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Alex Stroup, editor

The Alamo

Will this new Western be remembered?

Friday, April 9, 2004
by Alex Stroup, editor

The story of the Alamo is a familiar one in America and, through the global influence of John Wayne, to much of the world. Including two TV versions and IMAX, this is at least the eleventh time the story has been committed to film. For most, though, memories will go back to the hagiographic 1960 version starring John Wayne as Davy Crockett.

Without a doubt, it is still a story that taps into a remaining undercurrent of Manifest Destiny in America. For, if so few could hold of so many, it must surely have been meant to be. An inevitable sequence of events that history, fate, or God ordained.

The Alamo is American myth. That isn't to say that great deeds were not done, that great consequences weren't had. But the story fills a role beyond the event itself. The challenge facing The Alamo is to choose between taking John Wayne's route and revel in the mythical elements of the story, or go in the opposite direction and try to shed historical light on the story. To give events their historical context and provide the shades of grey that imbue all human conflicts.


©Buena Vista Pictures Distribution

That was a portentous paragraph, but it reflects the seriousness with which the film takes itself. This is not an ironic telling, and the director never winks at the audience as if to say, “Can you believe these people were so sincere?”

When The Alamo was bumped from its scheduled launch last Christmas, the reason given was that there wasn't enough time to finish post-production. But that's always the reason given (you never hear a studio head saying, “We bumped it because the test screening scores were absolutely terrible”), and slipping from a prestige date put the film under a cloud of doubt. Combine that with the limited number of press screenings, and the perception is created that Disney is not fully supportive of the movie.

They should stand tall, though. I have no idea if Disney will make all of its $100 million back, but director John Lee Hancock (The Rookie, 2002) has made a quality picture, whether the audience materializes or not.

In presenting the story, the script (credited to Leslie Bohem, Stephen Gagham, and Hancock) takes the latter approach described above (creating a historical context) and, surprisingly, in so doing achieves the former.

Acknowledging that everybody knows how the movie will end, the pre-title sequence highlights the bloodbath to come, with images of the dead, from both sides. Then it is back in time one year to a formal party of some sort where we meet Sam Houston (Dennis Quaid) and Davy “he prefers David” Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton). Houston is trying to tempt investors out to Texas on the promise that Mexico is done fighting over the land, and Crockett is nearing the end of his political career and sinking behind the veneer of his wildly inflated reputation.

As one person at the party comments, another year earlier and you might have looked to either to one day occupy the White House. Both men have failed to fulfill their potential in the east, and both are looking to re-ignite in the west. Back out west, things are going so well; Sam Houston is sure the Mexican army will return, but the new civil authorities disagree on how to deploy what army they have, and remove him.

Meanwhile, the Alamo. Located in San Antonio, the converted Catholic mission is at a sort of crossroads and lies between any returning Mexican army and the resistance (or bandits, as the government views them). Of course, the Mexican army surprises everybody, covering more than 350 miles in a month and catching the defenders at the Alamo off guard.

Inside the Alamo, there are three groups of men. Under the command of Lt. Col. William Travis (Patrick Wilson) are a couple units of regular army. Conflicting with Travis in attitude and decorum are Jim Bowie's (Jason Patric) volunteer militia units. Finally, shortly before the Mexicans arrive, Davy Crockett and a unit of Tennessee volunteers stumbles into the middle of a mess. Crockett is under the impression that conflict has ended and he might have a chance at being president of a new Texas republic.


©Buena Vista Pictures Distribution

On the other side is General Antonio Lopéz de Santa Anna, played by Emilio Echeverría (familiar to some as The Goat in 2000's Amores Perros). The portrayal of Santa Anna is the film's weakest element. There is no question that Santa Anna was a brutal man and gave no quarter to those who resisted him. However, Echeverría plays him (and Hancock allows it) as so evil you almost expect him to put a pinky to lip and laugh maniacally.

Once the stage if finally set, some may complain that things have been toned down, that it's more boring. But this is the reality; the Alamo didn't stand for 13 days because of valiant defense (though the defense was certainly valiant). The Alamo stood because Santa Anna had reasons for not attacking immediately. Other than a few probing attacks, he was content to let the defenders stew for a couple weeks. Once he decided it was time to be done with it, Santa Anna's forces overwhelmed the fort in a few hours.

Instead of constant action, Hancock builds the awareness for both the audience and those inside the Alamo of their fate. From the beginning, everybody knows they have no hope of repelling an army that outnumbers them more than 10 to one. The hope exists that help is on the way, but it is a hope that fades as the days pass. Facing this, they must choose whether to sneak away (if possible) or fight and certainly die. Pretty much to a man, they choose to die.

The great thing about making a history-based movie about the Alamo is that is mostly undocumented. You get to fill in the gaps between the known highlights. Certainly, though, finding the will to make this sacrifice must have come from the three leaders—Travis, Bowie, and Crockett. And each has a different reason.

It is here that the screenwriters and Hancock find a way to pierce the myth of greatness that surrounds these people while showing that this doesn't make their accomplishments any less great.

Thornton's Crockett is a failed politician who finds himself completely overshadowed by his myth, and despite himself has to try and live up to it. Needless to say, Billy Bob Thornton is better able to base a character in reality than John Wayne was (not that he was particularly trying). You truly feel that he is simply tired of being Davy Crockett. Through his counseling to the other leaders, it is clear he was a good leader himself. However, but for one scene, it is never really clear just why he inspires such loyalty among his men.

Will Travis is a prig, but a less decorous past is hinted at. He won't surrender because that isn't his mission, but you sense that it is in holding to the proprieties that he seeks to redeem some misdeed. The documentation of his real leadership at the Alamo must be sparse, allowing some license. It is an element, though, common to both the 1960 version and this one that despite his abrasiveness, in the end he was a leader of men.

Jason Patric doesn't get a chance to do a whole lot more than mumble and writhe in pain as he dies slowly of consumption, typhoid, or pneumonia (too slowly, it turns out). He is loyal to Sam Houston, but his wife died in San Antonio and he knows he is going to die there as well.


©Buena Vista Pictures Distribution

These three men inspire others to die for ephemeral ideas of independence. Of course, it helps that almost all of them are American pioneers and have no allegiance to the Mexican government that had only recently won its independence from Spain. It isn't so much important if the war for an independent Texas was right or wrong (one of the issues, hinted at, is that Mexico did not allow slavery), but that the men engaged in it thought it was right, and they fought valiantly for ideas considered more important than their individual lives.

Though only in the movie for a few minutes at the beginning and epilogue, Dennis Quaid continues his maturing as a dramatic actor. At first gloss it seems he does nothing but scowl and wear funny sideburns, but he is the most nuanced of the five major characters. He is stuck between charging in and trying to save his men and his friends, or viewing the Alamo as a strategic tool, part of a larger military map.

In the final analysis, the bloodbath at the Alamo served little direct purpose. Strategically, all it did was slow down Santa Anna a little bit, giving Houston more time to gather his army and develop a strategy.

In the end, more than anything, the men at the Alamo died to create a rallying cry, a useful catch phrase to rally soldiers elsewhere to victory. It is the insignificance of the benefit that makes the sacrifice offered by those men all the more significant.

As mentioned, things might seem a bit slow at points, but when Hancock does get to the battles, he does an amazing job. War movies over the last 15 years have competed in a quest to find reality in bloodiness. The horror of war is hardly a new theme, but being assaulted by blood-spattered lenses and flying intestines is perhaps too numbing.

The Alamo had a PG-13 limit on it from Disney (the first director, Ron Howard, gave up the job when his R-rated vision was rebuffed; he executive produces instead) and yet Hancock fully conveys just how violent cannonballs, rifle shots, and bayonets can be.

The nighttime overwhelming of the Alamo is a tense 15 minutes and is probably too intense for younger viewers. However, if you would let your children watch a war movie from 1955, then you'll probably be fine with this. My guess is that the DVD for this movie will be a staple of lazy history teachers for years to come.


Thoughts, questions, or comments? Contact Alex here.


MOVIE DETAILS

The Alamo is a Touchstone Pictures release

Wide theatrical release: Friday, April 9, 2004

Directed by John Lee Hancock.

Screenplay by Leslie Bohem, Stephen Gagham, and John Lee Hancock.

Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Jason Patric, Patrick Wilson, Emilio Echeverr’a, and Dennis Quaid

Rated PG-13 for sustained intense battle sequences.

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes

Alex's Rating: 8 out of 10

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alex Stroup is a degreed librarian with an undergraduate degree in history. An avid reader, movie buff, and devoted “information junkie,” Alex currently lives and works in the Northern California Bay Area. Alex is also the CEO of MousePlanet.

Click here to contact Alex.

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