It’s hard to say which is more impressive in History channel’s Texas Rising.
Spectacular landscapes fill the frame in virtually every scene, courtesy of director Roland Joffe, cinematographer Arthur Reinhart and the rugged beauty of Durango, Mexico.
Then again, Bill Paxton’s magnificent Sam Houston sideburns are truly a sight to behold. Those whiskers are worthy of their own billing in the closing credits.
These are but two of the key selling points that make the 10-hour, five-night miniseries such a memorable television experience.
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There’s also a wonderful ensemble cast that includes Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Ray Liotta and Brendan Fraser and the terrific (and mostly true) story about the Texas Revolution, the Texas Rangers and the birth of the Lone Star State.
Texas Rising premieres at 8 p.m. Monday on History. Part 2 airs at 8 p.m. Tuesday and Parts 3 through 5 air the following three Mondays.
Paxton — who stars as Houston, commander in chief of the Texas Army in 1836 and victor over Mexican Gen. Santa Anna in the pivotal Battle of San Jacinto — believes the action-packed epic will appeal to all kinds of viewers. But card-carrying Texans in particular, he says, “will eat this up.”
Paxton, who is from Fort Worth and one of the few native Texans involved in the production, was practically bursting his shirt buttons with state pride throughout the five-month film shoot in 2014.
But it’s worth noting that there’s also a personal story attached to the actor’s involvement. “I’m related to Sam Houston on my father’s side,” Paxton says. “We’re second cousins, four times removed.”
More than a decade ago, the actor was disappointed when he didn’t get the chance to play Houston in The Alamo. (Fellow Texan Dennis Quaid played the part in the 2004 feature film.)
So when Texas Rising executive producer and co-writer Leslie Greif came to Paxton, offering the role of scout Deaf Smith, the actor quickly called an audible and grabbed the gold.
“He didn’t know about my connection to Houston,” Paxton says. “But I said, ‘Man, I’m just itching to play Sam.’”
The untold story
The miniseries is filled with surprises, from familiar faces in supporting roles to bold storytelling choices. Some viewers might be thrown, for example, to find the Alamo in ruins as Texas Rising begins.
But this is the tale that follows that famous San Antonio battle. While the martyrs of the Alamo are never forgotten, Texas Rising focuses on the battlefield chess match that took place between Houston and Santa Anna (played by Olivier Martinez) and ended with Houston’s stunning 18-minute rout at San Jacinto.
“Our slogan is, ‘You thought the Alamo was the end of the story, but it was just the beginning,’” Paxton says. “The Alamo is really a story unto itself, whereas Houston-versus-Santa Anna was a classic cat-and-mouse matchup.
“Everybody is familiar with the story of the Alamo. Our story isn’t as widely known outside the state of Texas. But it’s a great one, too.”
Texas Rising is the work of the same production team that made Hatfields & McCoys, the 2012 miniseries that averaged 14 million viewers and set ratings records for History. Paxton played Randall McCoy in that, opposite Kevin Costner as “Devil” Anse Hatfield, so he had good reason to believe that Texas Rising would be top-notch as well.
Having Joffe behind the camera sealed the deal.
“His sense of staging and choreography,” the actor says of Joffe, the Oscar-nominated director of The Killing Fields (1984) and The Mission (1986). “He’s the heir to David Lean, as far as I’m concerned.”
It’s also worth pointing out that there’s going to be some nitpicking about historical accuracy and the way the miniseries takes liberties with the story.
For example, Liotta’s character, an Alamo survivor who goes on a killing frenzy, didn’t exist. And the Emily West character, played by Cynthia Addai-Robinson, has steamy romances with both Houston and Santa Anna, something that historians agree didn’t happen.
Paxton, however, is quick to defend these touches.
“You have to remember that this is an entertainment,” he says. “But as far as the spine of the piece goes, in terms of the look and the feel and the battles, we went to incredible lengths to get all that.
“It’s like the lovers in Titanic. They didn’t exist in real life. But there was attention to detail in the way that Jim Cameron had that ship built and the way it hit that iceberg and everything else.
“The same thing is true with Texas Rising.”
▪ Parts 1 and 2: 8 p.m. Monday and Tuesday
▪ Parts 3, 4 and 5: 8 p.m. June 1, 8 and 15