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Alamo, The (2004) Print E-mail
Friday, 09 April 2004
About 50 years ago, the Disney company set American children on fire with TV episodes, later movies, about Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier, as embodied by Fess Parker. “The Alamo,” also from Disney, isn’t likely to generate the same reaction, even though the best thing about the movie is Billy Bob Thornton as a much more realistically portrayed David Crockett. (He considers “Davy Crockett” to be a glorious image he can’t really live up to.)

The movie was originally scheduled to be directed by Ron Howard, but for various reasons—usually cited as budget and disagreement over approach—he abandoned the movie and it was directed instead by John Lee Hancock, whose “The Rookie” (2002) featured a great performance by Dennis Quaid. Quaid’s in “The Alamo,” too, as Sam Houston, but his performance is far from great.

The same is true of the movie; it’s more talk than action, and most of the characters are ill-defined. However, it’s far from as bad as some critics have been claiming. It was originally set for release at Christmas last year, but was withheld until March, and underwent considerable pruning and paring. As much as a half an hour, maybe more, was excised from the film, evidently mostly in the surprisingly long segment that follows the fall of The Alamo.

Hancock is from Texas, and was determined to depict his state’s most glorious legend as realistically as he could. Certainly in terms of costumes, locations, weaponry and all technical aspects, “The Alamo” seems as realistic as anyone could want. The battle at the climax doesn’t last much longer than it did in real life (15 minutes on screen, 90 minutes in real life), and as in reality, it takes place at night, just before dawn. Here realism might have been sacrificed in the interest of clarity, since most of the battle is explosions, rifle fire and bodies falling, all in a dark orange haze.

The costumes in particular are achingly authentic, and hardly what we’ve come to expect from movies about The Alamo. Many of the men are dressed in tight-fitting jackets with tails, and topped off with tall beaver hats. Crockett doesn’t wear buckskins; he doesn’t even wear his coonskin hat, ruefully claiming the only reason he ever wore it was to live up to what the public had come to expect of him, based on the colorful theatrical dramatizations of his life. Santa Anna’s army is outfitted in dashing uniforms, but the soldiers have no boots; Santa Anna, who considered himself the Napoleon of the West, wears flamboyantly gaudy uniforms. At the end, as he tries to flee from the Battle of San Jacinto, he dons a recruit’s clothes.
It’s hard to judge the script by Leslie Bohem, Stephen Gaghan and Hancock, since so much has been removed. What remains is interesting but uninvolving; the emotional lives of the characters are only hinted at, and only Crockett makes a strong impression. We are told more about Jim Bowie (Jason Patric) than we see on screen; yes, he does whip out that enormous knife from time to time, but we never understand why he’s at The Alamo in the first place.

Accuratley depicting Jim Bowie isn’t easy. He was a rascally adventurer from Louisiana, a slave trader (he has slaves in the movie), a shady land dealer and a skilled fighter. He went to Texas in 1828 and married a local woman, who later died. But what values did he hold that made him willing to lay down his life to try to free Texas from Mexico’s grasp? The movie doesn’t give a hint, and Patric’s performance, while better than his usual frozen-faced efforts, doesn’t lead us to want to care. (It’s hard to believe he’s the grandson of the very expressive Jackie Gleason.) Bowie was on his death bed (from several diseases, he tells Crockett) when the Mexicans finally stormed the Alamo walls.

William Travis (Patrick Wilson) is very young to have been put in charge of defending The Alamo. He clashes with Bowie but, as is predictable in movies like this, they grow to respect each other during the two weeks that Santa Anna lays siege to the old mission/fort. This is such a routine development that it clashes with the more realistic elements of the movie.

Sam Houston is involved in various political dealings, and is unable to raise enough men to rescue the defenders of The Alamo. The movie returns to him from time to time, and of course he figures prominently in the Battle of San Jacinto. But this is one of Quaid’s weakest performances; he has some good scenes at the beginning, particularly with Thornton, but most of the time, he has a fixed, grim glare, as if he had a sourball between his lower lip and his teeth. He’s relentless with this expression, and it’s a serious weakness in the film. Curiously, he’s the only one in the cast to wear a tricorn hat, the kind we associate with the Revolutionary War. It must be authentic—why otherwise would they employ such attention-grabbing headgear?—but it does look strange.

The movie opens with a few scattered scenes after the fall of The Alamo, then flashes back to some time earlier. We meet Crockett, not long out of Congress, who’s heading for Texas (with a group of fellow Tennesseeans) for more elbow room and the free land promised by the Mexican government. A bystander glances at Houston and Crockett, remarking that a year before, either might have run for president of the U.S. It’s unfortunately typical of the movie that we have no idea what this lavish ball is for, or where it is taking place. It seems to have something to do with recruiting Texas settlers.

Soon, everyone busily arrives in San Antonio de Bexar; we see several characters, but only Crockett, Bowie and Travis receive much attention. This flaw affects the entire movie. Well-known actors like Marc Blucas (from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”) are only barely glimpsed. Important historical figures such as Juan Seguin (Jordi Molla) are seen only in brief glimpses.

The story is simple, though the issues were complex. Texas was then part of Mexico, which had tried to entice settlers by offering free land. This worked all too well, because the kind of people who wanted to tear up their roots and transplant themselves in Texas tended to be individualists, not inclined to ally themselves with a government far away in Mexico City. There was a drive for independence, and soon hostilities began. General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna (Emilio Echevarria), the dictator and military leader of Mexico, headed north with a huge army to put down the Texan rebellion. The Alamo was only the first step in what he planned as the complete repression of the rebels, but it turned out to be the start of his downfall. Less than two months later, he surrendered to Sam Houston.

The central idea behind all movies about The Alamo is that these people are there defending their homes against all odds, but this is taken for granted here. I’m not requiring windy, boring speeches that damaged John Wayne’s “The Alamo,” but we needed to have more perspective, more information. Especially in this movie: there really isn’t very much action. Santa Anna’s army attacked a few times, but for almost two weeks, only from a distance by cannon and rifle fire. The movie is very weak in depicting just how much time passes; we know it’s a few days, but that’s about it. And most of that spare time is spent in conversation.

There are some respites, usually when Billy Bob Thornton is front and center. We learn more about Davy Crockett in this movie than in all other movies about him combined—partly because his character is presented so clearly. But did you know that Crockett was a great fiddle player? In two of the movie’s best scenes, Crockett whips out his fiddle and energetically saws away, the first for a dance, the later to counteract the dirge-like martial music from Santa Anna’s marching band. This livens things up in a welcome way, and Thornton looks like he’s having a grand time.

Hancock tries valiantly to liven things up from time to time, but usually his attempts are more showy than they are effective. There’s one shot from the point of view of a cannonball, from when it’s loaded into the Mexican cannon until it thuds to earth inside the Alamo. There are a few crane shots that are pictorially impressive. There’s a wide shot showing the array of soldiers surrounding The Alamo (Crockett mutters “We’re gonna need a lot more men”), and an impressive aerial perspective of The Alamo under siege. But this stuff doesn’t add to our understanding of the characters, just to the epic vision of the movie.

The same is true of the creative, inventive sound track. Surround sound is used judiciously but well, and not only in the battle scenes. In the bustling early scene in San Antonio, we hear voices, horses, marching feet, tackle and other everyday sounds coming from all parts of the auditorium.

Hancock’s direction is unimaginative and obvious; he never fails to put his camera in the most obvious position. But he doesn’t seem to contribute much to the performances. Thornton is a shrewd, intelligent actor, and he’s been given a juicy role here, a regular guy who is a prisoner of his own legend. (And he occasionally shows his why he has that reputation.) He’s even an awesome figure to the Mexican troopers. But the role of Sam Houston is also juicy, though Quaid definitely does not rise to the occasion.

Nor does “The Alamo.” It’s well-made and is clearly more historically accurate than any previous film on the subject. The sets are impressive, the camerawork is generally fine, though corny; much the same can be said of Carter Burwell’s score. It’s unlikely that this script could ever have done more than provide a great role in Davy Crockett, but Hancock clearly has trouble bringing out its other strengths. “The Alamo” is a handsome movie, slow-paced but intelligent; in the last analysis, though, it’s unworthy of its subject.

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