Alamo Myths (No, Pee Wee Fans, There's No Basement )

Roundup: Talking About History

T.A. Badger, in the Miami Herald (April 5, 2004):

The Alamo: An 18th-century Roman Catholic mission that became a 19th-century makeshift fort that became a 20th-century household name. Its history is large, but nowhere near as large as the legends it has perpetuated.

First there's Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier, who according to the tall tales of his time, "could wade the Mississippi and leap the Ohio and whip his weight in wildcats."

There's also Jim Bowie, peerless knife-fighter from Louisiana, said to be tough enough to trap bears and ride alligators.

And of course, there's the famed battle that cost both Crockett and Bowie their lives, and that over the years has inspired more than a dozen films.

The latest of these big-screen tributes, a Touchstone Pictures movie called "The Alamo," starring Billy Bob Thornton as Crockett, is in theaters nationwide after opening April 9.

Bruce Winders, the Alamo's curator, says the new epic is the best one yet because it fills in some of the historical facts without toppling any of the sacred myths.

"They took a complicated story and condensed it in a way that creates interest in the Alamo, and interest in coming to visit the Alamo," said Winders. "It's still the Alamo they recognize."

The legends have been burnished by the likes of John Wayne and Fess Parker, both of whom starred in earlier movies depicting Crockett as the ultimate freedom fighter, and the Alamo battle as the ultimate against-all-odds story.

Younger people may be more familiar with "Pee Wee's Big Adventure," in which the goofy man-child in the too-small suit embarks on a cross-country odyssey to the Alamo to retrieve his lost bicycle from its basement. Once here, he gets the bad news: "There's no basement in the Alamo!"

David Stewart, the Alamo's director, says he hears the Pee Wee question all the time, and that by now he can tell when someone is about to bring it up again.

"They get this little smile on their face and say 'You know what I'm going to ask,'" he said. "And I always say, 'No, we don't have a basement.'"

Basement or not, the surprisingly small Alamo chapel and its well-landscaped grounds are hallowed turf for Texans.

In February 1836, roughly 180 independence-minded Texans - Texas was part of Mexico at the time - holed up in the Alamo compound when Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna marched his army of several thousand soldiers into San Antonio.

Santa Anna, also Mexico's president at the time, came north personally to crush the rebellion. He gave the rebels a chance to surrender, and when they wouldn't, he ordered his troops to kill them all. The pre-dawn battle on March 6 lasted about 90 minutes.

News of Santa Anna's brutality quickly spread, and soon "Remember the Alamo!" was a rallying cry heard across Texas.

About seven weeks later and 200 miles east, a rebel force under Gen. Sam Houston captured Santa Anna while defeating his force in a surprise attack. Texas was an independent nation until 1845, when it joined the Union.

While San Antonio grew up around it, the Alamo mostly languished until the Daughters of the Republic of Texas took possession in the early 20th century. It's gone through various renovations and reconstructions to become the cultural icon that now attracts about 3 million visitors each year....

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