6/10
The Raven Who Gave Us Texas
30 May 2010
Warning: Spoilers
If I may, if you want to understand the career of Sam Houston, turn to a wonderful old biography of the man called "The Raven" (Houston's nickname with the Indians) by Marquis James. It won the Pulitzer Prize for biography back in 1937 or so. Houston was one of the two really big historical figures remembered from our Westward Expansion who were not gunfighters, gunslingers, or military men. He and "Deseret" / Utah founder Brigham Young are still impressive figures - and far more memorable than some of the U.S. Presidents of their age. In fact, Young's confrontation with the U.S. Government in the so-called "Mormon War" of 1857-60 makes one really wish he had been U.S. President rather than the joker we had at the time (James Buchanan). Houston might have made an interesting President too, but his only attempt to really get a nomination was in 1856, and it was with the anti-immigrant Know-Nothing Party.

Houston had fought alongside Andrew Jackson, and rose in Tennessee politics as a Congressman and Governor. Then his very promising marriage to a socially connected young woman collapsed. The actual reason is still unknown, but this film wisely keeps most of the details in, including how it led to a divorce (unheard of in 1829), the resignation of Houston, and then a prolonged bender (he got a new name for awhile of "Big Drunk"). But with the help of the Cherokees (whom he always treated well) he regained his balance. He tried to get a better deal for them when they were ordered on the "Trail of Tears" by his pal Jackson, but I don't think he was as successful as the movie makes him. Then he turned to Texas, and eventually became the avenger of the Alamo at the battle of San Jacinto, and one of it's Presidents (there were about four Presidents of Texas). After it entered the Union he became it's senator. Later he was Governor of Texas as well.

This film has some things going for it (so it deserves a "6"). Richard Dix, for once, has a part that fits him - his tendency to overact is not as evident. Joan Fontaine (in an early part) plays the snobbish first wife well. Gail Patrick (normally better known for her comic parts) plays the second wife nicely as understanding and loving. A number of prominent character actors are here, including C. Henry Gordon as Santa Anna, Ralph Morgan as Stephen Austin, Victor Jory as Travis, and Robert Armstrong as Jim Bowie. Even Jim Thorpe was an extra in the cast. But best was Edward Ellis as Andy Jackson, managing to make that dyspeptic President thoughtful and wise. His performance for this film makes us realize he was more than the actual "Thin Man".

Herbert Yates always tried to make one prestige Republic film a year "Man Of Conquest" was the choice for 1939, and to an extent it is quite a cut above his regular cowboy fare. But it backfired this time: He tried go give a small fee to Marquis James for the use of the book. James rejected the paltry sum, so the film title was changed. Most of the material in the movie (mangled or otherwise) came from James' biography. This led to a plagiarism case which the great lawyer Louis Nizer discusses in "My Life In Court". It was won because the script writers copied a bit of poetic license used by James in the biography (an Indian chant sequence) that he added for color - including the language. Yates settled out of court.

Houston has been seen in several films about Texas, like "The First Texan" and television's "The Road To Texas". But no definitive film has ever been made - possibly because he was a slave owner (as was Jackson). He does deserve one for his outlandish, and on the whole successful career. But if one would like to see a proper cap-off to any of these films, try to catch the old "Profiles In Courage" episode on Houston, starring J.D. Cannon, showing his fierce devotion to the Union in 1861, and how it led to political oblivion. Cannon in the conclusion puts his successful Confederate opponents to shame.
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