Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

Houston: The Legend of Texas aka Gone to Texas (CBS, 1986)

 

Another heroic Houston

 

Slightly peripheral to our Alamo season, as I was saying the other day in The Celluloid Alamo: 4, is the story of Sam Houston. Peripheral because while historically he clearly played a key part in Texas political and military affairs of the 1830s, Houston is always a minor figure in Alamo movies. Sometimes he doesn’t appear at all.

 

 

There were films that centered on Houston, biopics really, in which the siege figured, naturally, but these weren’t really full-on Alamo movies as we have been discussing.

 

Raoul Walsh directed the first screen Houston life that we know of, The Conqueror (1917) with William Farnum as Houston, but as we were saying in our recent article on Lost Westerns, that film, like so many, is tragically lost.

 

 

We do have Republic’s Man of Conquest (1939) with Richard Dix as Sam, a role which, it is said, John Wayne coveted and which gave birth to his decades-long mission to make an Alamo film (he was going to play Houston in a cameo in 1960 but eventually felt he had to be Crockett).

 

 

We also have Allied Artists’ The First Texan (1956), with Joel McCrea in the role. This glosses over the Alamo but it does cover the period from Houston’s arrival in Texas in 1832 to the Battle of San Jacinto in 1836, so we do get some background.

 

 

More recently there was CBS’s Houston: The Legend of Texas, later screened as Gone to Texas. This was first aired on CBS in 1986 in a two-part miniseries with a total runtime of 2 hours 24 minutes. It starred Sam Elliott as Houston.

 

They seem to have highlighted Bowie in the poster though he has a very small part

 

The earlier Houston pics had made little attempt to be faithful to the historical fact, as was normal in Hollywood. We have quite a detailed synopsis of the lost silent one and it appears to be extremely fictional, while Dix and McCrea were suitably saintly and there was certainly no warts-and-all approach there. Elliott’s Houston too was pretty heroic but there was more effort to show the ‘real’ Houston.

 

 

I am sure I read a Houston biography back when I was studying American history, though that was in the Bronze Age and I don’t remember anything about it. So my ‘knowledge’ of Houston is, I suspect, similar to that of many, i.e. sketchy. Therefore I cannot pronounce on the accuracy of the CBS ‘telebio’ with any authority.

 

The story of the miniseries was credited to Frank Q Dobbs and John Binder. Dobbs has done quite a lot of TV Western work. Binder would later work on The Lazarus Man, about a former bodyguard of President Lincoln who digs his way out of a grave but has amnesia. I think they are more screenwriters than historians but that’s OK.

 

The Elliott version starts a little earlier than the McCrea one and shows us his failed marriage. In January 1829, Houston, then Governor of Tennessee, married Eliza Allen, the daughter of a wealthy plantation owner. The marriage quickly fell apart – neither would talk about why afterwards – and Houston resigned, traveling to Arkansas Territory to rejoin the Cherokee, with whom he had spent time in his youth. The film goes with the quite common theory that Eliza (Claudia Christian, second-billed despite her short part) wed him despite loving another and was unwilling to consummate the marriage.

 

She loves another

 

In Arkansas Houston married Tiana Rogers (sometimes called Diana), daughter of the colorful Chief John “Hellfire” Rogers and Jennie Due, a sister of Chief John Jolly, in a Cherokee ceremony. This was despite being technically still married to Eliza, and Houston incurred some opprobrium as a result, but this is glossed over in the movie. In the film Tiana (Devon Ericson) gets a fair bit of voiceover narration, explaining how grateful the Cherokee are for Houston’s wise advice and help in moving away from their ancestral lands, and encouraging them to adopt civilized white practices such as Christianity, the English language and slave-holding. It wasn’t quite like that, but movies are movies.

 

A rather modern-looking Tiana

 

Houston goes to Washington on behalf of the Cherokee and we get the incident where he beat Congressman William Stanbery with his cane, and Houston’s subsequent convocation before Congress to answer for this. In reality Houston was convicted by a vote of 106 to 89, the Speaker of the House formally reprimanding Houston, but in the movie this is radically changed and Houston is exonerated after his eloquent defense and emerges the hero of the hour.

 

President Andrew Jackson (GD Spradlin) clearly seeks Texan independence from Mexico and entry into the United States, while loudly declaring he doesn’t, and urges Houston to lead such a revolt. Houston moves to Texas and sets up as a lawyer.

 

They get Jackson’s roguishness quite well

 

There he urges caution, not rebellion. David Burnett (John P Ryan) is the firebrand. But little by little Houston comes round to the necessity of fighting for ‘freedom’. This freedom was of course chiefly the freedom to hold slaves, which practice Mexico had banned, but that is not mentioned at all (it never is in Houston films and rarely in Alamo ones either). Houston was born on and inherited a slave plantation and mansion, and owned many slaves throughout his life, but this is simply omitted.

 

Elliott is good as Houston and certainly captures the vim and vigor, though he is more Sam E than Sam H. After an occasional big-screen Western and a lot of TV work in the 1970s, a regular if non-major part in Mission Impossible, for example, he started to specialize a bit in the TV-movie Western and mini-series, like I Will Fight No More Forever, The Sacketts, Wild Times and The Shadow Riders (you’ll find our reviews of these in the index). He was a well-known face (and voice) by this time. However, in common with other Houston biopics, this one fights shy of some of the extremes. There’s no drunkenness, for example. Sam is an all-round regular Western tough guy.

 

 

We see him at the Alamo before the siege, explaining that it cannot possibly be held and telling Bowie (Michael Beck) to blow it up and depart.

 

“The first thing you can do, Colonel Bowie, is burn that mission to the ground.”


“You don’t tell me what to do, General. And you most certainly don’t tell me to burn down the best fortification in Texas.”

 

But there’s very little on the battle itself. There’s no Davy Crockett. We only see the aftermath of the fall of the mission, and Mexican troops executing the survivors. Most of the film is General Houston strategically maneuvering to avoid fighting Santa Anna till he is ready, and resisting pressure – close to treasonous presure – from Burnett and several of his own men to engage immediately. And the film climaxes and ends with the Battle of San Jacinto, quite well done, and the defeat and capture of Santa Anna (Richard Yniguez). Houston’s later career is not dealt with.

 

Stephen Austin (James Stephen) has a low-key part (perhaps they didn’t want any overshadowing of Houston). Sam tells him, “A corrupt and distant government wielding power over a vast territory with a population that loves freedom and independence – that sounds to me like the very prescription for revolution, Mr Austin.” He’s referring to the government in Mexico City, though, not the one in Washington.

 

Low-key Austin

 

Juan Seguin (Peter Gonzalez Falcon) has a decent role for once, and it is interesting to see how in more recent Houston and Alamo pictures the Tejano contribution is being (belatedly) recognized.

 

Deaf Smith (they pronounce his name /def/, not /di:f/) gets a goodish part too, played by Ivy Pryce.

 

Susannah Dickinson has the briefest of appearances and the actress is uncredited but it is unmistakably Katharine Ross, Mrs Elliott.

 

 

The show was directed, in (I would say) a competent rather than inspired manner by Peter Levin. It was shot by Frank Watts in Texas, at such locations as Alamo Village and Sam Houston Park. It looks pleasant enough.

 

The picture is on the light side, and is neither great history (the clue’s in the title, The Legend of Texas) nor great art, but it’s enjoyable and a decent watch.

 

 

4 Responses

  1. I saw The First Texan in 1956 and I never forgave McCrea for being such a bore. Up until then had been on a must-see list along with Randloph Scott, after that, Randy rode alone. I took a negative attitude from then on about Alamo pictures. Pass on them all.

    1. Yes, THE FIRST TEXAN is on the stodgy side. Joel made some great Westerns before and after, though.

  2. I have read a couple of Sam Houston bios. Incredible figure (like Macarthur liked to refer to himself in the third person). This imposing figure so human like so many figures from America’s truly colorful past has yet to be done justice to at the movies.

    1. Houston was certainly colorful. I think movies about him could show more of the real scoundrel, in a sympathetic way, but they don’t. We never see Houston drunk, for example. Funny there have been no Austin biopics. Maybe he was too pro-Mexican government for too long to appeal to all those red-blooded Anglo Texans.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Labels