Almost since the beginning of the motion picture industry, people have been telling the story of the Alamo on film. A quick check of IMDb reveals over a dozen movies about the Alamo that have been produced, and the oldest surviving feature among them, Martyrs of the Alamo, turns 100 on November 21, 2015.
Shot in California, the film is occasionally nicknamed The Birth of Texas. That name would have been familiar to 1915 audiences thanks to the groundbreaking yet virulently racist film The Birth of a Nation. D.W. Griffith directed that epic, and he's listed as a producer of Martyrs of the Alamo, which treats Mexicans in much the same way as The Birth of a Nation treated black people.
“[The film] does imply that the Texas revolution came about because Mexicans were rude to white women,” says Alamo film historian Frank Thompson, referring to early scenes in the film where Mexican soldiers harass women on the streets of San Antonio de Bexar.
But that characterization isn't the only whopper in the film, according to Thompson.
“Virtually every single man in the whole fort is wearing buckskin and coonskin caps. I hope that we’ve come to the day that we realize that not one single man in the fort was dressed like that. But at that time, that was the go-to look [in Hollywood]. Even Travis wears a coonskin cap! That’s the only time that happens in the movies,” Thompson points out.
As for the battle itself, “[The film] doesn’t really show a siege at all. It’s simply the Mexicans start attacking the Alamo, and just keep going until they get inside. We don’t really know how long the battle is going on, but it seems to be a pitched battle for day after day. In that respect, there’s plenty of action.”
And though the Alamo itself is completely inauthentic in Martyrs of the Alamo, Thompson gives high marks to the set design in general. “I love how San Antonio does look like a Mexican town in [the film], as opposed to every other movie where it’s just a Wild West town, excepting the 2004 film [John Lee Hancock’s The Alamo] which had an incredibly authentic set. But this one, the town looks nice. The Alamo doesn’t look anything like the real Alamo, then or now, but it’s really neat looking.”
Unlike John Wayne’s famous 1960 film, which is probably the most well-known of all of the Alamo films, Martyrs of the Alamo continues after the fall of the Alamo, and carries the story through San Jacinto.
“The Alamo only meant something if victory came from defeat,” Thompson explains. Even though “last stand” narratives have been a popular Hollywood theme for a hundred years, so are happy endings, and “San Jacinto was the way filmmakers pulled meaning out of the tragedy.”
It’s remarkable that we’re still even able to see Martyrs of the Alamo today. For decades, the film was lost. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the film was found by the grandson of an old traveling showman. “He would go around and set up screens and show movies in places that didn’t necessarily have movie theaters," Thompson says. "I think he showed it well into the 1920s and ‘30s. Then he packed it away, and it was in the basement. And the guy just found it there.” The surviving print was sent to the Museum of Modern Art in New York for preservation. Today you can find it on YouTube, and it’s also available online through the Texas Archive of the Moving Image.
Today, Martyrs of the Alamo is the oldest surviving feature film depicting the Alamo. An earlier film, Siege and Fall of the Alamo, was filmed on location in San Antonio, but has been lost to history. Unless someone else has it in their basement, maybe? Start looking...
Until then, enjoy watching Martyrs of the Alamo on its 100th anniversary. Please keep in mind the historical context in which it was made.