The story of the Texas Revolution is certainly worth the scope of a five-night, 10-hour miniseries on the History Channel. However, Texas Rising, which debuts on Memorial Day, is a plodding, bloated chronicling of a potent time in American history. Its star-studded cast, with around two dozen main or featured performers, is impressive; however, the breadth of the ensemble, filled to the brim with great character actors, doesn’t allow for much depth with many of the characters. The result is not just middling, but somewhat problematic, considering the flattened portrayals of the Mexican and Comanche armies, both trying to hold onto native territory.
One surefire sign of the mini-series’ lackluster quality comes in the opening minute, as several paragraphs of text float onto the screen to explain the backstory of how “Texas is in flames.” There is so much history compressed to the few paragraphs that it is a shame the writing scrolls upward so quickly. In the following scene, The Alamo has been reduced to ashes. Dust accumulates and flutters into a permanent white sky as the victors toss bodies into a fiery pit. A man, still clinging on to life, wrestles out from the sand, kills a couple of guards and retreats on foot. (His name is Lorca and he is played by Ray Liotta.) A black woman watches as Mexicans tie her brother up and shoot him. (Her name is Emily West, and she is played by Cynthia Addai-Robinson.)
From these introductory moments, we begin to realize the uneven feel of this historical representation, which often shifts between rote exposition and visceral action. Much of the rest of the first six hours, screened for critics, is realizing how the former sets up the latter. We must wade through a lot of set-up to get to the big, rousing action sequences. Sometimes, writers Darrell Fetty and Leslie Greif (who also produce Texas Rising) will introduce us to bit soldiers or players and follow them in a few scenes before these characters find a dismal fate. With so many supporting players dying over the course of the first few episodes, it is bewildering that the writers decided to follow so many characters.
To those who need a bit of a refresher on this chapter from history, Gen. Sam Houston (Bill Paxton) is leading a collective of volunteer soldiers fighting to stake their claim in the state. President Andrew Jackson (Kris Kristofferson) trusts in Houston to get the job done, although the men under his command are frustrated, believing the General should command instead of remain cautious of the nearby Mexican soldiers. As for the Mexicans, led by Gen. Santa Anna (Olivier Martinez), they seem to have the numbers, the supplies and the military might needed to triumph over their foes.
Although their characters are the lead forces on both sides, Paxton and Martinez get awfully little screen time in the first six hours. The weathered Houston tries to wield control of his army yet is reluctant to move forward until well into the series, while Santa Anna spends most of his time relaxing – shaving, bathing, seducing Emily West – and showing off more in the way of sexual prowess than physical strength. Rounding out the principal past is Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the sick but courageous Texan Deaf Smith, Brendan Fraser as Billy Anderson, a Ranger with Comanche Indian ties, and Jeremy Davies as a sergeant trying to earn back the respect of his Texan comrades after he initially tries to desert the revolution.
Had Texas Rising limited its focus to the battle tactics of the two generals and spread out to a few subplots featuring some of these compelling real-life figures, it would have been enough. Instead of strive for quality drama, though, the mini-series goes for a large quantity of stories. The drama jumps around to so many areas in Texas and to the plights of so many secondary characters that we quickly begin to lose interest in how these stories connect to the main struggle.
Furthermore, for a mini-series so intent on expanding story – originally, this 10-hour series was supposed to run for just six hours – there is pitifully little from the sides of the Mexicans and Comanche Indians hoping to keep control of their native territory. The former are brash and bloodthirsty, while the latter are reduced to an ululating mass. The essentialist, cartoon-like depictions of these groups would be unfortunate for a much shorter re-telling of this revolution; however, with so much airtime, that these sides barely get a voice or perspective is totally perplexing.
Despite the presence of director Roland Joffé (The Killing Fields), the action set-pieces range from thrilling to incoherent. Saloon shoot-outs, done in a contained atmosphere with a more definite selection of angles and spaces, have a lot of energy. On the other hand, showdowns on vast plains are difficult to follow and often have continuity errors. In one scene, Mexican soldiers attack from behind bushes on flat land, but these leafy barriers are gone when we get a better look at the battlefield. The weather and rugged terrain seem to change constantly depending on whom we follow. (More disheartening, the settlers’ savage attacks against Comanche Indians have a triumphant soundtrack playing over these murders.)
Regardless, there are a collection of stand-out performances. Liotta, almost unrecognizable under a beard and coarse skin, gets his meatiest role in years as the cutthroat Lorca, scarred by the events at the Alamo and determined to overcome every obstacle in his path. Addai-Robinson, meanwhile, is the story’s emotional center, as a woman scouting out and sleeping with the enemy as a way to avenge her brother’s bloody death. Both of these actors find their tongues around some of the intense dialogue. “I’m burning alive in the fire of my own rage,” Addai-Robinson says during one of Emily’s powerful prayers. “I don’t live, I survive, I exist.”
That being said, Texas Rising is a glorious missed opportunity. Instead of telling a taut collection of fascinating stories from the many sides engaged in ruthless battle, the mini-series is mostly content to wander with the flatly drawn white male saviors. There are simply too many characters and stories to track, to the point that one wonders why seasoned actors like Crispin Glover and Thomas Jane signed on for such scant appearances.
Texas Rising is a bloated mini-series that jumps between so many stories and characters that it rarely finds any momentum or dramatic heft.