A film review by Craig J. Koban

 

THE ALAMO jjj
Ĺ 

2004, PG-13, 137 mins.

Davy Crockett: Billy Bob Thornton / Jim Bowie: Jason Patric / William Travis: Patrick Wilson / Santa Anna: Emilio Echevarria / Sam Houston: Dennis Quaid / Juan Seguin: Jordi Molla / Chief Bowl: Wes Studi / Sgt. William Ward: Leon Rippy

Directed by John Lee Hancock /  Written by Leslie Bohem, Stephen Gaghan and John Lee Hancock

 

The Alamo (Style A) Reprint Movie Poster

After a grueling seven month shooting schedule, a budget of nearly $100 million dollars, and constructed sets that are the biggest ever built for a North American shoot, John Lee Hancockís revisionist portrayal of THE ALAMO has been released.  Conventional wisdom would dictate that this would be a big, grand, rousing adventure film fuelled by testosterone, large and seeping battle scenes, and overwhelming spectacle. 

Well, it sort is all of that, but it's also kind of surprising how much more it really is.  The infamous battle for the Alamo, which eventually lead to Mexico signing over all of their rights to the Texans that lead to that landís creation as the 28th US state, has always been a integral and nearly mythological battle in the annals of American warfare.  Its story has been filmed before (John Wayne directed the 1960ís version, which comes across more as a John Wayne western then it does a stimulating historical biopic).  However, director Hancock does not sugarcoat this story.   Rather, he attempts at humanizing the tale while still managing to be faithful to those that see the story as an endearing myth.   THE ALAMO is not so much about bloodshed, but about the men who spilled their blood for what they wanted.  A considerable amount of critics have slammed this version and I think I can kind of see why:  they expected epic spectacle, not an inquisitive and sensitive human story.  Itís a shame that the film did poorly at the box office Ė itís really quite great. 

The film has also been panned for its largely downbeat mode and its anti-climatic tone.  Huh? Excuse me?  Anyone who has taken a history class in any North American school will undoubtedly know the story of the Alamo, a story that was ripe with sacrifice, death, and patriotism.  To say that the film is pessimistic because everyone dies truly misses the point.  Interestingly, Hancock opens the film by showing us the carnage and brutal effects of the siege of the Alamo after it occurred, perhaps in an effort to remind the viewers that, hey, everyone did lose their lives. 

This is not a Hollywood conventional war story where the protagonists overcome immeasurable odds to achieve ultimate victory.  Truth be told, the carnage of the Alamo struggle did lead to the eventually defeat of General Santa Anna by the Americans (lead by Sam Huston), which further led to the creation of the Texas state.  But make no mistake; this is not an upbeat film despite its momentary upbeat final ten minutes, which shows the victory over the Mexicans.  This is a film about dread:  the dread of going to war when you face loosing odds, the dread of loneliness as you and your fellow patriots wait for an attack - for days on end, and the dread of knowing you're going to most certainly die and waiting for that to occur.  The story of the Alamo may end in victory, but it is permeated by real tragedy, and Hancockís film personifies this wonderfully. 

THE ALAMO opens with the Texas Revolution of 1836 well underway.  We are slowly introduced, one by one, to the main protagonists and antagonists of the piece.  There is General Sam Huston (Dennis Quaid), the mythological American figure of Davy (he prefers to be called ďDavidĒ) Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton), the drunk, sick, and expert knives man James Bowie (Jason Patrick), the army colonel William Barret Travis (Patrick Wilson) and, of course, the General of the Mexican militia, Santa Anna (Emilio Echevarria).  The men of the Alamo not only face off against the impossible numbers of Santa Annaís men, but also engage of a battle of wills over themselves. 

The leadership of the rebels at the Alamo is chiefly contested between Bowie and Travis.  Travis, as played by Wilson, is kind of one of those striking, confident, and humourless patriots who would rather die in a blaze of gunfire and glory than die as a slave to another man.  Many of the men donít like the stiff posturing of Travis, but do stand by Bowie, who seems more down-to-earth and less dramatically grand.  Eventually, the two men have a battle of wills, a democratic vote as to who shall lead the men, and then a final truce between them because, quite frankly, who has time to squabble when you face death at the hands of another army?  The truce is also settled largely because of Bowieís condition: he is weakening and dying of tuberculosis, and maybe even of other diseases. 

Hancock exercises considerable patience with these expository moments, and does not feel the need to rush us straight into battle.  The human dynamic is what makes this ALAMO stand out, and I like the way he explores the clashing of egos between these two strong willed, but stubborn men.  Itís kind of poignant and sad to see the withering Bowie not only face the fact that he is dying of disease, but trying to brace his men around him for their own inevitable deaths at the hands of Santa Anna.  I also like how Travis is shown not as an over-the-top war caricature, but rather as a man of strong principles who stands by his own pretensions.   

Both characters are offered the chances of humility in the film, and two moments do an expert job of humanizing them by making them resonate as real figures.  One of the moments occurs when Travis, knowing that no more troops are coming to aid his men, delivers a speech to them that encapsulates both strength and determination while, simultaneously, revealing his own vulnerability and sadness for whatís to come.  Itís one of the more powerful battle speeches of recent memory.  The other moment occurs when the dying Bowie, barely able to get out of bed, is giving two revolvers and waits and waits and waits for Santa Annaís men to burst in to take what little hours he has left in his life.  Bowieís final moments are touching and fatalistic. 

The best element of the film is Hancockís handling of Davy Crockett.  Yes, that same archetypal figure in the coonskin hat that was portrayed by John Wayne in the 1960 original.  Ironically, Crockett comes across as the most human and real of all of the Alamo patriots, and this can probably be largely attributed to Billy Bob Thorntonís performance.  We learn briefly of his enormous legend (which even Santa Annaís men have heard of) - that he can leap rivers at a single bound, wrestle bears to their death, and hit the smallest targets with his rifle at the most inhuman distance (the latter is kind of true, in one of the filmís more humorous moments).  Yet, this filmís Crockett is not a myth or a western super hero, but just a man with real doubt and regret.  He still is a charming chap and has that sardonic smile that makes you kind of feel heís hiding something, but he is always the first to point out the legend behind himself is largely erroneous and bogus.  He takes great pains to explain that he canít do any of the things that the traveling plays that gave him his legendary frontier status depict, and that, gee whiz, he has a life completely separate from his myth.  Too many think that he has superhuman strength and dexterity, but far too many also forget that he is just a simple US Congressman that, fate would have it, led him to the Alamo. 

Crockett occupies two of the filmís greatest and most emotionally tender moments.  One occurs with his retelling of a brutal and barbaric US army massacre (which he was a part of) of the Native Americans, whose outcome makes him refuse to eat a particular supper meal.  The other, even more endearing, occurs when he strikes up his violin and serenades to the Mexicans (who have brought along a band with their troops to play to the Americans before they launch a canon strike).  It's one of those beautifully realized moments where two sides, despite their inherent differences and determination to destroy one another, can find a small and decisive moment to remind one another of their own inherent humanity.  When the serenading is done, you can see so much conflicting emotions in Thorntonís eyes.  Heís happy to have shared such moment innocence, but is melancholy and sad at the same time because itís only a momentary lapse before his eventual death.  Many war films donít have time to be this sentimental. 

All of this, of course, leads to the battle of the Alamo, which is brutal and uncompromising.  We see the Mexicans first achieve surprise over the Americans, scaling up the ladders up the walls, which result in many deaths and casualties.  There are many close hand-to hand battles, which are done so chaotically and intensely that Hancock and company fully realize the pathos of battle.  All of this is combined with those big, sweeping, epic ďmoneyĒ shots that sort of take on a sick kind of beauty and grandeur in their own right.  There is also immediacy to the carnage.  Some of the protagonists that have been established for so long in the filmís first two acts are killed and die quickly.  Their deaths are not glorified and drawn out; they die as all men do in war Ė without haste or hesitation.  Hancock also shoots the battles with real actors and stuntmen on real sets without any apparent use of CGI or special effects.  This is greatly refreshing, especially in our day and age where computers create synthetic soldiers to do battle with other manufactured enemies (like in TROY and THE LORD OF THE RINGS films).  One critic nailed the film for not being as big, grand, and exciting as the Battle of Helms Deep in THE TWO TOWERS.  I think he misses the point.  In fantasy we want big and powerful visuals, but for historical dramas I think we demand more intimacy and realism.  Surly, the battle in Peter Jacksonís film is strong and visceral, but Hancockís battle feels more true to life. 

THE ALAMO is not perfect.  It does somewhat suffer from an all-too-quickly paced resolution, which seems to be in a rush to conclude the film.  The post-Alamo siege is followed by Santa Anna and his troops chasing after Huston and his men.  A lot of these concluding sequences that deal with Huston and his men seem too abridged (apparently, over 20 minutes of this footage was edited out of the final version) and Hustonís attempts at garnering a rousing speech to his men does not work as powerfully as Travisís to his Alamo patriots earlier in the film.  Dennis Quaid, as Huston, seems a bit stiff and stoic in the role, and his character seems a  less invested in and developed than the other protagonists.   

Nevertheless, THE ALAMO is a very successful attempt at deconstructing the myth of the legendary siege of the fort and wisely investigates its characters as human and faulted figures and not as invincible soldiers.  The story is kind of sacred material for many an American history buff, but I think that Hancockís handling of the material is appropriate for our modern age, which deals with historical details of the past with a much more scrupulous eye.  But whatís most refreshing about this ALAMO is that it gives a real sense of what its like to wait days and nights for your defeat and death and goes behind the scenes to show us what these brave men are thinking.  When it comes right down to it, all the men where doing was fighting for Texas (Mexico had it, and they wanted) and they would do anything, even dying, for a chance at it.  Blind patriotism is rarely told with a level of restraint, focus, and a poetry that Hancockís film attains. 

 

  H O M E