Friday, April 1, 2011

'Sam Houston,' the definitive portrait of a Texas icon

Denton Florian with genuine Sam Houston artifacts on the set of 'Sam Houston: A Documentary.'

Sam Houston led a remarkably cinematic life. His tale is one filled with battles, Indians, political intrigues, the pursuit of liberty, hardship, great oratory, close friendships with other historic icons and even romance. It’s remarkable, almost unforgiveable, that he hasn’t had a greater presence in the world of film.

Denton Florian, a Texas man bitten by a history bug and a dream, has changed that with the release of Sam Houston: A Documentary, a nearly three-hour treatment of the life of Texas’ first president from his birth in Virginia to his death at Steamboat House in Huntsville.

Though it doesn’t pack the flash and polish of a more expensive production, Sam Houston manages to stand alongside the works of great documentarians like Ken Burns as a work of immense gravity, ambition and heart.

Five years in the making, Florian’s film is a collage of re-enactments filmed at their actual locations (including Woodland Home, Steamboat House and the Texas Governor’s Mansion), restored photographs and documents, new artists’ renderings (including works by Huntsville painter Lee Jamison) of scenes from Houston’s life and interviews with 15 experts and dignitaries, including Houston biographer James L. Haley, Sam Houston Memorial Museum Director Dr. Patrick Nolan and Governor Rick Perry, all punctuated and colored by Florian’s own steady narration of events.

The first thing you notice about Sam Houston is its sheer scope. It’s something that’s made with care, that takes the time to linger over every important event in Houston’s life. It’s thorough enough that history buffs can be steeped in detail, but engaging and visually enthralling enough that even a casual viewer will never think of looking at their watch. The lengthy run-time would be a disadvantage for most films, but for this one it would be a crime to remove anything from consideration.

Though the history is sound and the experts are engrossing, it’s the visuals that really make this film a great work of documentary film. Florian and his team went the extra mile to see through the eyes of someone living in Houston’s time, from the porch of Woodland Home to the calm river where Houston was baptized late in his life. It’s an intoxicating hybrid of the leisurely deliberateness of Ken Burns and the cinematic daring of David Lean. The history makes it a great story, but the visuals make it an epic.

But the most impressive thing about Sam Houston might be that never in its nearly 180 minutes does it feel like the work of a beginner. It finds a way to become more than just a chronology of the life of an interesting man. It’s a meditation on leadership, statesmanship and honor, the kind of film that says at much about the era it covers as the era in which it was made. It’s a wonder no one felt that such a film should have been made sooner, but the fact that Florian has done it, and done it so well, means it was worth waiting for.

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