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With new film, Texans recall - and wrangle over - 'The Alamo'

It's the state's most disputed - and depicted - battle. Now, a new movie has 'Alamaniacs' bickering over bricks, hats, and history.

If there's one thing Texans can agree on, it's that no one has ever made a good Alamo film.

Not that it hasn't been tried. From a slew of silent pictures in the 1910s and '20s to John Wayne's directorial debut in 1960 to the IMAX version in 1988 that still plays to packed San Antonio audiences, dozens have portrayed the most celebrated event in Texas history.

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But they all fall short, Alamophiles say, because they don't get the facts right. Never mind that many of the facts are still fiercely disputed or unknown.

So it's no wonder that an uneasy silence has fallen over the Lone Star State as Texans anxiously await Friday's release of "The Alamo" - billed by Disney as the most accurate portrayal to date.

"I have always sort of pitied the makers of these films because they are fighting a losing battle," says Frank Thompson, an Alamo expert who helped in this latest Hollywood effort. "There is so little that we actually know that you can take into a court of law, but people get so adamant about it."

Take Davy Crockett's death. Whether he died fighting or surrendered only to be executed is of huge importance in Texas. No one knows for sure, but you'll make a lot of enemies if you choose the wrong ending.

And did William B. Travis really draw a line in the sand and invite those willing to die to step across? Scholars say he didn't, but how else to depict the brave decision of those who stayed to fight?

Stephen Hardin, an expert on the Texas Revolution and an adviser to the Disney movie, says that while accuracy was important, some liberties were taken for the sake of drama.

"Director John Lee Hancock told us at our first meeting that he wanted this movie to be as historically accurate as possible, but it still had to work as a movie," says Dr. Hardin. "He didn't want to get so bogged down in the minutia of history that it would lose its emotional truth."

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But long before the movie's completion, Internet chat rooms were abuzz with fierce exchanges on everything from the authenticity of the uniforms to the placement of the Alamo chapel to larger issues of the Texas Revolution.

Mr. Thompson says he recently got a call from a concerned Alamaniac who said, "I can't believe they're actually going to release a movie where Travis wears his hat like that!" Another said he'd studied pictures of the set and found that the adobe bricks were ludicrously larger than they should be. How, he asked, could he be expected to take such a film seriously?

Discussions about the Alamo have grown more intense over the years as historians discover new evidence about the period. The past decade has been particularly enlightening, putting the errors of past Alamo movies in perspective.

"There is a lot more history to go on today," says Ron Tyler, director of the Texas State Historical Association at the University of Texas at Austin. "I have a whole shelf full of new books that have come out in the past 10 to 15 years; many of them from Tejanos [native Texans of Mexican descent] giving the other side of the Alamo story."

Dr. Tyler believes the new movie will offer a more complex view of the Texas Revolution, which began as a civil war when Mexican federalists challenged the new centrist government of Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. When his army marched to the Mexican state of Texas to squelch opposition in 1836, a group of American settlers took up arms alongside federalists.

Some were on the run, some were land-grabbers, and some were idealists.

For decades, the story of the Alamo went almost untold. It only really took off in 1873, when a flimsy article mentioned the line in the sand. That shows how little facts have meant, says Brian Huberman, an associate professor of visual arts and film at Rice Universit in Houston, who has produced documentaries on the Alamo.

"Almost overnight, with that one great American act of free choice, it leapt from a frontier skirmish to the level of a national tale," says Dr. Huberman. "That's why the Alamo myth has survived. It's a celebration of how we understand democracy."

To water the myth down with fact - or political correctness, as many grumble - may be killing the thing we love, he says. Indeed, the early buzz about the movie is that in attempting to be as accurate as possible, it's lost the drama of the story.

Ironically, many Alamoholics' obsession began with John Wayne's "The Alamo," which was riddled with inaccuracies. "I have a lot of affection for [that] film," says Hardin. "I saw it in the second grade and it lit a fire in me that has never gone out."

The idea now, he says, is to reintroduce the Alamo to a new generation "with perhaps a different sensibility. The mantra on the set was 'This isn't your father's Alamo.'"