Martyrs of the Alamo
R: Christy Cabanne. B: Christy Cabanne, Theodosia Harris (novel). K: William Fildew. D: Sam De Grasse, Allan Sears, Walter Long, Alfred Paget, Fred Burns. P: Fine Arts Film Company. Supervisor: David W. Griffith. USA 1915
“Christy Cabanne (1888–1950), after Annapolis and the US Navy, became a stage actor and writer, then entered films as assistant to DW Griffith. He wrote and directed movies from the famous Life of Villa in 1912 up till a forgettable Western, Silver Trails, in 1948. He wrote and/or directed twenty Westerns in all (this 1915 one was already his eleventh), of which this one and his 1937 The Outcasts of Poker Flat (the Preston Foster/Van Heflin one) were probably his most famous and best. In later years he was reduced to Poverty Row B movies but he contributed importantly to the history of the genre.
Martyrs of the Alamo’s sub-title, ‘The Birth of Texas’, makes explicit reference to The Birth of a Nation. The treatment is intensely patriotic, appropriately for 1915, and much play is made of the American flag. The opening titles tell us that “Liberty-loving Americans who had built up the Texas colony were denied their rights.” So it’s pretty clear where we stand. The Mexicans, apart from assailing the virtue of American women and being free with alcohol, are Roman Catholics who cross themselves before going into battle. Of course they are also cowardly and flee before the blazing guns of the defenders.
The main hero, though, and with top billing, is Silent Smith (Sam De Grasse), scout and fearless fighter, who has fallen for an old soldier’s daughter (Juanita Hansen). He is sent by Travis to get reinforcements from Houston. It was lucky, in the pre-talkie days, that Silent could be so taciturn. Canadian De Grasse was one of the most famous villains of the silent era and Douglas Fairbanks (who is in the credits for this film as a Texas soldier but it’s difficult to spot him) used him all the time as the bad guy. But here he is the good guy.”
Jeff Arnold’s West
“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.”
Century Film Project
>>> The Birth of a Nation on this site