Houston: The Legend of Texas was made for television. Therefore, it is longer and more unwieldy than usual, not as nip-and-tucked as major motion pictures in general. Sam Elliott plays the leading role, stepping as gracefully as anyone can into the shoes of both the man and the legend. The film is also entitled Gone to Texas, fitting enough since this apt description applied equally well to many, not just Houston, who heeded the call to help Texas fend off her oppressors. Interestingly, Houston envisioned a Texas that would have become an independent Indian Country, rivaling the Oklahoma reservations for displaced Cherokees from Georgia. Without googling history-based websites, it all rings true, even if it is not. The early to mid 1800s must surely have been a time of wide-eyed idealism. The young American country had been growing bolder while Old World Spain and her New World colonies weakened.
Mexico, however, was by no means a pushover. It is still a matter of wonder how a handful of men who knew better willingly confronted Santa Ana and his troops numbering in the thousands at the Alamo. The movie’s rendition of this martyrdom is not given its just due; instead, it manages to take the event in stride, keeping Houston, the main subject, in sharp center-focus. He definitely is somebody to contemplate. In an era when communication was impossible, except awkwardly over long periods of time, personalities mattered much more. No one could say for certain, not on the spot, with Mexicans suited up and armed, what President Jackson would have wanted. That which Houston did or thought actually left long-lasting marks. He did not have to work as some do at gaining acceptance as a leader. He had a certain charisma, in part fueled by ridiculous notions of fairness and justice that somehow, against the odds, prevailed upon the more persuasive notion of brute force, exemplified by Mexico’s most famous military dictator.
Houston, by way of contrast, did not feel obligated to put on airs. He was married to a Cherokee. He was schooled mostly by the folk wisdom of Old Tennessee and Lexington, Virginia, his birthplace. The English language he knew had been the coarser sort, even at times in the nation’s capital. He could speak Cherokee. And he was a man of his era, stubborn, hard drinking, and irrepressible. Only Tennessee waltzes or “Amazing Grace” could momentarily arrest the urge to forge a wider American expanse by means of steel and taut nerves. Tensions stemmed almost exclusively from disputes over land. That was the main issue in a nutshell. But it was complicated. Congress was involved, as were Native Americans (upset in a scene over a sale paid for with worthless scrip), Mexicans, Americans, and the forerunners of maverick Texans, who, then as now to some extent, would rather go it alone.
There are segments that might remind one of Roger Corman and the threadbare essentials of exploitation cinema. But all in all, this film, whether for television or movie theaters, should do well in living rooms, or classrooms, for that matter. It covers very interesting material in American history, intersecting, obviously, with Native American and Mexican histories, too. Manifest Destiny is ubiquitous. In retrospect, it does appear inevitable that America should take Texas by first, force of arms, and then, second, economic assistance. The movie does not explore the fact that Texas joined the United States largely because of its debts. Selling out from insolvencies and the like is still far too delicate a subject in 2012.