Director : John Lee Hancock
Screenplay : Leslie Bohem and Stephen Gaghan and John Lee Hancock
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2004
Stars : Dennis Quaid (Sam Houston), Billy Bob Thornton (Davy Crockett), Jason Patric (James Bowie), Patrick Wilson (William Travis), Emilio Echevarría (Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana), Jordi Mollà (Juan Seguin), Leon Rippy (Sgt. William Ward), Tom Davidson (Colonel Green Jameson), Marc Blucas (James Bonham)
Unlike John Wayne’s jingoistic 1960 opus, John Lee Hancock’s The Alamo is a down-to-earth, revisionist historical telling of the infamous battle of the Alamo, in which 180 Texans stood their ground inside the crumbling walls of a century-old Spanish mission against thousands of Mexican soldiers. The battle itself was of far more symbolic than military importance as defending the Alamo had virtually no strategic purpose, which is probably why the event has been elevated to such mythic levels.
I grew up in San Antonio and spent countless Saturday afternoons as a child with my father downtown at the Alamo (the mission church, which has been heavily rebuilt over the years, is the only part of the fort that remains), pouring over the detailed dioramas and walking on the grounds where historical luminaries such as Davy Crockett, William B. Travis, and Jim Bowie fought and died. Therefore, I am fully aware of the power of the hallowed Alamo mythos. Especially for Texans, who often take as much if not more pride in their state than their national identity, the Alamo is a symbol of the kind of steely resolve and willingness to sacrifice with which they define their heritage. The men who stood their ground at the Alamo for 13 days knew they were going to die, but they stayed there anyway, right to the brutal end.
Thus, it would seem that there is plenty of dramatic fire to fuel a movie about this particular historical episode. But, as it turns out, The Alamo fails to catch flame. As a history lesson, The Alamo is a fascinating movie, but it never really works dramatically; it feels flat and overlong, even after having been cut down to less than two and a half hours from an original running time of more than three. While the scathing rumors that have been circulating ever since it was pulled from its original Christmas Day release date and moved back four months were overblown, it is clear that this is not the invigorating war drama the besieged suits at Disney were hoping for. At this point, they probably wish they had stuck with Ron Howard (who might not have been a better director, but would have lent it some directorial star power) and let him make the gritty, R-rated version he originally envisioned. We’ve seen this battle portrayed on screen in largely bloodless terms before; at least making a more realistically gory version would have introduced something viscerally new.
As it is, the only thing “new” is the historical take on the characters, which cuts them down from larger-the-life mythology to the level of flawed humans doing the best they can. We see that many of the Alamo defenders were, in fact, Mexicans who were essentially fighting against their own country, and more than a little lip service is paid to the fact that many of the defenders owned slaves and used them in battle like the property they saw them as. Ideologically, this is a good move, as it allows the characters to come across as intimately human, rather than distantly legendary.
Yet, director John Lee Hancock (The Rookie) never seems to get a good handle on the characters, and most of them end up being defined primarily by their surliness and various conflicts with each other. The is most true of Gen. Sam Houston, leader of the Texas army, who is badly played by Dennis Quaid, an otherwise good actor, with a perpetual frown that is even broader and uglier than his muttonchops. Houston’s grumpy, drunken demeanor is closely matched by Col. Jim Bowie (Jason Patric), he of the famous Bowie knife. Bowie is an emotional pivot character who we’re supposed to grow to like after his attitude softens toward Lt. Col. William Travis (Patrick Wilson), whose elegant speech and dress marks him as something of dandy. Bowie is also dying of tuberculosis, and he spends a great deal of the movie bed-ridden and tended to by various women, one of whom, in the movie’s most deliriously ridiculous moment of melodrama, he envisions to be his dead wife.
As far as the depiction of leaders go, none are as harsh as Emilio Echevarría’s portrayal of Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana, the Mexican military leader turned dictator who declared himself the Napoleon of the West and considered the lives of his soldiers to be on par with barnyard chickens. Echevarría plays Santa Ana as a grinning despot, and he largely comes across as a preening, villainous cartoon, even as his soldiers are effectively humanized with a few nice touches that isolate individuals among the masses. Anyone wanting to accuse The Alamo of being racist, which I’m sure many are chomping at the bit to do, will find him- or herself having to reach quite a bit. Yes, Santa Anna is a bit of a caricature, but no more so than Houston, and he’s supposed to be the film’s ultimate hero.
The only character in the movie who really works—both historically and emotionally—is Davy Crockett, who is beautifully played by Billy Bob Thornton. Of course, when it comes to legend, Crockett had everyone in the room beat hands down with the stories of his fighting bears, leaping the Mississippi, and riding lightning bolts. Crockett works so well as a character because Thornton eloquently shows how he was all too aware of how his mythical status ran counterpoint to his reality. In one emotionally stirring scene, he explains the grotesquerie of his one experience fighting Indians in Tennessee, which in a nutshell illustrates how far myths are removed from their heroes’ lived experiences. None of this makes Crockett a lesser person—he still stands tall, not because of his great and mystical deeds, but because he proves himself man enough to admit where the legend ends and the real person begins.
That is, of course, the essence of the film itself, but the reality it unearths beneath the legend is never dramatized in a compelling way. Hancock never quite finds the poetry within the day-to-day banality of waiting for death (he comes close to it when cross-cutting between the violence of the final battle and close-ups of bed-ridden Bowie buttoning his vest in preparation). The battle itself, despite the massive sets and thousands of extras, is surprisingly rote and is somewhat drained of its tragic resonance when it is followed by a 20-minute coda depicting Sam Houston’s routing of the Mexican army at San Jacinto. This is, I suppose, a happy ending that gives meaning to the Alamo massacre—this is where the whole “Remember the Alamo!” jingoism was given life—but it’s done so stoically that, like the rest of the movie, it fails to ignite the imagination.
Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick
All images copyright ©2004 Touchstone Pictures