Opinion: Daily Journal

On Revising Historical Revisionism

RALEIGH — Remember when the Kevin Costner film Dances with Wolves came out? It not only did well at the box office and elevated Costner to the rank of official Hollywood “filmmaker,” but it also proved to be the leading edge of an important new cultural wave, of rethinking the history of the American West from the Native American point of view.

Or not.

Actually, the notion that Dances with Wolves reflected a brand new, and more historically accurate, depiction of the West was a fiction. Anyone familiar with just the leading titles of Western film had to wonder what all the fuss was about. The first American film to humanize the Indian, portray Indian characters and leaders as heroic, and treat the white man as the interloper? What about Jimmy Stewart and Jeff Chandler in the 1950 film Broken Arrow? It was hardly an obscure movie. What about Dustin Hoffman 20 years later in Little Big Man? It won awards and acclaim. What about the numerous other films, novels, and even television shows in which Indian leaders such as Cochise were treated with respect and portrayed as victims of miscalculations, at best, if not heroes defending themselves against actual villainy?

Historican revisionism is history itself. There is nothing fixed about the subject; it is ever-changing, ever-adjusting to new discoveries and new perspectives. But sometimes it seems like revisionism is celebrated for its own sake, as a sort of adolescent rebellion against authority just to show the old-timers that there’s a new generation of sheriffs in town. Lots of self-styled “progressives” like to pretend that their take on the world is original. It is no accident that many of these experts happen to be Baby Boomers, about whom it has been perceptively said that everything they have done or experienced since conception has been “new” — according to them.

I was thinking about how historical revisionism needs some revising Tuesday night while watching a History Channel special called “Remember the Alamo.” The piece was obviously tied into the impending release of the new Hollywood film and introduced by one of the film’s stars, Dennis Quaid. Its thesis was that the version of the Alamo story that most Americans knew was wrong, that the Texas War of Independence was really a complex affair that bundled together noble principles about freedom, American expansionism, a Mexican civil war, brutality, bad faith, and tragedy. The story had little to do, it was suggested, with the Alamo of John Wayne, Richard Widmark, and Laurence Harvey.

Well no kidding. No offense intended against the makers of the History Channel documentary, which was interesting, but they need to get out more. Most Americans are aware of the fact that movie scripts are not history. They do not believe that anything said by a Hollywood actor must be true, whether uttered on or off the stage (thank goodness, in the latter case). During the program, there were frequent suggestions that the “complex” story of the Alamo had been retold in the United States as a “race war” between good white people and bad brown people. I don’t doubt that there might exist such a misapprehension among some, but I don’t remember hearing the story that way as a child, nor could any of the popular accounts of the battle I’ve seen — including the Wayne film — be interpreted that way.

Fearing that I might just be peering back in time with rose-colored glasses, I went to the source. It just so happens that I have an extensive library of school-library books (one of the legacies of having two schoolteacher parents who didn’t like to see anything thrown out). Sure enough, as I looked through the history section, I found the familiar volume Remember the Alamo, written by the celebrated novelist Robert Penn Warren and published in 1958. This book was present, I’ll wager, in virtually every elementary and middle-school library in the country from the 1960s on. I remember reading it as a child.

Warren’s work is hardly a Hollywood script. It does not describe a “race war” or a simplistic good vs. evil dynamic. Instead, it presents the Texas War of Independence in its proper context and from the viewpoint of both sides. The Americans immigrating to Texas as it began to seek its independence from Mexico had a “mixture of reasons,” Warren wrote. “Some of the Americans came with the notion that they were helping the cause of liberty by fighting in a war like their own Revolution. Some came because the war gave opportunity for daring and cunning men to become rich and powerful.”

Among the Alamo’s defenders, Warren also points out, were Mexican nationals, “men like Captain Juan Seguin, who felt themselves Texans and defenders of the old republican rights of the Mexican Constitution of 1824.”

I could go on, but you get the picture. Schoolchildren reading this work would not have learned some of the revisionist history now prevalent. For example, they wouldn’t have learned about the recent research of scholars such as North Carolina State University’s James Crisp (who appeared in the History Channel piece) that suggests Davy Crockett may have surrendered and been executed by Santa Anna rather than dying in battle. Nor would they have gotten a full picture of the disarray within the Texans’ provisional government, or of the competing theories as to whether the defense of the Alamo had military significance. But the general outlines of the story — the story that, according to the History Channel, had been “obscured by myth” — was quite easily available in Warren’s work decades ago, and was read over the years by probably millions of American students.

Now, if the revisionists had been complaining that today’s students aren’t reading enough history, they’d have gotten a ditto from me. But that’s not the fault of supposedly racist historians, or John Wayne.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of Carolina Journal.