this new Western be remembered?
Friday, April 9, 2004
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.
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
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 leadersTravis, Bowie, and Crockett. And each has a different
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.
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.
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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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
questions, or comments? Contact Alex here.
is a Touchstone Pictures release
release: Friday, April 9, 2004
Directed by John
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
8 out of 10
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.