City Paper is not for tourists
The first collaboration between two of Washington’s leading educational institutions, The Battle of the Alamo allies George Washington University with the Discovery Channel. The 54-minute documentary, which can be seen on the cable channel Sunday at 2 p.m., is the first film GWU’s Center for History in the Media has produced in association with Discovery.
The Center offers a six-month certificate program in historical documentary filmmaking, but its students will not be making films for the Discovery Channel or other prominent outlets while enrolled in the program. The Alamo “is not at all a student project,” says the Center’s Nina Gilden Seavey, the documentary’s producer and co-director (with Paul Wagner). The veteran filmmaker says that she does, however, sometimes hire students to work on her films after she’s seen their student efforts.
The Alamo is a slightly melodramatic film that stops just short of dramatization: Actors are used to portray some of the historical figures, but they don’t actually speak any lines, and their movements are electronically blurred so that they look more animated than reanimated. The documentary tells the story of the 13-day 1836 siege of the Texas stronghold, which finally fell to the Mexican attackers in a brief but bloody struggle. Of those inside the fort, only the 14 women and children were spared, and the massacre became a rallying point for “Texian” rebels, who soon won independence from Mexico.
In addition to the particulars of the mythic conflict, the film sketches the lesser-known background to the struggle. It recounts how the Mexican government recruited U.S. citizens to populate the area, only to find itself with a province that was both culturally and politically estranged from the rest of Mexico. It also provides a few unflattering details about such heroes of the Alamo as Jim Bowie and William Travis: The former was a hard-drinking veteran of the slave trade, while the latter, inspired by the Romantic novels of Sir Walter Scott, abandoned his wife and child in moving to the Texas frontier.
The Center is already at work on its next project, A Paralyzing Fear: The Story of Polio in America, for which it has received a National Endowment for the Humanities grant. “We’ve been overwhelmed by the interest,” says Seavey. “Everyone has some sort of polio story. CP