It's March 6, 1836, and Mexican forces under president and dictator Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna (Olivier Martinez) have wiped out the Alamo garrison in a brutal, bloody massacre. Some miles to the west, Texas forces under General Sam Houston (Bill Paxton) are trying to build an army to combat Santa Anna's troops that severely outnumber the Texans. Much of Houston's staff and many of his men want to turn and fight the Mexicans, avenge the Alamo massacre, but Houston knows -- even though it's difficult -- that he must pick and choose his spot to fight, even if it means retreating much to the chagrin of his men. So as Houston's men move east across Texas, Santa Anna's forces chase close behind, both sides waiting for their moment to strike. Many will be impacted, from a former slave, Emily West (Cynthia Addai-Robinson), to a deaf Texas Ranger named Erastus Smith (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). In the process, a whole bunch of history will be made.
Much like the western genre, the TV miniseries has gone the way of the do-do bird. Basically, it's extinct. History (formerly the History Channel) seems to have found a way to revive it starting with Hatfields and McCoy and more recently the so-so but generally well-received Sons of Liberty. This recent venture is a five-part miniseries, covering about eight months in 1836 following the massacre at the Alamo. It's a daunting task taken on by director Roland Joffe and his cast and crew with tons of moving pieces from real-life historical figures and events, an immense backdrop, characters covering the entire gamut and so much more. The verdict? Pretty good but not great. I think Joffe and his screenplay writers did a pretty admirable job assembling this whole story into something digestible for casual fans and diehard fans of the time and history.
Maybe the biggest thing going for 'Rising' is that the history just isn't as well known as what precedes the story we see. It starts with an effective scene that takes place maybe an hour or so after the end of the Battle of the Alamo. Most Texas Revolution-themed movies use the following history as an afterthought, but here, it's the guts of the story. Plain and simple, it's cool to see the Runaway Scrape with some detail. Houston and Santa Anna are at the forefront, but we also see Colonel James Fannin (Rob Morrow) and the disaster he causes at Goliad. We see President Andrew Jackson (Kris Kristofferson) back in Washington, keeping tabs on the ever-escalating conflict in Texas. We get a genuine picture of the history and the bigger picture of the time and its impact. I won't bore with the history details, but there's also cool parts for Jeff Fahey, Crispin Glover, Chad Michael Murray while also meeting real-life figures life Alamo messenger Juan Seguin and Mexican officer Juan Almonte. Some cool parts.
The focus of course is on two things, Houston vs. Santa Anna and then the early development of the Texas Rangers. Paxton and Martinez both have some fun with their parts, generally avoiding cliches that could have gone really badly. Paxton's Houston speechifies too much, but in the quieter, more personal moments, you feel like you get a picture of the man who became known as the Father of Texas. Martinez is okay but the script has Santa Anna portrayed far more as a straight villain, a bloodthirsty dictator and ruler. By all accounts, this portrayal is at least somewhat accurate, but it plays too much like an over the top Bond villain.
My favorite part of the movie though was those Texas Rangers, led by Morgan's Erastus 'Deaf' Smith. A hero of the Texas Revolution, 'Deaf' (pronounced 'deef') finally gets his due, and Morgan gives the miniseries' strongest performance. He's dying of tuberculosis but he's going to play out his hand as the revolution heats up. A very strong part for an underrated actor. His men include Brendan Fraser as a white man who lived with the Comanches, Christopher McDonald (Yes, Shooter McGavin) as Karnes, Smith's right-hand man, Jeremy Davies as cowardly Knowles, Rhys Coiro as ladies man Vern, Joe Egender as goofy Beans, Stephen Monroe Taylor as outlaw on the run Gator Davis, and Trevor Donovan as Kit Acklin, a good rider, good guy and a trustworthy partner. The scenes focusing on the Rangers were the movie's strongest I thought whether it be on the trail, in camp or during battle. Some fun parts with Morgan, Fraser and McDonald especially standing out.
It's the rare miniseries that is able to juggle so many balls in the air, and 'Rising' has its flaws. For the most part, the historical accuracy is pretty decent with a few liberties taken here and there. Not much is known about the real-life Emily West so the script fills in the holes by adding a love interest with Sam Houston. It feels forced although Paxton and Robinson do have some chemistry. There are too many plotlines, as simple as that. Thomas Jane and Sarah Jones play the Wykoffs, a family moving into Texas with a story that never gets much development. Robert Knepper's evil empresario is too evil for his own good venturing into caricature as well. Things move around a lot to cover so much ground so it's understandable to get mixed up if you're not familiar with the history. History also aired quick mini-movies about a subplot that seemingly got cut for time. Face it. There's a TON to be dealt with, and 'Rising' I thought did an admirable job juggling it all.
What else to look for? I especially liked Ray Liotta's especially dark turn as Lorca, an Alamo defender who though badly wounded survives the massacre and goes on the warpath, murdering all the Mexicans he meets. I also liked the subplot between two real-life rangers, Jack Hays (Max Thieriot) and Bigfoot Wallace (Robert Baker) as they ride across Texas toward the fighting.
I very much enjoyed this History venture into a known part of history that definitely needs more spotlight. It's cool seeing these people and stories so often brushed to the side in the portrayals of Texas history. From the Alamo to Goliad to the Runaway Scrape to San Jacinto to the fallout following as Texas becomes its own republic, 'Rising' tackles a lot and comes through pretty well. I look forward to seeing this one on DVD again soon. Definitely worth giving a shot, especially if you're a history/Texas/Alamo buff!
Texas Rising (2015): ***/****