Originally published in the San Antonio Express-News, April 3, 2004
by Susan Ives
The most popular film that I show in the peaceCENTER’s Alamo workshop is “Viva Max!”
I run a five-minute clip, the bit where Gen. Maximilian Rodrigues de Santos, determined to recapture the Alamo to impress his girlfriend and avenge Mexico’s honor, disguises himself as a tourist and slips into the Alamo to get the lay of the land.
He arrives just as the prissy white-gloved tour guide is brushing away a tear at the end of her dramatic reading of William Barret Travis’ letter, “Victory or Death.” As the crowd disperses, a small boy, realizing that Max is a Mexican, curls his fingers into a gun, aims and shoots, “Pow! Pow!”
In these few seconds, the film captures the reason many Mexican Americans feel threatened by the Alamo and what it symbolizes.
Max, of course, was played by Peter Ustinov, who died Sunday at 82. Exactly 35 years ago, Ustinov was in San Antonio, getting the goat of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas.
In his book “Alamo Movies,” Frank Thompson describes the wrath of Mrs. William Lawrence Scarborough, then president of the DRT.
On April 2, 1969, the day shooting was scheduled to begin on Alamo Plaza, Mrs. Scarborough was in her command post at the Menger Hotel, masterminding a citywide protest against the film.
It would make “a mockery and desecration of our heroes who died for us at the Alamo,” she said. “Why can’t they make a nice movie, like John Wayne?”
“Those daughters,” Max says in the film, “their power is in their noise, not their numbers, I suspect.”
When she failed to get a court injunction to stop the filming, Mrs. Scarborough marshaled her troops before the City Council.
A Bexar County district clerk, Thompson reported, protested that allowing “Viva Max!” to be filmed at the Alamo would be “like writing a comedy and letting somebody raise a foreign flag over Kennedy’s grave.”
A war veteran spoke for so long that he was ejected from the council chamber, waving his crutch, Thompson wrote, and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.
Another man claimed the film was “lowering morality to its lowest point in history.” When filming started on Alamo Plaza, a bystander brought a rifle to the set and threatened to shoot anyone who tried to raise a Mexican flag over the Alamo. The rifle was unloaded, so the police sent him home.
“I am astonished to find, ” Ustinov said, “that the cradle of Texas independence still has so many babies in it.”
The controversy created a buzz for the film, keeping it on the front page of the local papers for the duration of the filming.
Ustinov liked to tell the story of the official dinner that kicked off the production.
“One of the city fathers suddenly got up and said, ‘I should tell these fine visitors the true story of the Alamo.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, my God … ‘”
“And so we got the story of the Alamo and he ended by saying, ‘… and they drew a line in the sand, and do you know not one man crossed the line! They all perished!'”
“And I said, ‘Can I ask a question? If they all perished, how does the story come down to us?’
“There was a moment of embarrassment among the Texans and he said, ‘Well, now that you ask, there was one man did cross that line — a Frenchman, by the name of Rose.’
“I said, ‘Is that the origin of the Yellow Rose of Texas?’ Ahh … that was not the happiest of evenings.”
But “Viva Max!” is the happiest of films. Ustinov, with his usual panache, nudges his character along from a bumbling buffoon who forgot to bring the bullets to a thoughtful leader who draws his own line in the sand, a line his men proudly cross. It was no mean feat.
Viva Ustinov! Viva!