The True Story Behind ‘Texas Rising’

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History Channel

The Alamo is the most famous battle in Texas history — but it was only the beginning.

After the fall of the iconic fort, Sam Houston led a rag-tag group of soldiers to defeat the Mexican army and create the modern lone-star state after the Alamo fell in 1836. Created by Leslie Greif and Darrell Fetty (the producing team behind the hit miniseries The Hatfields and McCoys), the 10-hour miniseries Texas Rising relies on a sparse outline of historical record — battles and Houston's well-documented life are accurately portrayed — while filling in the gaps with characters and scenarios that could have happened (like a PTSD suffering Alamo survivor played by Ray Liotta.) "Our goal is to entertain you," Greif says. "We're not out to tell a history lesson. Texas Rising is a great Western Saga that parallels people’s strive for liberation and overcoming conflict with a backdrop of Texas history."

One of series's central storylines is the love a triangle between Houston (played by Bill Paxton, a real-life descendent of the politician), Emily D. West, and Santa Anna. Immortalized in the folk song "The Yellow Rose of Texas" — and whose history remains murky at best — West was a free, mixed-race woman from Connecticut who was kidnapped by Mexican forces while working as an indentured servant at a hotel in Texas. Taken by her beauty, Santa Anna wanted her in his camp, which he set up on the plains of San Jacinto (the location of which was questioned by his colonels for its lacking in wartime strategy).

As legend has it, she was mid-coitus with the general when Houston's forces attacked the Mexican camp at the Battle of San Jacinto on April 21st, 1836. Caught by surprise, the story goes, Santa Anna was defeated and discovered later hiding in a swamp disguised as a common soldier. However, no confirmed documented accounts exist that he was with a woman at the time of the attack (it was told by a veteran to an English writer in 1842) nor that Houston or West were ever lovers as they are portrayed in the film. "Historians think West spent time in New Orleans working as a prostitute," Fetty says, "and we also knew that Sam Houston had spent time in New Orleans. He was a notorious alcoholic and womanizer who went on these binges, so there was a possibility that they could have gotten together — but that was a dramatic simulation for our story."

Shadowing Texas Rising is the looming specter of the Alamo, the siege of which Lorca (Liotta) has survived. Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, he sets out to hunt and kill as many Mexican soldiers as he can. Though an exciting and interesting character, Lorca's existence is hard to justify historically as there were no documented white adult male survivors after the final assault on the fort by Mexican forces on March 6, 1836. While some local San Antonio civilians made unsubstantiated claims to have been in the fort on the final day of the siege, Greif and Fetty acknowledge that Lorca's presence is to make a good story better. "It’s really a metaphor for what happens when someone reaches their depth and has to rise above that," Fetty says. "That’s something that we all struggle through today — soldiers coming back with post-traumatic syndrome," Greif adds. "They didn't have fancy titles for everything in those days."

Despite the dramatic embellishments, the producers did their homework — working closely with countless Texas museums and poring through months of research material (Fetty alone read about 30 books). They also worked closely with Texas-based novelist and historian David Marion Wilkinson, who served as an on-set consultant. In recreating the historical battles, as any war re-enactor worth his salt will tell you, the devil is in the details. "That is one thing we did not scrimp on — recreations of authentic weapons and authentic costumes of the era," Fetty explains. He and Greif took painstaking time and effort to make the battles look as real as possible. "We didn't go CGI," Greif says. "We actually put hundred of men in uniform with horses, swords, muskets, and cannons."

To truly understand a war on the grand scale of the Texas Revolution, one must get a solid perspective from all sides, whether that be the Americans, Mexicans, or from the Native Americans, who were caught in the middle. "We wanted to have a balance," Greif says. "There were villainous people doing villainous things, but there wasn't a good or bad side." In the end the battle was about a struggle between two men: Sam Houston and Mexican General Santa Anna. A cunning military and political strategist with a passion for cockfights, the latter (played by French film star Olivier Martinez) is also a man who's just doing what he believes is right. "Santa Anna was a man of his time," Fetty says. "This was an age of expansion and Napoleon — these are considered great men." Santa Anna, who idolized the pint-sized military leader, set out to expand the Mexican empire, which at the time had one of the greatest armies in the world. According to Fetty, "He really thought he could expand all the way to Washington, D.C. So that was sort of the standard at that time. He's a strong antagonist, but he's not a stock villain. He has many layers."

Heavily layered would also be one way to describe Sam Houston. As played by Paxton, Houston is a man who must surpass insurmountable odds while battling personal demons. After leaving his Tennessee governorship in disgrace amid rumors of alcoholism and adultery, Houston moved to Texas where the War of 1812 veteran joined the fight for independence, eventually rising to commander-in-chief. "Texas gave him a chance for redemption and a new start," Paxton says.

After the fall of the Alamo, the Texas rebels were an unorganized army of soldiers pitted against Santa Anna's seemingly unstoppable forces. Houston faced a near impossible task — organizing his men while simultaneously quelling mutiny attempts. "Houston had a very hard time," Paxton explains. "His soldiers were untrained volunteers who immediately wanted him to go into a stupid fight with Santa Anna for revenge. But Houston knew that if he got a shot at Santa Anna it was going to be one shot for one battle. And that proved to be true because he couldn't organize his men after defeating Santa Anna at The Battle of San Jacinto. They just went on a killing spree for revenge."

The two-hour premiere episode of Texas Rising airs Memorial Day at 9/8 central.

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