Bush-Era Frontier Epics Express Timely Doubts About American Imperialism

All queasy on the western front

One of the stickiest points of Alamo studies lies in the exact circumstances of the death of the man-myth Crockett, cracker-barrel philosopher and U.S. congressman. Wayne took florid heroic license, of course, but Hancock reportedly depicts the king of the wild frontier surrendering to Mexican forces and then being executed. "I don't like that word 'surrender,' " intoned Kathleen Milam Carter of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, the group that oversees the Alamo site. In other words, don't mess with Texas lore.

Above: The Alamo (2004)
image: Deanna Newcomb
Above: The Alamo (2004)

The devotee needs to be able to say of her hero, "He died a good death"—the appraisal of Custer delivered in The Last Samurai by the warrior lord Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe). The samurai later demonstrates his respect for the hapless colonel when he leads a suicidal attack against a lineup of new howitzers. Is it in the nature of brave, honorable warriors to die horribly outnumbered, as at Little Bighorn or the Alamo? (And can such martyrdoms double as advertisements for the Defense Department's Econo-Save approach to troop deployment?) Algren tries to burst the bubble: "[Custer] was a murderer who fell in love with his own legend," he says. The western always prints the legend of an era long past, but lately they're as messy, murky, and disillusioned as the times we're living in.

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