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The Alamo

By now, the story of The Alamo has passed into legend, just the way we like our American history. The heroes of that battle have become larger than life, even as the actual details are fairly vague. It even has a perfect sound bite.

The event resonates in our culture, even though most people today probably don't know what actually happened. Previous movies on the subject reduced its complexity, Disney-fying it (literally, with "The Ballad of Davey Crockett") just before the storybook closes. But how long has it been since anyone has even seen those?

With his new take on the tale, co-writer/director John Lee Hancock aims to change things. In a move sure to anger those who think they remember The Alamo, he has recast the heroes as actual human beings, and some not even good examples. The fortress itself stands revealed as somewhat small and ill-suited for a siege. Heck, characters even question why it's so important, though nobody complains that it doesn't have a basement. But evidently at one time in history, those who controlled The Alamo controlled Texas.

When he focuses on the small and the human, Hancock makes the legends seem all the greater. But he has also placed them in the midst of an unwieldy narrative that forces him into taking some typical Hollywood shortcuts.

The result is an uneasy mix of polemic and propaganda that sputters as much as it soars. With Leslie Bohem and Stephen Gaghan, Hancock has clearly done his homework on the script, throwing in a lot of details that shed light on what drove the men on both sides of the battle. But he has left almost too much in (this is going to be a monster of a movie on DVD), making sure that we understand as much as possible instead of focusing on the narrative. Rather than edit for story, he seems to have simply sliced for time, resulting in the fifth-billed actor, Marc Blucas (Riley Finn on Buffy The Vampire Slayer), having no actual lines or even an identity. At least he gets to look grim a lot.

For those who don't know how it ends, The Alamo does the courtesy of actually opening with a pan over the slaughter of the brave "Texians" before flashing back a year. This battle isn't just about a singular example of American heroism. This is about the birth of a nation. (Yep - they weren't necessarily fighting for U.S. interests. Notice they keep talking about "The Republic of Texas.")

Trying to midwife that nation was Sam Houston, played by real Texian Dennis Quaid as a drunken but boisterous man with a dream. Quaid turns that boisterousness into his patented scowl soon enough as circumstances do inform against Houston. One day Houston will be president of Texas, but for the duration of The Alamo he is a drawling Machiavelli who keeps Tejano captain Juan Seguin (Jordi Molla) from returning with more men to The Alamo. Eventually his reasons come clear, and the film makes the awkward point that sometimes war requires sacrifice, and that sacrifice is made in lives. As long as you win, you come out looking pretty good.

A lot of the script works like that, throwing in dialogue that stumbles to the right and left politically. From moment to moment, it's hard to tell if the filmmakers think that the battle was worth the cost, or indeed if any battle is. But then, real war may just be that way until history has determined the winners.

General Santa Ana (Emilio Ecchevarria) has been judged harshly by history. A self-styled "Napoleon of the West," the movie gives him a few lines that almost add nobility to his cause. Or would, if the movie also didn't also resort to making him a two-dimensional lech and utter jerk who considers the soldiers under his command as "nothing more than chickens." He means poultry, not cowards.

One might have hope for the portrayal of famed knife-fighter Jim Bowie (Jason Patric). Beloved by his men, he might be an old-fashioned fun drunk capable of greatness but for two things. For one, Patric plays everything with deadly seriousness. And then about an hour in, he coughs portentously into a handkerchief. If you know movies, you know what that means. Sure enough, there's blood, and you just know that Bowie will probably die in the middle of the final musical number.

But Bowie serves as a bridge to the real heart and soul of the film, Davey Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton). When the film turns its focus on Crockett, it comes alive, because Thornton himself has a focus and a through-line. Sam Houston may be fighting for Texas, but that's too big for an audience to grasp. Davey Crockett, however, fights himself, and we're right there with him.

If there's a legacy of Jim Bowie, it's in the knife that bears his name, but Crockett's legend started in his own lifetime, and it's obvious that he fears it. In a sheepish confession to Bowie, he avers that he only started wearing a raccoon skin cap because a play about him said he did. He also has trouble convincing a soldier who saw that play that it wasn't really him.

Of all the figures of The Alamo, Crockett looms the largest, and Hancock will probably get the most heat for this portrayal. (Forget about The Passion of the Christ stirring controversy; you do NOT want to tell Texans that just maybe The Alamo didn't go down the way they say it did.) When Crockett realizes that he has come to The Alamo just in time for war, fear runs across his face. But he also knows that everyone expects the legend - "if I was just simple ol' David from Tennessee, I might drop over that wall and take my chances," he says, "but that Davey Crockett fellow, well, they're all watching him." And he does live up to that legend.

It's a powerful and moving role, and when Crockett's fate plays out (again, not like Disney and John Wayne said it did), it's even more affecting. Thornton lifts the movie into greatness again and again. Unfortunately, it goes on for another twenty minutes or so after he leaves it. Sure, Hancock has to cover the Battle of San Jacinto, too, but by that time we have lost the only character we truly came to care about.

Though not the perfect work that Hancock and (ironically) Disney hoped to achieve, The Alamo is fairly intelligent and entertaining. For my money, it's even better that it will surely provoke argument and discussion. Few enough movies do that.


Derek McCaw

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