’s trademark coonskin cap is nowhere to be seen. Yet, those who saw Crockett depart for Texas all describe him in his regular garb. “He wore that same veritable coon-skin cap and hunting shirt,” said James Davis, who saw Crockett board a ferry at Memphis, “bearing upon his shoulder his ever faithful rifle.” Susannah Dickerson (often misspelled Dickinson), a survivor of the Battle of the Alamo, said she “recognized Col. Crockett lying dead and mutilated between the church and the two story barrack building … his peculiar cap by his side.”

Although it is not known for certain how Crockett died, “The Alamo” has him captured and executed—the death favored by revisionist historians. These historians base their claim on the so-called diary of a Mexican officer, Jose Enrique de la Peña, who fought at the Alamo. There is a problem with the “diary,” however. It is evidently a modern forgery, most likely the work of a prolific producer of fraudulent documents, John Laflin. Because of a number of anachronisms that the document contains, even the revisionists are now admitting that the document could not be a diary and are calling it a memoir constructed by Peña some years after the battle. Dan Gagliasso, a director of documentaries for the History and Discovery channels and a researcher for director and screenwriter John Milius, told me that the University of Texas, which owns the Peña manuscript, would not allow the document’s ink or paper to be tested for an episode of Unsolved History. Not by accident, Hollywood sides with the revisionists—allowing Crockett to look less heroic.

Someday, Hollywood may again come to understand and appreciate the men and women who peopled the frontier. Until then, I will miss John Ford.


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