April 7th, 2004
What the new take on "The Alamo" has in its favor is historical reverence and some terrific performances from the cast. This mixture of "Saving Private Ryan" grittiness and (bloodless) violence with "Pearl Harbor" cartoonish villains and historical sweep is easier to digest than John Wayne's nutty 1960 epic take on this event.
The drama can get a little pokey at times, and you won't believe how they depict Santa Anna, but the "The Alamo" is a solid historical epic. What once was intended as a mission, the Alamo became one of the most horrific battle zones in Texas history. In 1836, Mexican Army leader Santa Anna (Emilio Echevarria) lead his troops to the Alamo looking to gain ground in his quest for Texas. But once there, the 200 men who populated the fort, including Davy Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton), James Bowie (Jason Patric), and William Barrett Travis (Patrick Wilson), defended themselves from attack for 13 excruciating days, in which their rations, ammo, and hope were slowly exhausted before their brutal defeat.
Part history lesson, part legend debunker, and part Oscar-baiter, “The Alamo” has finally come back up again in the cinematic hopper of historical events to dramatize.
The story of the Alamo has been covered many times before, most notably in a jingoistic John Wayne picture from 1960 that played a bizarre game of touch football with the facts. The new “Alamo” aims to be a more contemplative and accurate reenactment of the battle, and just by the character assassination alone, I think filmmaker John Lee Hancock (“The Rookie”) has done his job very well.
Hancock’s “Alamo” tries to recreate the event from a truthful, yet still cinematic, perspective. The legends of the era are all represented here, and performed with gusto by the more than willing cast. But in bringing these men to the screen, Hancock redefines their myths, and plays up their future legacies at the same time. Davy Crockett gets the most attention, presented here as a byproduct of his own legend, only failing when trying to live up to his public’s expectations. Billy Bob Thornton portrays Crockett as a man divided between the hero that’s been projected on him for years, and the star that he clearly enjoys being through his wide smiles and fearlessness in achieving the center of attention. James Bowie is now a man dying violently of consumption and without a large role in the battle, but still wielding his namesake knives. And Sam Houston (played by a raging Dennis Quaid) is still a pit bull of a leader, but also a more calculating general who knew better than to charge into the Alamo situation with guns blazing. Instead, Houston waits his turn for revenge on Santa Anna, who isn’t afforded such a respectful portrayal. Depicted here as a screaming, ruthless leader and taker of random virginity, Santa Anna comes across as more of a James Bond villain than a historical portrait, which defuses the respectful tone of the film along with some of its credibility.
The film does take a good 90 minutes to get to the legendary battle sequences, and Hancock uses his time well to mount a feeling of hopelessness and rapidly-depleting bravery amongst the Alamo’s brigade. Fortunately, Hancock isn’t one of the growing number of directors who love to suffocate tension through claustrophobic photography. “Alamo” is a wide-open-spaces film, using its big canvas to detail the brutal situation the men faced and the 13 long days it took them to get to history. The drama can get a little pokey from time to time, since there are a great number of characters to tend to, along with the chess-like precision in setting up the spatial relationships inside and outside the Alamo. But as deeply flawed as the film can be from time to time, it’s a great evocation of the event, and brings a new perspective to well-known history.
The filmmakers get a little nutty in the final act, which tacks on a “Pearl Harbor” climax that has the film going beyond the Alamo just so it can climax on an American victory. This type of silly ending isn’t warranted, and needlessly draws out the film way past its expiration date. The story of “The Alamo” should’ve just stayed at the Alamo, and let the history books tell the rest of the story.
My rating: B