A preview of History’s “Texas Rising.”
It’s been a battle cry ever since Texas forces were slaughtered by the Mexican army almost 180 years ago: “Remember the Alamo!” But since 1836, it’s not exactly clear what Americans are supposed to remember. Were those fighting for Texas’s independence from Mexico heroes, a la John Wayne? Or were the Alamo and the Texas Revolution a land grab by white slaveowners who would eventually help make Texas part of the United States?
History — once known as the History Channel — seems to have voted in favor of the former. Its new miniseries “Texas Rising,” which premiered on Memorial Day and dramatizes events following the Alamo’s fall, is a love letter to the Lone Star State that some critics say broadcasts conservative politics and punctures History’s educational veneer.
“Though vastly outnumbered, the Alamo’s 200 defenders — commanded by James Bowie and William Travis and including the famed frontiersman Davy Crockett — held out courageously for 13 days before the Mexican invaders finally overpowered them,” according to History’s Web site. “For Texans, the Battle of the Alamo became an enduring symbol of their heroic resistance to oppression and their struggle for independence, which they won later that year.”
Texas was a Mexican province at the time the Alamo fell; the legendary Sam Houston, played by Bill Paxton of “Big Love,” was trying to defeat a legitimate state. Though the channel’s Web site offers other perspectives on the Alamo and Texas’s war, including those of Mexicans, Native Americans and slaves, some of these views didn’t seem to make it into “Texas Rising.”
“This movie isn’t just bad — the politics are dubious too,” the liberal newspaper the Guardian wrote in a piece called “Texas Rising: American history as reimagined by the Tea Party.” “… Texas Rising is a movie that glorifies the campaigns of white settlers in land that technically belongs to Mexico and was initially settled by Native Americans. There is not an inkling of post-colonial reflection about what that means in the great scope of history. The line between good guys and bad guys is drawn as simply and thoughtlessly as it is in a backyard game of Cowboys and Indians.”
The Guardian wasn’t the only news media organization that complained. Among others: Variety and the New York Times.
“Native American warriors gallop and whoop; Mexican soldiers and generals enjoy cockfights, executions and all things vile,” the New York Times wrote. “The series looks and sounds like a western from the 1940s, and that’s not a compliment. The good guys — the Texans — are good, and the bad guys are reductive figures who exist to be hated.”
Given Texas’s complex history — Houston, for example, was a former spokesman for Cherokee Indians who would eventually become the only Southern governor to resist secession — some thought “Texas Rising” a missed opportunity. The Guardian blamed History’s politics.
“Perhaps to cater to History’s conservative audience, it plays to a modern sensibility that might not actually be that close to the truth,” the paper wrote.
Producer Leslie Greif, who also produced “Hatfields & McCoys” told the Associated Press that the film was vetted by experts but takes liberties for dramatic purposes.
“Historically, the battles that occurred were true,” he told the AP. “We didn’t kill anyone who didn’t die and didn’t keep anyone alive who died (among the real-life figures). The rest we used as a jumping-off spot to tell a great story.”
Suggestions that History seems to reflect conservative bias, or at least appeal to it, appears to have some basis. In 2011, the channel had to back away from a miniseries about John F. Kennedy that a Camelot historian claimed was “vindictive.”
In a 2012 report from consumer research firm YouGovBrandIndex, History was rated the No. 2 brand popular with Republicans, right behind Fox. One of the channel’s hits is “The Bible” — a show with a whitewashed cast that, notably, featured a Satan that some said looked like President Obama.
History is also a popular placement for GOP ad dollars.
“Republicans make up the bulk of advertising on The History Channel, ESPN 2 and the Discovery Channel,” The Washington Post’s Reid Wilson reported last year. “Democrats, who tend to advertise more on cable than their GOP counterparts, make up more than 80 percent of all political ads on Comedy Central, ABC Family, BET and Bravo.”
Then there’s the claim that History isn’t always that historical. Offerings such as “Pawn Stars,” “Ancient Aliens” and “Swamp People” seem far afield.
“I must applaud History for bringing some life to what had become rather redundant subjects, and giving us a reason to watch 24/7,” Brad Lockwood wrote at Forbes in 2012. But: “Aliens, UFOs, Bigfoot, and JFK assassination theories are fun late at night and under the proper influence while driving across the country, but this is the stuff of SyFy or the ‘fair and balanced’ Fox network.”
Way back in 2002, one critic said History’s penchant for aliens and conspiracy theories was part of its charm, especially when compared with stodgier outlets, some with fewer viewers.
“But it’s the History Channel that must really bother PBS, and not just because the upstart flaunts its illiberal jingoism and paranoia,” Slate wrote. “As its obsession with shocking secrets suggests, the History Channel has much in common with the New York Post — and Oliver Stone.”
Perhaps predictably, one newspaper that endorsed Mitt Romney in 2012 was unconcerned.
“There’s doubtless some dramatic license here,” the New York Daily News wrote of “Texas Rising.” “No matter. It’s a classic campfire story, from a land that truly was the Wild West.”