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Implied Value: Gone to Texas

Posted by on March 15, 2011 at 10:28 am

They call it the “bargain bin,” the big basket of discount DVDs of questionable quality. We assume that the paltry $5 price tag still gives these films too much credit. Is there anything of use in these wire crates worth the implied value in the word “bargain”? One man braves the bin to find out.

Gone to Texas was a made-for-TV movie originally aired on CBS, lumped in as a “Sam Elliott Double Feature” onto a DVD with another TV vehicle, Blue River. I am an enormous fan of Westerns–I’m still sorting out a long-winded, forthcoming post about the role of Westerns in modern cinema–and Sam Elliott is rightfully included among the greatest actors in the genre. A $5 two-fer has got to be worth the price of admission alone, or at least that’s what my poor mind managed to convince me when I paid for this set.

Gone to Texas tells the story of Sam Houston, a legend in Texan lore and a real frontier hero–the leader of Texan independence and American interests in the contested frontier. This is, ostensibly, what the film attempts to impart upon its patriotic and flag-waving, ruggedly individualistic American viewers–the story of a great and noble American fighting for freedom and independence. However, the real message here is that General Sam Houston is completely and utterly insane.

The film starts out at the ending, with an army encampment at night. There’s a long tracking shot of men sitting around campfires, singing Amazing Grace, with one of the regrettably few instances of Sam Elliott voiceover letting us know that the Texas war of independence was valiant and noble but lamenting “so many lives slaughtered.” We finally come to Houston himself, laying down and discussing the upcoming battle with an aide-de-camp. His assistant leaves and Elliott, looking very much like Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York, repeatedly muttering the words “freedom” and “Texas” to absolutely nobody at all. This is our first indication that Sam Houston might be a little off his rocker, but not his last.

The film then takes us back to the more-or-less beginning, with a 36-year-old Houston, Governor of Tennessee, dancing with his 19-year-old bride at their wedding reception. The dance goes well enough, but as soon as it ends, every single person who encounters Houston looks at him like he is the single most terrifying thing to ever walk the planet. He immediately follows his first dance with his new bride by raising a toast to “the only woman he’ll ever love” and then downing about 7 fingers of whiskey from a crystal champagne glass. If a rabid, starved, ravenous Kodiak bear walked into the room, one gets the impression that the only response would be a frightened guest telling the bear to shut up before it steps on Houston’s buzz.

At this point, some Washingtonian dandy–played with all the subtlety of a first-year drama student by an obviously unchecked and completely giddy John de Lancie–shows up to congratulate Houston on his marriage. He bestows gifts from President Andrew Jackson to the newlyweds, and it seems the room is tensely waiting to see if Houston will approve of the gifts or kill Q with the power of his incredibly potent mustache. It becomes very clear that, if nothing else, Sam Houston would just as quickly beat you to death with a stick as welcome a presidential wedding gift.

Narration from his father-in-law, a prominent Tennessee colonel, describes Houston as the smartest, best-looking, best-respected man in the whole state of Tennessee. The colonel immediately follows that praise by calling Houston “a lousy bastard” and wishing he’d never this deranged and psychotic man and wishing to death that he’d shot Sam Houston the moment they met. Sam Houston is a clever, charismatic, and highly intelligent man possessed of great talents and, possibly, Satan himself.

Now, it turns out that the colonel is ambitious, power-hungry, and a bit off the deep end in his own right, and this whole affair is meant to establish Houston as a rough-and-tumble, strong-willed, tour-de-force of a man who loves just as passionately as he fights. The problem with this is that all we know of Sam Houston up to this point is that he talks to himself, terrifies every single living person he meets, might be prone to violent rages at being given gifts he doesn’t like, and is quite possibly a raging alcoholic. This is our protagonist–a rude, violent, psychotic drunkard.

It never really stops. We find that his new bride is in love with another man and his father forced her into the marriage. So Houston resigns as governor, dumps his new bride at her papa’s door, and then gets on a riverboat headed west. He chugs whiskey and almost shoots Jim Bowie (who inexplicably seems to be drinking white wine). Jim calls him out on being a boozed-out ball of self-loathing–a statement that is 100% true–and Sam pulls a gun. There is simply nothing Sam Houston will not solve handily with the threat–or promise–of violence in proportion far and above what fits the crime. Sam heads up on deck to cool off and chug more whiskey and sees an eagle in the sky–this is a stupid motif that will definitely recur. It is the sign that Houston is about to go fuck some shit up, which will become clear very quickly.

Sam winds up meeting up with an old friend, a Cherokee chief who is the whitest, most European Cherokee the world has ever known. Houston’s buddy welcomes him back and tells Houston that he may be the one man who can keep the Cherokee tribes from killing themselves off–because Houston is well-known for being a crazy person who will kill you if you don’t do what he says. The Cherokee call him “the raven,” and the raven decides that the best way to get the Cherokee to get along is to get utterly plastered and get into a fight, yelling and screaming about unity and strength until the other chiefs beat the hell out of him. He leaves for Washington, D.C. to defend the rights of the Cherokee, most likely because the Cherokee don’t have much in the first place and they don’t want him smashing everything in the tribe the second he gets a drink in him.

The next hour or so is full of these gems of utter lunacy: Houston beats a Congressman with his own cane in the middle of the street for slandering him, almost gets into a fight with President Andrew Jackson in the man’s own office, defends himself for the assault in front of Congress by quoting poetry and Shakespeare for, apparently, days–and wins–and then punks out Jackson in front of his friends and allies after somehow winning the case. Apparently early 19th century trials were judged on whether the lawyers paid attention in English class in high school.

Jackson knows that Houston staying in Washington threatens his political career, as Houston’s insane defense has made him a rather well-known figure. In a lesson we’d do well to remember, Jackson realizes that putting a madman into the Oval Office will ruin the country, and so sends him off to Texas to help the Texan rebels separate from Mexico and, eventually, join the USA. Houston and a US Marshal ride on horseback from Washington to Texas, which is a long damn way.

Here’s where I truly became convinced that every sensible creature in the world deals with Houston as a force of nature, as potent and impossible to deter as the rain or wind. The Marshall just rode several hundreds of miles with the specific responsibility of ensuring that Houston manages to make it to Texas without destroying everything along the way, and when they finally get there, the Marshall reveals that Sam Houston takes the man’s horse for no good reason. We’re never told why he wants the horse and we never see it again. Houston does it just because he can, and the Marshall is reverent about it: “he had a dream–and the confidence of a grizzly. And the son of a gun was on my horse,” he says, chuckling. Chuckling. The man has to walk from Texas to Maryland.

He starts arguing law in Texas, which is still a Mexican state, and buying up land for American settlers in the region. Houston hasn’t bothered to learn Spanish, of course–any trial he presides over is conducted in English. He meets Stephen Austin (the “Father of Texas,” in the end) and basically goads him into engaging in business that will almost certainly lead Texas to war. Austin is a bit of a nancy, and the implication is that Texas’ most beloved, honored statesman was basically cowed into being anything worth a damn by Houston. I am trying hard to stay away from Chuck Norris-joke territory, but when Sam Houston tells you there’s gonna be a war, there’s gonna be one hell of a war.

Then there’s a little battle at the start of the revolution. Happened at a place called “The Alamo.” Might have heard of it. It’s not that important, though, so we’ll skip over it. The movie doesn’t bother. Why should we?

He’s named head of the Texan revolutionary army and realizes that Santa Ana, the military-political dictator of Mexico, has thousands upon thousands of well-trained, regular soldiers. Houston has a few hundred. So he runs, and runs a lot. Of course, this is reasonable and sensible, so he also decides to burn everything in his path while he does it just to make sure the crazy quotient is up-to-speed. Of course, this is all land in Texas–Sam Houston is pulling out his own teeth just to prove to Santa Ana he doesn’t care if they get knocked out, and by “pulling out his teeth” I mean “burning entire towns to the ground.”

People start saying that maybe Sam’s a coward and a fraud, and it seems they’ve picked up on an important part of Sam’s personality–the only thing that will keep him from violently dismembering you in front of your friends and family for calling him a coward is the opportunity to make a huge speech about

a) freedom

b) victory

c) Texas.

Now, here’s where I get a bit fuzzy. Houston is obviously a madman–everyone knows it, and some people even actually mention it out loud. He routinely beats, shoots, or otherwise breaks something over the head of danger. That said, if this man is standing in front of you saying “fighting is a bad idea,” you know that it is not just a bad idea. It may well be the worst possible idea you could possibly have. It is amazing that Texas ever managed to become independent with this sort of leadership, and it certainly explains a few things about modern-day Texas if these are the political role-models.

Eventually Houston sees an eagle again, which means it’s time for him to go find a scrap. His army of maybe 40 extras charges across a wide-open field and defeats the “thousands” of Mexican extras, which might actually amount for 20 people of this 60-man fight. The typical crappy, low-production, poorly-choreographed battle sequence follows, and the Texans/Americans handily defeat the entire Mexican Army. There’s a random, gratuitous shot of Americans killing a 12-year-old drummer boy for no good reason, and then the war is over.

Houston is elected president of an independent Texas and then is a senator and governor once the nation becomes an American state. He eventually dies, probably of boredom, and we’re told “he was convinced at the end that his life had been a miserable failure,” probably because he was unsatisfied with the volume of violence he’d subjected on the world. The end, fade to black.

I sat and watched this long-ass movie for one purpose and one purpose only: to see how far Sam Elliott could go in his manic, deranged portrait of an American hero. Thanks to the low budget of the film, most of the lighting is natural rather than staged, giving us the feeling that we’re really in the room with him without actually having to be there, which is something nobody should ever intentionally seek out. Elliott’s portrayal is comparable to Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood, in a “what if Daniel Plainview takes an enormous amount of cocaine and freaks the fuck out for two and a half hours” sort of way.

I’m torn between recommending this movie and telling you to run away from it like a sane person might. Watching the hammy acting and scenery-chewing could be fun with a group of people, assuming those people were severely intoxicated. Even still, there are plenty of so-bad-it’s-good movies out there that are far superior. If I got any inkling that this was somehow satire of the American political system, or our leaders, or, well, anything, perhaps it might be worth your time. In the end, though, I found myself enjoying explaining its insanity to my friends and coworkers but never considered telling it to watch it themselves.

6/10 FleshEatingZipper

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