Starring: Bill Paxton, Brendan Fraser, Ray Liotta, Olivier Martinez, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Cynthia Addai-Robinson
Director: Roland Joffé
Mood: If you love your battle Westerns fast and furious and don’t care too much about historical accuracy as long as it’s got lots of blood and gore and guts.
I’m going to be totally honest – I bought Texas Rising for Brendan Fraser.
I’ve been a huge fan since the ‘90s, and I will watch anything and everything he’s in. He can do comedy. He can do drama. Finding out Fraser was in a Western got me SO F*CKING EXCITED that I immediately went on a mission to buy it.
Fraser is a standout in this massive cast, and it’s definitely worth sitting through all seven or so hours of the series just for him. The same is true if, like my fiancé, you think Ray Liotta hasn’t done any good work since the ‘90s. (Um, hello! What about his extremely quotable villain in Muppets Most Wanted?!)
But if you’re super picky about historical accuracy, or a Texan, this show is probably going to piss you off – as it has many media companies and online reviewers on pretty much every site you can find.
My quick take is that it’s a blockbuster American Outlaws-style reimagining of what happened after The Alamo. You know the type. A painfully one-sided story featuring lots of attractive shirtless young men, swelling music, sexy times, one-liners. But this one packs a punch with horrifically graphic battle scenes.
Don’t go basing a history report on Texas Rising. But if you don’t know your U.S. history too well, and you enjoy Westerns with lots of action, it’s actually pretty fun. I do not regret watching it.
Texas Rising starts with the final moments at The Alamo, when General Antonio López de Santa Anna puts the remaining Texan defenders before a firing squad and loads a few women and children into wagons.
From there, it splinters into what feels like a dozen smaller stories.
- You get scenes with the Rangers, lead by ‘Deaf’ Smith (Jeffrey Dean Morgan)
- You get scenes with free Black woman and folk hero Emily West (Cynthia Addai-Robinson)
- There’s of course a big focus on General Sam Houston
- There are lots of monologues by the ruthless Santa Anna (Olivier Martinez)
- There’s a twisted PTSD wilderness survival thing going on with Lorca (Ray Liotta)
- Meanwhile, Bigfoot Wallace (Robert Baker) and Jack Hays (Max Thieriot) are trying to find a way to join the fray but keep running into trouble
There are also a dizzying number of Texas Rangers, Texian Army soldiers, and civilians who are part of the main characters’ stories or get smaller stories of their own. Some of the soldiers are trying to lead a coup against Houston. Others are eager young men out for glory. There’s an overly enthusiastic pioneer family that you just know is doomed.
All of this is captured by truly fantastic cinematography, and overflowing with explosions, battles, skirmishes, horseback galloping, and blood n’ guts.
It took me until the end of the third episode, which is several hours of TV, to figure out who most of the supporting characters were. It didn’t help that everyone keeps f*cking dying.
It probably would have been better to trim down the subplots and dive way deeper into a few key characters. Maybe they were trying to make you care about the lives of common soldiers and people, with all those little romances and adventures and grizzly deaths.
At least with the overabundance of characters in Texas Rising, there’s plenty of standout acting.
- Brendan Fraser is great as gruff, sober Ranger Billy Anderson (not a real person). With his build and laser-focus stare, he’s so good at being intimidating. I do wish they hadn’t occasionally thrown one-liners into his dialogue, though, because then you can’t help but flash back on his loopier performances.
- Ray Liotta is doing a one-man show-within-a-show as Lorca (not a real person). Liotta’s madness is raw and emotional and thoroughly brutal, and does indeed make for good TV.
- Jeremy Davies is so completely weaselly and repugnant as deserter Ephraim Knowles (not a real person) that you want to throttle him. Davies acts the part all the way down to subtle movements, gestures, and facial expressions that steal many scenes.
- Gerardo Taracena shines as the talented spy Manuel Flores (real person, didn’t do spying but was still integral to the Revolution).
- I didn’t recognize Crispin Glover as Moseley Baker (real person, with a real history of disagreeing with General Houston). He’s kind of a bad guy in this version, what with constantly trying to overthrow his leader, and Glover is undeniably brilliant at creating memorable supporting characters.
- Jeffrey Dean Morgan is quietly commanding as ‘Deaf’ Smith (real person). Morgan apparently lost 40 pounds over the course of production to evoke Deaf’s slow decline due to tuberculosis. His performance is among the most fully realized and genuine, and your eye goes to him in every scene. He made me cry so hard in episode four, when he said goodbye to his horse.
Bill Paxton and Olivier Martinez do strong work as the two military leaders. But there are only hints about General Houston’s rich backstory with the Cherokee people, and instead he’s kind of a one-dimensional character who is relentlessly confident.
- Fun Fact: Bill Paxton is actually a distant relative of General Houston.
Santa Anna, on the other hand, seems to be accurately depicted as a ruthless yet charismatic warlord. Martinez plays the part to perfection. The downside is that there’s zero depth to the Mexican side of the story in Texas Rising. He’s almost performing all that dark awesomeness into a vacuum.
Where the History Channel was criticized for focusing too much on factual details at the expense of engaging storytelling in its previous epic miniseries, Hatfields & McCoys (also starring Paxton), most critics’ big beef with Texas Rising is that they threw fact out the window.
Which is a weird thing to do, when your name is literally ‘the History Channel’.
I fully admit that I only get U.S. history lessons after watching Westerns and then researching the events portrayed. I didn’t know anything about the Texas Revolution. I’ve also only visited Texas city centres, not the countryside, so I didn’t pick up on the inaccurate battle landscapes (filmed in Mexico) or the fudged facts.
Other things did bug me.
The score often turned the scenes cheesy, with music better suited to a romantic drama. While at first I enjoyed the comedic elements, overall it detracted from the quality and realness of the characters. And now that I know that Emily West had nothing to do with the success of the Revolution, it feels like a bizarre choice for the History Channel to throw her folk legend into a true story.
I don’t want to say that they forced a means to diversify this story that’s otherwise devoid of Black people and strong women, in an attempt to broaden their appeal… but that’s what they did. The same is true of the Cherokee characters. Since General Houston’s history with the Cherokee people isn’t shown, the Cherokee attacks here feel gratuitous.
With all of that said, as a Western fan I still enjoyed much of Texas Rising.
I’m SO F*CKING GLAD that I got to see Brendan Fraser doing mounted archery like a boss – and that he ended up adopting the horse he rides in the show. I loved seeing Jeffrey Dean Morgan as someone other than Negan in The Walking Dead, because I could NOT let that go for years.
As a really, really f*cking long action-Western movie, Texas Rising works. It’s fast, exciting, and brutal, which is sometimes all you want from a show. And that’s okay.