The Alamo

April, 2004, Drama

Third time's a charm, right? Hollywood's initial take on the battle for this historic shrine in the war for Texas independence was first filmed back in 1936. Two-dozen years later, John Wayne almost went broke filming his version, which turned out to be an over-hyped clunker. This latest effort from the Disney studios, while earnest to a fault and abounding in meticulously created sets, costumes and weaponry, never rises above the level of cinematic cliché. It's easy to see why the subject would appeal to commercial filmmakers; a dramatic storyline, great opportunities for creating visually exciting scenes and not one but four--count 'em four--honest to God heroes. You can almost hear the studio heads salivating…so what happened? 

The plot of course, is as familiar as a child's fairy tale; former congressman and frontiersman Davy Crocket, the skirt-chasing, knife-wielding Jim Bowie, and a very tight-assed Lt. Col. William Travis lead some 300-odd American settlers in their lop-sided struggle to retain possession of The Alamo in the face of an overwhelming force led by Mexico's dictator/general Santa Ana. The engagement takes place as part of Sam Houston's effort to wrench Texas from Mexico's grasp in order to establish a separate republic. The Alamo massacre becomes a battle cry for Houston and his fellow rebels, who subsequently defeat Santa Ana and succeed in establishing a short-lived independent state which then becomes absorbed into the Union.

Remember "show and tell" in grade school? Well, really good movies don't tell ya'--they show ya'. Yet this supposed history lesson masquerading as a drama never gets off its badly overworked soapbox in its eager desire to inspire the audience with a tale glorious patriotism.  Co-screenwriters Leslie Bohem, (responsible for such insightful scripts as Dante's Peak & Sly Stallone's Daylight) works here with Stephan Gaghan, who penned the splendid Traffic; both got their starts in television, where the verbal message legitimately takes pride of place over the importance of image. In this effort however, their dialogue cuts against the grain of the movie's look, requiring the actors to give speeches to each other rather than engage in something that might resemble the naturalistic dialogues their handsomely shot physical surroundings require. Examples? Select from the following…(1) Sam Houston discoursing on his strategy for defeating Santa Ana by waxing at length about Wellington's defeat of Napoleon, (2) Davy Crocket's self-deprecating shaggy-dog story about the horrors of Indian fighting, (3) Bowie's description of the fight in which he managed to fell his adversary despite suffering a stabbing plus a pair of gun-shot wounds, (4) Santa Ana's bug-eyed, after-dinner chat with his staff officers in which he discourses on the irrelevance of his soldiers' lives and the despicable character of the Alamo's defenders and (5) just about any of the stilted exchanges between Travis the film's other characters.

Compounding these jarring instances of verbal artificiality, director John Lee Hancock, (The Rookie)-- also a graduate from television --posses no shame when it comes to employing the hokiest of devices; Crocket demonstrating his marksman's skills and defiant courage by shooting the right epilate from Santa Ana's uniform or challenging the Mexican fife and drum core with an impromptu serenade, (fiddled on the Alamo's ramparts)…Travis defusing a bomb in the middle of the fort's parade ground after failing to get someone else to do so… Jim Bowie's death-bed chat with his Mexican nurse, who just happens to be his sister-in-law… Houston's final battle-cry as he leads his troops against Santa Ana's now much-depleted forces, delivered with sword raised from atop his rearing, snow-white stallion, shouting "Remember The Alamo!" But my personal favorite has to be Crocket's historically fallacious execution, at which, as the only survivor, he invites the general and his solders to surrender to him to assure Houston's subsequent mercy.  Making matters worse, all this is accompanied by a musical score that aims for grandeur but hits only one ponderous note after another. 

How do the leads fare under these adverse conditions? Newcomer Patrick Wilson's Travis, stuffed shirt though he may be, manages to wear well, and has the decency to die quite undramtically, killed by a Mexican rifleman attacking the post from which Travis directs his troops. Jason Patric makes a very convincing Bowie at the movie's outset, his macho kept neatly in check by a soft tone of voice and quietly menacing expression--but since he spends the last half of the film in bed dying of T.B., there's little to keep hold the audience's interest. Billy Bob's Crockett, while deftly presented, becomes just too noble a guy for Thornton's screen persona to maintain; each time he smiled, I thought he was going into one of those despicable-but-hilarious routines from Bad Santa. Denis Quaid's Sam Houston may be the worst career decision made by an American leading man in recent memory; this normally fine actor's primary skill comes from his effortless ability to project a Jimmy Stewart-style likeability, the orneriness built into the script's depiction of Houston is simply beyond the star's skill-set. Quaid tries to glower convincingly, but comes off looking constipated; his attempts at expressing leadership fall embarrassingly flat.

A final thought on content, inspired by the relentless efforts of the film's creators to instill some overarching sense of nobility into their characters' efforts while casually vilifying Mexico in the process; should audiences be expected to embrace the notion that the sacrifices endured by those defeated really served a noble goal? As historian William C. Davis points out in Three Roads to the Alamo, his highly readable account of Travis, Bowie & Crockett, the "defenders" of the Alamo really were renegades, without a scintilla of legal right to the land they were seeking to steal from Mexico. Drifters, gamblers, opportunists, refugees from U.S. law, fortune-hunters; a motley crew, even if they were our guys. Do their deaths, however dramatic, resemble the type of heroism we associate with our country's first citizen solders at Bunker Hill, or does the dubious gallantry of Custer and his men at the Battle of The Little Big Horn more accurately indicate a more suitable characterization for this piece of our country's history? 

Does The Alamo have any saving graces? If you appreciate solid cinematography and appreciate the logistics of defensive military engagements, this one can offer some interesting moments; beyond that it's more likely to induce sleep than inspire admiration. Director Ron Howard supposedly walked away from the opportunity to direct this movie, citing differences with the Disney crowd over the script. Smart move on his part--after his work on last year's The Missing, he could hardly afford another embarrassment, especially as high-priced and publicized as this one.   

 

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