Contrary to popular opinion, we Texans don’t spend our time commiserating about the Alamo. Oh sure, we know what happened there, or at least the gist of it. Then again, so does your average High School History student in Anchorage, Alaska. In fact, my knowledge of the Alamo is mostly culled together from old John Wayne movies and the History Channel. That said, rest assured that my status as a Texan does not color my review of the film the least bit.
“The Alamo” tells a straightforward tale of what transpired before, at, and after the battle for the Spanish mission called the Alamo. It opens with Sam Houston (Dennis Quaid) receiving word that the Alamo has fallen, and then flashes back to the events leading up to the battle involving a few hundred Texians (what they called themselves back then) and the mighty army of self-declared dictator of Mexico Santa Ana (Emilio Echevarria). Joining the Texians in the crusade is legendary bear and Indian fighter Davy Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton) and the equally legendary knife fighter James Bowie (Jason Patric). As history relates, after 13 days of skirmishes the mission finally fell when the Mexican army caught the Alamo defenders literally sleeping.
At over two hours, “The Alamo” should have been 30 minutes shorter. As a bloated epic, it reminds one of “Pearl Harbor”, where an inane love triangle was manufactured to take up the film’s first hour, with the middle 30 minutes dedicated to the infamous raid on the Hawaii naval port. As with that World War II epic, the 20-minute epilogue of “The Alamo”, where Houston defeats Santa Ana after leading the over confident dictator on a long march, feels out of place and unnecessary. If the entire point of the film is the battle for, and eventual fall, of the Alamo, why encumber the picture with a pointless 20 minutes that completely saps all the energy out of the film?
Its ill-conceived final 20 minutes aside, “The Alamo” is a mostly entertaining and rousing action-adventure anchored by three fine performances. Billy Bob Thornton (“Bad Santa”) redefines the flawed hero with wild success, and had it not been for the box office failure of the film, surely more people would have realized what a fabulous job he did here. In Thornton’s hands, Davy Crockett is anything but the legend that stage plays are modeled after, and perhaps nothing shows this more than the look on his face when, having arrived at the Alamo, he’s informed that the battle hasn’t even begun yet. You see, Crockett is an opportunist, and having failed at politics back in his native Tennessee, he’s hoping to hit the ground running with a new career in a newly borne Texas. Much to his chagrin, Texas is still very much under Mexican control.
Joining Thornton is Jason Patric, playing a stout James Bowie. Like Thornton’s Crockett, you can practically see the failures and faults on the face and hollow eyes of Bowie. Stricken by an illness that forces him to bed for much of the fight, the film loses one of its biggest assets when Patric disappears into the background halfway in. Luckily Patrick Wilson is available to fill some of the holes left by Patric. Wilson holds more than his own as William Travis, the officer in charge of the small patchwork army. A man with his own shameful past, Travis hopes to make a new start, but his way of doing things causes him no end of problems with the mostly volunteer Texian army.
With its big budget and large sets, “The Alamo” should have been anything but the royal failure it proved to be. The story itself is epic, and the narrative is rife with heroism and personality. Alas, the film was doomed by the one thing it couldn’t control — rumors. Bad, bad rumors. Of course it probably didn’t help that Ron Howard, originally tapped to direct (and even came to Texas to scout locations), left the project. John Lee Hancock (“The Rookie”) took over, and while he does a fair job, one can’t help but wonder what a bigger name like Howard would have done for the film. With Howard on board and working from a script (minus the much belabored epilogue) and the cast at hand, the makings of a great epic was there for the taking.
And while “The Alamo” as it currently stands is quite flawed, the final product is still pretty good. For fans of historical epics, this is a deserving entry in the genre. And more than any film dealing with the doomed battle, 2004’s “The Alamo” certainly takes its cue from new evidence that sheds light on what actually happened, as well as frank illuminations on its more colorful characters. So ignore the bad hype and take a chance on the Alamo.
And if you do decide to take my advice, do yourself a favor and turn off the movie after the film takes its leave of the Alamo. The rest of the film is dead weight that should never have survived past the work print.
John Lee Hancock (director) / Leslie Bohem, Stephen Gaghan, John Lee Hancock (screenplay)
CAST: Dennis Quaid …. Sam Houston
Billy Bob Thornton …. Davy Crockett
Jason Patric …. James Bowie
Patrick Wilson …. William Travis
Emilio EchevarrÃa …. Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana