Martyrs of the Alamo (1915)
In my recent discussion of “The Birth of a Nation,” I mentioned that Americans in 1915 were highly responsive to nationalist epics that portrayed their history as being as significant and heroic as the more established nations of Europe. This movie, also produced by D.W. Griffith in 1915, was another attempt to exploit that desire cinematically, and it presents some of the same problems for modern viewers. The story of Texas’s independence from Mexico may have had a special resonance for audiences at the time, since the Mexican Revolution had been raging for years, and would continue to rage for several more. American moviegoers also saw varied depictions of that war as it proceeded, but doubtless they also looked to the past for answers as to where the United States stood in relation to its Southern neighbor.
What they saw here no doubt confirmed their strongest prejudices. The “Americans” are a minority of fur-capped white folks (with one blackface servant), who are stoic in the face of constant harassment by sombrero-clad “Mexicans” and soldiers dressed like wooden-toy-soldier equivalents of Napoleon’s troops. Santa Ana (played by Walter Long, who was the infamous “Gus” in “The Birth of a Nation” and was a policeman in “Traffic in Souls”), an “inveterate drug user” given to “orgies” is a memorable villain – apparently the troops’ insults to white womanhood originate at his level. The “good” guys include Jim Bowie (Alfred Paget, who had been in “The Unchanging Sea” and “In the Border States”), who appears here to be a fop with a habit of constantly fondling his knife, a very tall Captain Dickinson (Fred Burns, who would later star in Westerns like “The Dude Bandit” and “Wild West”), and Silent Smith (Sam de Grasse, who went on to be in “The Man Who Laughs” and “The Black Pirate”). The flower of white womanhood is represented by Juanita Hansen (who ironically had problems with drugs and was also in “The Secret of the Submarine”) and Ora Carew (who had been “Dolores” in “In Old Mexico” and “The Gypsy Girl” in “Tangled Paths”). The revolt breaks out, apparently, because Dickinson’s wife is insulted, so he shoots down the officer who spoke to her in cold blood, and the Mexicans have the audacity to arrest him. Under the short-lived new regime, whiteness is spared from insults because all the Mexicans remove their sombreros and stand respectfully out of the way when Americans walk past. Never mind that this was the “cruel yoke of oppression” when applied to whites in the Reconstruction South in “Birth of a Nation.”
The movie was not directed by Griffith, but by Christie Cabanne, who is one of those directors whose sound work in B-movies I am familiar with (it includes the Bela Lugosi color vehicle “Scared to Death” and “The Mummy’s Hand”), but whose silent work I had only heard about, never seen. This may not be a fair movie by which to judge the rest of his oeuvre, we’ll have to see as this project continues. The direction appears to be adequate here, but I really missed Billy Bitzer’s camerawork. We do get some close-ups, particularly of the women’s and children’s faces during the attack, and some good stunts are caught on camera (particularly Mexican soldiers falling off their horses), but much of the movie lacks visual style. At some point, endless scenes of toy soldiers advancing on a fort and falling just aren’t that exciting. I was surprised by the relatively “gory” scenes of the dead after the battle had finished, with bloody wounds in heads and bayonets sticking out of chests. Overall, though, by the standards of late 1915, this seemed somewhat subdued in terms of visuals and action. I suspect it had a significantly lower budget than “Birth” had. There was also a somewhat annoying synthesizer soundtrack on the version I watched, which would have had nothing to do with whatever scores were played when it was screened in 1915.
Director: Christy Cabanne
Camera: William Fildew
Run Time: 1 hour, 11 Min
You can watch it for free: here (synthesizer score and all!)