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Authentic Alamo

By Joe Leydon

When the new movie version of the epic battle for Texas independence opens this spring, it won’t lack historical detail.

Michael Corenblith can barely contain his enthusiasm as he guides a visitor across the makeshift parking lot, down the winding dirt road and back through 167 years of romanticized legend. “What we’re doing here,” he says, “is depicting the central event in the creation myth of this state. And we take that responsibility very seriously.”

So seriously, in fact, that millions of dollars, hundreds of extras and scores of production personnel were employed in the making of “The Alamo,” a revisionist epic set to open in April in theaters nationwide.

Directed by John Lee Hancock, a native of Longview, and starring Houston-born Dennis Quaid in the key role of Sam Houston, the lavish historical drama promises a panoramic portrait of tragedy and triumph: the long siege of the legendary mission-turned-fortress; the massacre of Davy Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton), Jim Bowie (Jason Patric), William Travis (Patrick Wilson) and other stalwart Alamo defenders; and the routing of Santa Anna’s forces by Houston and his Texian army during the Battle of San Jacinto.

For Corenblith, an Oscar-nominated production designer (“Apollo 13,” “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”), working on the film entailed nothing short of accepting a sacred trust. An Austin-reared University of Texas film grad, he realizes “the degree of responsibility and the degree of accountability that come with making a movie about the Alamo is very, very high.” Corenblith also admits, only half-jokingly, that he’s especially eager to please his father, a retired Houston junior high school history teacher.

All of which explains his irrepressible pride as he guides his visitor throughout his recreation of both the Alamo garrison and the city of San Antonio de Béxar — a period-precise, 19th-century cityscape of 70 structures spread over 51 acres of farmland in Dripping Springs, 30 minutes from downtown Austin.

To enhance the overall verisimilitude, during pre-production director Hancock sought input from dozens of Alamo-savvy historians. Hancock also invited many of the same experts to serve as on-set advisors during location filming in Pedernales Falls State Park (which doubled for Mexico), Bastrop (where the Battle of San Jacinto was filmed with a cast of veteran actors, Hollywood stunt men and more than 100 San Antonio-based historical reenactors) and Dripping Springs.

“There’s a certain mythology that’s been built around the Alamo,” Hancock says. “Not only through the telling and retelling of history, but also from movies made about the subject. What we’re trying to do here, though, is be as truthful as possible. Because, I admit, I do feel the pressure and the specter of the actual story and history that occurred.

“That’s part of the reason why I have had so many historical advisors involved, and why so many have come to the set. Because even though I want this movie to be dramatically sound and moving and inspiring, I want to do my best to portray the events in a way that will be historically accurate and thematically correct. I may rely on a certain amount of dramatic license, but I never want to make a mistake out of ignorance.”

Among the more frequent visitors to the Alamo locations were Alan Huffines (author of Blood of Noble Men: The Alamo Siege and Battle), Stephen Harrigan (The Gates of the Alamo) and Stephen L. Hardin (Texas Iliad: A Military History of the Texas Revolution).

For Hardin, a history professor at Victoria College, “The Alamo” marks his first direct involvement in film production. “I understand that movies aren’t history,” he says, “but hopefully they are good stories about historical subjects. The reason I teach goes back to seeing John Wayne’s “The Alamo” as a second-grader in 1960. While that film has a lot of problems historically, it lit a fire in me that has never gone out. That’s the level of a movie’s success. It makes us interested in the subject, fires our imagination.”

Each aspect of architecture, costuming, geography and weaponry — everything from the bricks used in construction of the Alamo façade to the flintlock muskets used by Mexican soldiers — has been based on real-life models and double-checked by historical advisors. “During our research,” Corenblith says, “we discovered that the military hardware that the Mexican army was using was primarily British surplus from the War of 1812. You know ‘the rockets’ red glare’ you hear about in the National Anthem? Well, they’re singing about the kind of rockets you’ll see here, during the final siege of the Alamo.”

And if that’s not enough historical accuracy for you, consider this: In Hancock’s Alamo, Davy Crockett doesn’t sport a coonskin cap. At least, that’s the scoop from Billy Bob Thornton, the actor cast as the legendary frontiersman.

“Some folks look at Davy Crockett like he’s Paul Bunyan or something,” Thornton says. “As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if there are young people today who think Davy Crockett was a fictional character. That whole coonskin cap thing – that actually came from a popular play that was written about Crockett, with an actor done up in all this frontier garb. Crockett himself might have worn a coonskin cap every now and then, when he was holding court or something, but only to sort of live up to the legend.”

Don’t misunderstand: This Alamo may be revisionist, but it’s certainly not iconoclastic. Despite the intense efforts to ensure historical accuracy, there will be no attempt to downsize the larger-than-life heroes who loom large in the Texas mythos.

“There’s the historic truth, and then there’s the emotional truth,” Corenblith says. “We’re trying to be true to the history. But we’re also confecting a popular entertainment.”

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