For anyone who knows author and historian Ned Huthmacher, they would be hard-pressed to find someone more enthusiastic about Texas history and the siege and battle of the Alamo than him. His life simply revolved around it, so much so that he actually moved to Texas several years after authoring a book titled One Domingo Morning: The Story of Alamo Joe, a novel, and also the first time commander William Barrett Travis’ slave Joe was ever profiled in-depth. Ned is a very easy-going guy who is always willing to talk about anything, especially his love of history. He is a man who can serve as inspiration for those who have a hobby or interest and want to take it to the next level. However, in a step away from his normal Alamo focus, Ned has spent the last several years working on songs to be produced for an album, titled Outside the Alamo, sung and performed by John Beland, who in the past has served as guitarist for several country music legends, including Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Ricky Nelson, and Dolly Parton. While the cover of this album is a vintage photograph of Ned sitting by the outer barrack walls of John Wayne’s Alamo film set, the focus of the songs are quite literally outside the Alamo (with the exception of the song titled the same as his book, which he considers to be it’s “soundtrack”), meaning focusing on his other interests besides the famous battle.
There are people who know their stuff, and then there are people who really know their stuff—Jeff Shaara would fall into the latter category. It was an incredible opportunity to be able to interview the author of Civil War novels Gods and Generals and The Last Full Measure, both of which have reached the New York Times Bestseller List. Jeff Shaara has been lauded by readers and historians alike who appreciate his epic style of storytelling, that has included nine novels spanning the American Revolution, Mexican-American War, Civil War, World War I, and World War II, with the fourth part of his WWII series coming out in May. I really learned a lot today, not only about history in general, but what goes into writing a book and how that gets transformed into a film. I also had to ask about his late-father Michael, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize winning historical-fiction novel The Killer Angels, which was turned into one of the most successful war films of all-time, Gettysburg, in 1993.
I knew the interview would be great because right off the bat I told Jeff to feel free to talk as much as he would like, and he jokingly said he felt a bit intimidated by that, and I explained that sometimes interviewees give only a one sentence answer. His response was, “I never do that.” Our main focus today was the Civil War but we covered all aspects of American history in our interview below:
GC: I just want to start off by asking you about your father. I read somewhere that you and him were not close while he was writing The Killer Angels. Is this true?
JS: Actually, the chronology of that is a little bit inaccurate. During the writing of The Killer Angels, we were extremely close. I was a teenager at the time and we went to Gettysburg together and worked on some of the research together, and I stopped way short of taking any credit for the book, that’s not what I’m saying. During the time writing the book, he was suffering physically because of his first heart attack and there were a lot of things, particularly on the battlefield of Gettysburg, that he could not do such as climbing the Round Tops and things like that. I was the kid, so that was my job to go around through the bushes and climb the hills looking for things that he was trying to find. After the writing, when the book came out in 1974, he and I, by that time, had parted ways, so when the book was published we had a very difficult relationship. He had a difficult relationship with almost everyone including his brother and father. He was very dramatic in the way he approached relationships and if you didn’t live up to his expectations or do things the way he thought they ought to be done, he had a tendency to react very dramatically and write you out of his life. He was a difficult man, he was suffering from the effects, not only of his heart disease, but of a motorcycle accident that had happened in Florence, Italy, in the early 1970′s that really cracked him on the head badly—he was in a coma for several weeks and the effects of that changed his entire life; it changed his brain, the way he wrote, the way he thought about things and it really affected his relationship with everyone.
GC: What inspired you to write the prequel and the sequel?
JS: It began, and you probably know some of this, with the film Gettysburg. It was this film being such an enormous success, and for my family, it propelled The Killer Angels to number one on the bestseller list, and it had never been a bestseller at all. When it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975, the book was never successful, which was really a blow to my father. He expected greater things to come from that. Any writer who receives the Pulitzer Prize has the right to believe that his ship has come in and that all the doors will fly open and he can do anything he wants now, and that didn’t happen to him. So it was very ironic and very bittersweet to my family that in 1993 and 1994, when Gettysburg was such a monumental success, he missed all that. He died in 1988 and didn’t live to see any of it. And so when I learned that Ted Turner wanted to do more Civil War films, the idea would be to take my father’s book and go before and after it with some of the same characters. I had never written anything before, I was not a writer, I never wanted to be a writer. I was actually a dealer of rare coins and precious metals down in Tampa, and the idea of continuing his work, the whole point was for me to tackle this, but it was always about a film, about doing the background and research, creating a story that someone else could adapt for a screenplay. Because I’m representing my father’s estate in New York, and the heirs are my sister and I, my sister being an anthropologist, she said to just handle it and that she wasn’t interested in the business side of it at all. Well, I’d been a business man all my life so it was natural to me. So I’m dealing with the publisher in New York, Random House, who now has this number one bestseller, and so they’re taking my phone calls and I’m getting to know these people up there, and when I told them I was working on the prequel to The Killer Angels, their response was, “Send it to us and we’ll take a look at it.” That totally surprised me because I had no expectations. I’m often asked, “How did you know how to write a book?” I had no clue, and secondly, “Were you intimidated by trying to follow your father’s footsteps?” The answer to that is no, because I had no expectations. Ron Maxwell and I agreed that if whatever I wrote was lousy, nobody would ever see it. It would go in the trash can and that would be the end of it. I attacked this with really no sense of destiny or any of that. All I was trying to do was put a story together with the same kind of research my father had done, which I learned with walking with him at Gettysburg, was to put a story together that could be adapted to a screenplay. When I sent the manuscript to Random House in September of 1995, and I’ll never forget this, the phone call I got from Claire Ferraro, who was the publisher then, said, “We don’t care if it’s a movie. We like the book. We think you’re a writer, here’s the contract.” That changed my whole life.
GC: When you write a novel, how much research do you do and how long does it typically take you?
JS: The research is usually twice as long as it takes to write the book. I typically read 50 to 60 books for each book that I write, and it has to be original source material—the diaries, the memoirs, the letters, the collections of writings of the people who were there. That is a big lesson I learned from my father, stay away from modern history and modern biographies. That does me no good at all. If you’re getting into the heads of a character, and you’re speaking for a real historical character, you better get it right because a lot of people out there will get pretty upset about that. I had somebody actually say to me, “How dare you put words in the mouth of Robert E. Lee?” Well, okay, that’s a challenge and if I dare do that, or put words in the mouth of George Washington, or “Black Jack” Pershing, or Eisenhower, or Adolf Hitler for that matter, I had better believe that those words are authentic to that character because if I don’t believe it, neither will you. Then the book deserves to lose credibility. That’s the point of research, to feel that before I even write the first word, feel as though I know the character and that I would speak for them. Once the reading is done, the other part of it, is again, a lesson I learned from my father, to walk the ground. To go walk in the footsteps of people, see the hillsides, see the battlefields, see the homes, the grave sites, whatever there is out there for me to see, and it’s not that it’s mystical—I don’t go to battlefields and look for ghosts, but there really is something very powerful about walking the same ground as the characters I’m writing about. That’s a crucial part of the research as well. Once that is done, only then do I start writing, and typically, it takes me five to six months to write a manuscript because I’m doing it full-time.
GC: You’ve made hundreds of historical figures come alive in your books, but in your two Civil War novels, which of them has been your favorite?
JS: There are some obvious answers there, like Joshua Chamberlain, and the characters that people latch onto and have made popular, but I love the character of Ulysses S. Grant, and to some people he is sort of a non-entity because he’s not as charismatic as Robert E. Lee, he doesn’t have the young charm of Chamberlain, but Grant changed history. Grant changed the world, and he was responsible, primarily, because you can make an argument that Abraham Lincoln had something to do with it, for winning the war, and a lot of people don’t realize just how powerful his role was. I just love his character, I love his relationship with his wife. Writing his death at the tail-end of The Last Full Measure was difficult, I was emotional about it. I did the same with all three of the characters in The Last Full Measure, Lee, Grant, and Chamberlain, and I said goodbye to each of the three of them but Grant in particular, because he was suffering from throat cancer and dealing with Mark Twain and these magnificent scenes at the end of his life, and boy that was hard. So I would pick him above all others.
GC: What was your reaction when you found out that Ron Maxwell wanted to make a movie out of Gods and Generals?
JS: Well, Ron and I had been talking all the way through Gettysburg and I got to know him during the filming, and so we had talked about this for years. We talked about it from the time it was a success in the theaters and from the time The Killer Angels became a bestseller, we were already talking about continuing with this project. We struggled through several years because this was something we wanted to do and no one else cared. We had a lot of verbal support, and a lot of Civil War groups and reenactors thought this was a great idea, but unfortunately none of them had millions of dollars to make this happen (laughs). Even when we started talking with TNT and Ted Turner’s people it was difficult because none of them really believed in this project. So it wasn’t a surprise to me when we started talking about this, it was the point right from the beginning.
GC: Did you have any role in the production at all?
JS: None. We could expand on that but I don’t know that I want to. To this day, I do not own a finished script, and I made some suggestions that were ignored, little historical things that I thought were problematic, and they listened dutifully and ignored everything I said. I realize at the end of the day, this was not my film—it was Ron Maxwell’s and Ted Turner’s film. I really had nothing to do creatively with the film or physically with the production. I mean, I’m in it, in one scene on camera, but really, it’s not my movie, and if I can add, it’s also not my book. It’s based on my book, despite what some historians say, and I’ll leave that alone, but it is based on my book but it is not my book. It is maybe ten percent of my book, and that was really a shock to me because The Killer Angels is about ninety percent of the film Gettysburg.
GC: Yeah, The Killer Angels is almost word for word.
JS: That’s exactly right, it is almost word for word. In Gods and Generals, there are maybe only three or four scenes taken from my book and put in the film, and that’s it. It’s an entirely different movie than I would have written, and would have liked to have seen done.
GC: My next question was actually going to be, for those that have not read the book, how did it differ from the final print of the film? But I guess that would be too much to go into.
JS: It’s enormously different, it’s radically different from the film. There are characters in the film that do not exist in the book, and a great many characters in the book that never made it to the film. It’s just an entirely different story, and I have to tell you, I’ve heard from literally thousands of people through my website, and I get emails every day and try to be as accessible as I can, and the overwhelming percentage of those that wrote me said, “How could you let them butcher your book like that?” I have no answer to that because I had no control or power to change what came up on the screen.
GC: I know you said on your website that right now, there are no plans to make The Last Full Measure into a film, but if they do decide to make it into a film in the next four years because of the 150th anniversary, will you comply with that and let them use your manuscript?
JS: When you say “they”, that’s the big question. Who is “they”? (laughs) We don’t know the answer to that because there is no “they” right now, but the thing is, there were mistakes made with Gods and Generals that I would not allow to happen again. If a film is going to be made from The Last Full Measure, I will have much more involvement or there simply won’t be a film. I’m not saying it has to be a hundred percent my book, I know better than that, some things don’t translate from the book to the screen, I get that. It’s not about ego, it’s about telling the story. The failure of Gods and Generals was to tell a good story and reach out to the general audience. The enormous success of Gettysburg was that it was attractive to a general audience. You didn’t have to be a Civil War buff or reenactor to understand what was going on, the characters were developed for you so you knew who they were, and it was a marvelous film. In Gods and Generals, the film was almost, and I don’t know this, it is my opinion, as though it was geared to the academic historians and the general audience was ignored. I’ve heard that, it’s not just my opinion, from a huge number of people. Like a guy would go to the film all excited because he knew what the story was about, and he would take his wife and kids and the wife and kids would get up and leave because they had no clue what was going on. That was the problem and it will not happen again. I’m not saying I will write the script, I’m not arrogant to suggest that I’m also a screenwriter because I don’t know that I can do it, but I will have considerable input into the script and will make sure it’s a good story and that it does appeal to a general audience, or there will be no film.
GC: Well, let’s hope that a producer steps forward and puts down some money because I would really like to see this trilogy complete.
JS: It has to start there, you’re absolutely right. That’s the other thing I hear, and I get letters on this literally every day, people want to know (which was why I put the note on my website) when the third movie is coming out, and it’s like they’re waiting for the shoe to drop because the story needs to be completed. I’ve had people chew me out and say, “Why aren’t you making the third film?” as though somehow I am stopping this. Gods and Generals cost $60 million to make, and if someone comes up with $60 million, fine, let’s talk. But so far it hasn’t happened (laughs).
GC: Could all of this have been avoided if they made Gods and Generals into a miniseries? Say like five parts, or even two separate films which was talked about?
JS: I don’t think the two separate movie idea would have worked, but I do think the miniseries idea would have worked much better. The problem is, you can’t make a ten-hour movie, I get that, but you can make a ten hour miniseries and I think some of the resistance, originally from TNT, and I don’t know this for sure, but some of the resistance was because they realized there was just too much story to cram into a movie that someone is going to sit in a theater and want to watch. Definitely, it could have been much more successful as a miniseries.
GC: You plan on writing another Civil War trilogy, this time on the western theater. Can you tell us anything about that?
JS: Yes, the book I just finished, which will be out in May, is the fourth and final WWII piece, the end of the war in the Pacific. I am working, right now, on the research, for a new trilogy which will be Shiloh, Vicksburg, and Sherman’s March. Each one will be out in the spring, starting in 2012, ’13, and ’14, with each one of those year’s being the 150th anniversary of those events. It’s a challenge because doing a book a year is tough. I have so much research material already that I think gives me a leg up and I’m very excited about this, as is my publisher and people I’ve talked to around the country. This is funny, and I have to laugh, I’ve gotten a lot of letters from people in Tennessee and Mississippi saying, “You know, we’re kind of tired of hearing about just Robert E. Lee and Virginia.” (laughs) There’s a whole lot more story that no one seems to want to find out about. I’ll respond to that and do the best I can.
GC: I just took a Civil War course in college, and I knew so much about the War previously, but this class just opened by eyes to how much more is out there, and not many people focus on the western theater and it’s always Lee, Longstreet, and Jackson in the east, and I think the west would be a very important part of the war that hasn’t been covered.
JS: I agree completely, which is why I’m excited about doing this.
GC: Aside from the Civil War, you’ve written about the Mexican-American War, the American Revolution, WWI, and WWII. Which of those has been your favorite topic to cover?
JS: That’s a tough question, and the problem in answering that is, if I don’t love the characters and period I’m writing about, I’m not going to write a very good book. When I move into a new era, I get totally swallowed up by that era—I’m totally immersed in it and the characters. Of course, the biggest challenge is finding those characters and who the voices are going to be. I’m very proud of the American Revolution series. A lot of people have said this to me, and I don’t judge my own book, I wouldn’t even know how, that my World War I book is my best book. I don’t know if that’s true, but I’ve heard that. The book I had the most fun doing was the Mexican War story, Gone for Soldiers, because I knew the characters so well from being involved in the Civil War and doing so much research, and going back to their early lives, and all of them with the exception of Chamberlain, talk about their experiences in Mexico and the profound effect it had on them. I didn’t know anything about the subject, most people don’t, and I started doing the research, and found a wonderful story and one that I had no idea existed—the heroism of Jackson, Grant, Longstreet, and Lee, was amazing. I didn’t know any of those stories and it was a lot of fun to write, plus I love the character of Winfield Scott and Santa Anna. I had a great deal of fun with both of them.
GC: I’m actually a big Alamo buff, so would you ever consider writing a story about that, since you mentioned Santa Anna?
JS: There have been two stories suggested to me that I should write. One is the Alamo and one is Custer’s last stand. Because they have been done so many times, I don’t know that I could do that. The thing is, the story of the Alamo doesn’t stop at the Alamo. The rest of the story is San Jacinto and Sam Houston and if I was to do it, it would probably be the whole war for Texas independence. I’ve had a lot of people from Texas write to me about that. As you know, the story is not just the Alamo. It’s hard to compete, especially when you have John Wayne’s Davy Crockett, it’s hard to tell a story and get away from that, and I would have to get away from that.
GC: I’m with the people from Texas, I think the story needs to be told, mainly, because no one has ever gotten it right. The John Wayne version was very inaccurate, to say the least.
JS: Absolutely, even the most recent Alamo movie and some of the books, nobody has gotten it right. Right now I have a pretty full plate and what I really want to do after the Civil War set is Korea and a Vietnam story, so I’m not sure when I would do that, but you’re right, it’s a story that needs to be told right.
GC: One last thing, an email question from “Andy”, and he writes, “Do you ever plan to write a novel that does not deal with war?”
JS: I get asked that fairly often, and it isn’t that I’ve decided to do nothing but war stories but my publisher was very clear, and they’ve told me that I’ve built an audience and it’s the thing my father never did. My father always wrote different topics. People are always asking me what other historical works did he write besides The Killer Angels, and the answer is none. He wrote a baseball story, a Hitchcock sci-fi story, he was all over the map. My publisher was clear that I’ve built an audience with this one theme, the epic historical military novel, and as long as there are readers out there who want this, to stick with it. Now there is a story I want to do, and I don’t want to get into too much, because it’s been done a few times, but I would like to do a story of a 1930′s gangster. The other thing, if I ever went outside of the United States and did a foreign story, it would probably be Napoleon. Even though that’s military, it’s a very different story and one that most Americans have no idea about. But for now, my publisher says, and this looks terrible on paper, but, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” That’s the philosophy that they are employing with me right now. I’ve got an audience and the following is there so until that audience goes away, I’ll stick with what I’m doing.
I want to thank Mr. Shaara for taking the time out of his busy schedule to conduct this interview. It truly was an enlightening afternoon and I hope you all enjoyed reading this rather lengthy and extensive piece. I can only hope that The Last Full Measure will be made one day, but until then, enjoy the terrific books on American wars that Jeff has given us, because the book is always better than the film. Also, don’t forget to check out his website.
This is something very interesting and something that I am very excited to be a part of.
On Saturday January 15, from 10 am to 4 pm at the Proprietary House in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, the historic governor’s mansion will transform into a living timeline, which is a creation of Revolutionary and Civil War reenactor Tony Sattilaro. We will have people coming from all over the country to take part in this annual event, which will include reenactors from Medieval Times, Revolutionary War, Civil War, World War II, and Vietnam, as well as the Alamo as I will be portraying New Jersey’s lone defender Richard L. Stockton, who ironically was 19 years old like I am at the time of the battle, which led to the death of him, along with more famous names such as David Crockett and James Bowie. My buckskin jacket is coming in the mail, and I already have a coonskin cap, knife, and flintlock. (I can do a pretty good Crockett impression, so perhaps I should play him.)
There may also be reenactors coming from the French and Indian War, as well as the Cuban Missile Crisis (I have heard these guys were amazing). They have come in year’s past, but we are unsure if they are going to attend. The cost of admission is free, but as always, donations are more than welcome because of the ongoing restoration work we are doing, which will probably take several years.
We will be having exhibits both outside and inside, including every weapon and artifact from each era you can imagine. This will be the perfect event for those who have an interest in wars and history, as well as for those who have children that may be interested in history. I hope to see you there!
149 Kearney Avenue
Perth Amboy, New Jersey
I first came into contact with Gary Zaboly through others in the tightly knit Alamo history community, that includes another interviewee, Al Bouler, who in this highly talked about interview, discussed what it was like being a historian and impersonator of David Crockett. Zaboly, on the other hand, has focused his energies differently, which includes writing a book on a much-forgotten, and unfortunately so, chapter of early America history, and that is Major Robert Rogers and his unit of Rangers that fought in the French and Indian War and helped to tame life on the wild and rugged 18th century frontier.
There are few historians who can match the expertise on this subject than Zaboly can, who has written a massive coffee-table size book titled, “A True Ranger: The Life and Many Wars of Major Robert Rogers”. Zaboly is also a painter, who has illustrated scenes of Rogers and also Texas history, for other magazines and books as he is an avid Alamo buff as well. He also tends to comment on my Facebook when I post something about movies, and I guess you can say he is an expert of sorts on classic films. I asked him about his historical passions and much more in our interview below:
GC: Osprey Publishing has referred to you as a “highly regarded expert on 18th century Rangers”. Where did this interest develop from, and how long have you been studying history?
GZ: My interest in early American frontier history developed in my pre-school days, primarily from all the B Westerns on TV at the time, and then of course from Disney’s Davy Crockett series in 1954-55. From that point on I was hooked, and almost everything dealing with the subject—from illustrated books to motion pictures—captured my attention and stoked my curiosity. Over the years I began to study the subject more deeply, my emphasis focusing on such particular areas as the Alamo, Rogers’ Rangers, the French and Indian War, the Revolution, and Custer’s Last Stand. But when it came to dealing with colonial frontier history in the 1750s-60s, most of the available publications seemed to be largely bereft of the nitty-gritty details I hungered for, and so over the succeeding decades I personally rummaged through libraries and archives to find answers to the many questions I had. Being an illustrator, this was a doubly important task to fulfill. Transferring my eventual piles of research notes and images to organized binders and reference files proved to be a boon to both my writing and my artwork. I’ve written scores of articles related to the above mentioned subjects, and a few books, and illustrated many more; hence my reputation, such as it is, as an “expert.” But I can only claim expertise as far as my research—and my interpretation of same—has taken me. Sometimes what we think we know to be true is true only as far as research has taken us. It’s unfortunate that a single life is really too short in which to do all the research that’s necessary to arrive at the answers to so many nagging questions.
GC: Having seen the 1940 film “Northwest Passage”, with Spencer Tracy, which is a story of Major Robert Rogers, the foremost Ranger, what is your opinion on the film, and how accurate is it?
GZ: Northwest Passage essentially got me started on the subject of Rogers’ Rangers. I’d first seen the Northwest Passage TV series of 1958, but it only had a minimal impact on my boy’s mind at the time. About five years later the MGM movie version was shown on local TV, and it proved a watershed viewing for me: it was an entirely new, entirely different type of frontier history. I soon sought out the novel by Kenneth Roberts, and fortunately it appeared that year (1963) in paperback for the first time, published by Crest Books. It proved even more thrilling and inspiring than the film, and I’ve probably read it seven times again since then. As history, the film, like all Hollywood films, is inaccurate from many standpoints: in terms of the uniforms, the layout of the village of St. Francis, and much of the history itself. But when it comes to conveying an idea of the raw wilderness conditions Rogers’ men had to endure on that expedition, it succeeds very well. Even though filmed in Payette National Forest in Idaho, Northwest Passage did manage to credibly depict the rangers’ march through the swamps and rugged hills of southern Quebec, northern Vermont and northern New Hampshire, not to mention their voyage by whaleboat up Lake Champlain in northern New York. In 1759 those regions were just as barren and devoid of human habitation as shown in the film: a virtual no-man’s wilderness land. One of the ironies of 1940′s Northwest Passage is that it paints Major Robert Rogers as something of a racist. Nothing could be further from the truth. The real Rogers learned much of his craft from early, friendly contact with the Indians of New Hampshire, and he dealt fairly with the Mahicans and Mohawks and other English-allied Native Americans during the French and Indian War. When he became the British commandant of the integral British frontier trading post of Fort Michilimackinac in 1766, he was dubbed “the Good Father” by the local tribes because unlike his predecessors, he knew how to treat them with kindness and fairness.
GC: You are also an accomplished painter, and have illustrated scenes not only of the Rangers, but the Alamo and Texas Revolution as well. How long have you been painting and what is your favorite aspect of the Texas Revolution?
GZ: I’ve been illustrating books and articles relating to American history since the early 1970s. The Alamo continues as my major subject area of the Texas Revolution not only because it’s a hugely dramatic event, but also because so much about it remains a mystery, and much research and dissection remains to be done. The amount of progress, knowledge-wise, that’s been done on this subject over the past 50 years has been considerable, yet so much is still unknown, or blighted by long-held misconceptions.
GC: Tell us about your book, “A True Ranger: The Life and Many Wars of Major Robert Rogers”.
GZ: It’s the comprehensive biography of Robert Rogers that I always wanted to read but could never find. It’s very long, and fully footnoted and sourced, and it contains tons of information about Rogers that I had collected over the years, virtually all of it highly fascinating (to me anyway), and much of it new in terms of the scholarship. I think I wrote it mainly for other historians, not necessarily for the public at large, although I consider it readable for anyone. The book begins with Rogers being sprung from a New York City debtor’s jail cell by Highland troops and soldiers of the Royal American Regiment, which exemplifies how popular he was among even the British regular rank and file. But he had enemies in certain high places, and much of the book deals with the machinations they contrived in order to destroy him. Of course the book’s main concern is how Rogers transformed a motley collection of independent colonial ranger companies into a full-fledged, effective corps of rangers, and the skirmishes and battles they won, or lost. It also underscores his Ranger legacy, and how so much of his famous Special Forces “Rules” remain as viable and important today as they did in the 1750s.
GC: Whenever I post a link or picture of a classic movie on Facebook, you always seem to have your two cents about it. What is your favorite movie, and who are your favorite directors/actors/actresses?
GZ: Oh, I’m a big movie lover. I have my personal favorites, most of them historical in nature (1952′s The Big Sky, 1955′s The Last Command, the aforementioned Northwest Passage, 1960′s The Alamo, 1939′s Drums Along the Mohawk, and so on), but also high on my list are Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Citizen Kane, and such odd numbers as Inside Movies. I’ve long been a student of film history, and since teenage days have collected many classic films, of both the silent and sound eras. Director-wise, I’ve always especially loved [D.W] Griffith and [John] Ford. Actor-wise it’s a tough call, but high on my list are John Wayne, Steve McQueen and Charlton Heston. Actress-wise, there’s a wide range of names that come to mind: from Jean Arthur to Loretta Young to Ida Lupino to Anne Archer to Zooey Deschanel—the list is long!
GC: Lastly, I ask this to every historian I interview: why is it so important to keep the past alive?
GZ: Our past is our present; our present is our future. All of it is vitally, inextricably connected, and the more we know about where we came from, the better equipped we’ll be to deal with the challenges of the future. So much national conflict today arises from the fact that history ain’t taught a damn in our schools anymore. Also, even fiction can’t compete with the sheer drama, action, mystery, and color you can find in history. Which is why so much fiction is drawn from history.
I want to thank Mr. Zaboly for taking the time to conduct this interview, and also want to point out two things that are becoming redundant in each of the three interviews I have conducted with a historian on this site. First, for the two “Alamo buffs”, both were drawn into history, largely in part due to Walt Disney’s Davy Crockett. And secondly, both Gary and Kurt Epps, who I interviewed here, both point out the unfortunate truth that history is not being taught as it should in our school systems today. This is a sad truth that I can only hope will be corrected one day.
As an Alamo buff, I own this gem (note the sarcasm) on VHS, but had not seen it in years. Thankfully, one of my former history professors was kind enough to send me a text message, alerting me that it was on Encore Westerns last night. As flawed as the film is, because it has to do with the Alamo, I watched it in its entirety on TV, and Encore showed the entire thing, commercial free.
The Alamo: Thirteen Days to Glory was made as a mini-series on NBC back in 1987, clocking in at nearly three hours, depending on the cut you see. There is so much good in this movie, but far, far more bad. The set they used for the Alamo compound and town of San Antonio was the same set that John Wayne built for his film, The Alamo, back in 1960, in Bracketville, Texas.
Not only did they steal the scenery, but battle footage as well. Whenever there were shots of large numbers of Mexican troops marching, it was lifted from The Last Command, from 1955. For the final battle scene, part of the main charge were also stolen from that movie, and spliced it with footage actually shot by the director Burt Kennedy. Only problem with this, is that the walls of the Alamo in The Last Command were a dark tan and made of bricks, while the set used in this film was a clear, smooth white. The director made no effort to hide it, so if you have seen both movies like I have, it’s a laughable error.
When it comes to the actors, you can say this little epic had an all-star cast. Brian Keith played Davy Crockett, James Arness was Jim Bowie, and the up-and-coming Alec Baldwin was William Barrett Travis. Raul Julia and David Ogden Stiers also made their way into the film, and I must admit, with as bad a dialogue as the writers of this film gave Julia, he made the best of it, and delivered a great performance.
But even with the all-star actors involved, they were horrible mis-cast. Brian Keith was 66 at the time, and was supposed to be playing a 49 year old Crockett. He did a good a job as he could, and being how old he really was, made it seem like he was even more wiser, and had more experience when he was telling stories. But all his charm could not save him from looking completely out of place.
Jim Bowie, on the other hand, was 40 years old at the time of the Alamo, and was being played by a 64 year old Arness. As usual, he delivered a gritty, convincing role, which was good for entertainment purposes. But as for historical accuracy, what a botched job it was.
Lorne Greene also makes a cameo appearance as Sam Houston. This one scene, would probably be the most embarrassing of his film career. He looks ancient in the role, and when he speaks, he is emotionless. Let me stop there.
As my professor Jeff Huber said, “It was amazing that it took the Mexican army an entire thirteen days to beat the geriatric brigade.”
The only actor who was not out of place was Alec Baldwin, who actually bore a resemblance to the real Travis and was close enough in age.
When it came time for the actual battle, scenes of the charge were lifted from The Last Command, as mentioned above, but the parts that were actually filmed were just downright terrible. The rifles they fired sounded like cap guns and not one cannon ever recoiled after a shot.
The most ridiculous part, though, was the Travis’ last stand. He chose to stand on top of a well, and throughout the battle, we see the same exact scene three times: he fires his pistol, killing one soldier, and stabbing another with a sword. The director made no effort to even make the scene look real, and not once do we ever see him reload. When Travis finally does die, the bayonet that kills him conveniently stabs him underneath a flap in the jacket, so we never see any blood.
Speaking of bayonets, every time a soldier was running with his rifle, you could tell they were rubber because they kept flapping in the breeze. In one scene, where a Texan is stabbed from the side, you can clearly see it bend once it touched the side of his chest, right there on-screen, with no effort to hide it, as if the director was trying to insult our intelligence.
For educational purposes, I suppose this film can be used, if shown and explained in the right way. The film does accurately depict the fate of the women and children in the Alamo as well as Travis’ slave, Joe. It is, to date, the only Alamo film to get that right.
However, when it comes to dealing with Santa Anna and his staff, it depicts the general as a fearless warrior patriot with inept officers. In reality, it was the other way around. Santa Anna was the stubborn one, and his generals, such as Manuel Castrillion (not depicted in this film) tried to persuade him not to attack, and then to take prisoners when they did. Both requests which Santa Anna denied.
For my final rating, I will give this film a 5 out of 10, because it shows many things that other Alamo films have ignored, such as Colonel Fannin at Goliad, the fate of the survivors, a soldier asking to leave after Travis drew the line in the sand, and actual showing advanced dialogue between Santa Anna and his generals, even as ridiculous as some of his statements were.
This film is not available on DVD, nor should it be. There are copies on VHS that some people are selling on Ebay. If you love history, and love the Alamo, it is worth a watch, if you can get it for the right price. After you have seen it once, watch it again and make fun of all the errors; it really is a good time. Also, check your listings if you have digital cable, because it will be airing on certain channels in the next few weeks.