The Alamo

Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews Robin Clifford 
The Alamo
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews Laura Clifford 
In 1836 Texas was a part of the empire held by Mexican dictator, General Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana (Emilio Echeverria). But, for 13 incredible days during the winter of that year 186 stalwart Texians barricaded themselves in an old Spanish mission and challenged the might of the Mexican army in “The Alamo.”

Director John Lee Hancock took on the task of helming this epic tale of courage and bravery after Ron Howard passed on the project. While Hancock did a credible job with his previous work, the more personal “The Rookie,” he doesn’t have quite the range, yet, to give an ambitious film like “The Alamo” a firm imprint. As such, the film is a by-the-numbers account of the unevenly balanced battle between the 186 Texian (American-born Texans) and Tejano (Mexican-born Texans) men, led by Lt. Col. William Travis (Patrick Wilson) and Jim Bowie (Jason Patric), and the army, numbering in the thousands, of General Santa Ana.

The story begins at the end of the historic battle as Santa Ana’s men check the bodies of the Alamo defenders. It segues to before the battle with hard drinking General Sam Houston (Dennis Quaid) as he is building up an army set to declare Texas independence from Mexico. He assigns Lt. Col. Travis to take his men to the fortified mission in San Antonio and, if possible, remove the cannon and return them to the army of independence. But, Travis and Jim Bowie, the leader of the volunteer troops, are not able to fulfill the request before Santa Ana’s army descends upon their small but dedicated troops. The plan changes to one of defense as the town folk and soldiers move into the mission and prepare for the onslaught – with hopes that Houston and his army will afford a rescue in time.

Anyone with an interest in America’s history will be familiar with the legend surrounding the Battle of the Alamo, but Hancock (working with a script by the director, Leslie Bohem and Stephen Gaghan) takes a more realistic approach to the subject. William Travis, when we meet him, is signing divorce papers for his wife on the grounds that he is abandoning her and their children. Sam Houston is constantly in his cups as he tries to pull together an army from the bickering factions Texas independence. The legendary Davy Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton) – Indian fighter, scout and former US Congressman – heading to San Antonio with his Tennessee volunteers, hopefully asks the question “Isn’t the fighting all over?” The very human faces of these men help put their titanic struggle in perspective.

To try to describe the events up to and through the battle would be redundant. The outcome is a foregone conclusion with 10 to one odds against the Texas rebels who realize they have little hope for reinforcements. The tiny troop faces, every day of the siege, Santa Ana’s cannon bombardment while his army band plays the defenders’ death song. When the 13th day of the assault culminates in an early morning attack by the Mexicans there is nothing left for the Texans to do but fight and die. Unlike other versions of the famous battle, Davy Crockett is captured by Santa Ana and executed instead of being depicted going down swinging his beloved rifle, Old Betsy.

Acting is earnest at the top level, particularly from Thornton an Wilson, but there is little character resonance beneath the lead players. Billy Bob fares best as the charismatic and all-too-human Davy Crockett, a man capable of being both afraid and courageous – and play a mean fiddle as he challenges the Mexicans to a musical duel during the siege. Patrick Wilson puts an interesting arc on his William Travis character, coming off at first as an arrogant dandy but rising to the position of a leader of men during the course of the Mexican assault. Jason Patric, as the dying, consumptive, knife-wielding Jim Bowie, gets little to do but go physically down hill as the story, and the battle, progresses. Dennis Quaid gives a disappointing, two-dimensional performance as Texas icon Sam Houston, making the man look like a mere drunkard and not a leader. Emilio Echeverria is also without dimension as General Santa Ana, a man who fashioned himself as the Napoleon of the West. As portrayed by Echeverria, the general seemed more a buffoon than an iron-fisted dictator (which may have been the case). The rest of the cast looks the part but gets little, if anything, to do during the course of the film.

“The Alamo” does try to steep itself in reality rather than legend. The leaders of the rag-tag army are not larger than life. They are depicted as ordinary men who must perform extraordinary deeds. Hancock and company eschew the legend in favor of giving the characters truly human faces.

“The Alamo,” like the overblown “Pearl Harbor,” does not end with the famous battle. Instead, like Michael Bay’s exaggerated account of the Japanese sneak attack on the Pearl, a coda depicting Santa Ana’s defeat by Houston six weeks later – hundreds of Mexican troop died in a brief 18 minute fight – at the Battle of San Jacinto to the cries of “Remember the Alamo!” Although an exciting epilogue, this tacked on ending diminishes the drama of the loss of the Alamo and the defenders heroism against overwhelming odds.

Techs are very well done across the board. Dean Semler’s keen camera eye, especially when capturing the heat of battle, lends a crispness that brings out every detail. Daniel Orlandi does a remarkable job costuming the vast cast, from the backwoodsman look of the Tennessee volunteers to the elegant opulence of Santa Ana’s gold braided uniforms. Production design by Michael Corenblith puts you back nearly two hundred years in showing the rural rusticity of San Antonio and the Spanish mission of the title. Original music by Carter Burwell mixes traditional American folk music with the south of the border sound of Santa Ana’s musicians as they play the Alamo defenders death knell.

Hancock and company’s attempt to give fact to the Alamo legend is a plus. It may have been more stylishly handled by the likes of Ron Howard but the honest effort make this a solid, though not great film. I give it a B-. 

As Sam Houston (Dennis Quaid, "The Rookie") works to sell the glories and opportunities of Texas to Americans, young Lt. Col. Travis (Patrick Wilson, HBO's "Angels in America") is sent to protect an old Spanish monastery, now used as a fort, from the 'Napoleon of the West' and self-proclaimed emperor Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna (Emilio Echervarría, "Die Another Day"). It is here that history will be made as circumstance brings together Travis, Jim Bowie (Jason Patric, "Narc"), American legend Davy Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton, "Bad Santa") and less than two hundred volunteers to do what Houston knows is impossible - defend "The Alamo."

Director Johnny Lee Hancock ("The Rookie") has been in post-production reshaping this troubled film (producer Ron Howard left as director when Disney refused to allow an R rating) since it was bumped from its original Christmas release.  While the PG-13 rating certainly softens the gut-wrenching blow that could have been delivered, it is ultimately the emphasis of events that keeps "The Alamo" from becoming the epic rouser it was meant to be.  Still, fine production values and an Oscar nomination worthy performance from Billy Bob Thornton make "The Alamo" worthwhile.

This is the Cliff Notes version of the story, where the only notable players are the famous names.  Outside of the stars, the only characters of note are Juan Seguin (Jordi Mollà, "Bad Boys II"), a representative of all Mexican Texians, Bowie's sister-in-law Juana (Estephania LeBaron), who stays because Bowie had loved and married her Mexican sister, and the slaves Joe (Edwin Hodge) and Sam (Afemo Omilami).  Recognizable character actor Leon Rippy ("Eight Legged Freaks") gets a lot of face time, but little opportunity or dialogue to flesh out Sgt. William Ward.

Houston's introduced as a sot who asks drinking buddy Jim Bowie to return to the Alamo to retrieve a cannon.  Travis is portrayed as a career soldier so ambitious, he's abandoned his wife and children (Zooey Deschanel's actress sister Emily arrives as his wife to serve divorce papers). He is established in mutual loathing with Bowie before relieving the command of Colonel Green Jameson (Tom Davidson), whose recall from the Alamo at the command of Houston is unclear at best. Bowie arrives with a rag tag partying band, contrasting sharply with Travis's more disciplined soldiers.  Davy Crockett shows up, presumably on Houston's earlier salesmanship, surprised to hear that fighting may ensue.  His wry acceptance of maybe having to live up to his legend sets the stage for the encroaching battle.

Having not read the original screenplay (Leslie Bohem, "Dante's Peak," Stephen Gaghan, "Traffic" and Hancock) it is difficult to judge what was removed from the final film, but the decision to keep a coda involving Houston's "Remember the Alamo!" defeat of Santa Anna (a la Michael Bay's "Pearl Harbor") while neglecting to provide the audience with the historical reasons leading up to the massacre at the Alamo was wrong-headed.  While Santa Anna is portrayed as a ruthless warrior, one could also deduce that he was freeing his own people from Texian land grabbers and freeing slaves (nothing could be further from the truth).  Houston's war tactics (he used the real Napoleon's Waterloo as a template) are interesting and the final twenty minutes erase previous, cowardly impressions given of the man, but the final chapter also blunts the Alamo heroics and steals the last act from the deserving Thornton.

And Billy Bob is simply great in this film, a living, breathing Davy Crockett who views his stature with amused self deprecation and understanding of people's need for heroes.  The film's single greatest scene is when the fiddle-playing Crockett defies Santa Ana's ritual of having his troops play "Deguelo," a message meaning no mercy will be shown, before the nightly pummeling of the fort.  Hancock gets everything right in this scene, directing cinematographer Dean Semler's ("We Were Soldiers") camera in an ever expanding spiral from the impish Thornton's rooftop fiddle harmony, all set against a glorious sunset.  The portrayal of Santa Ana's own troops' admiration for Crockett provides most of the film's humor.

Also fine is Wilson, who traverses a strong character arc with authority.  Patric sits out most of the film in a fever state.  Quaid, having shown a resurgence in "The Rookie" and "Far From Heaven," backslides here, playing Houston in a state of jaw set constipation.

The production itself is beautiful.  Production designer Michael Corenblith ("How the Grinch Stole Christmas") and art directors Lauren E. Polizzi ("EdTV") and Dan Webster ("How the Grinch Stole Christmas"), all Ron Howard alumni, give the film a 'you are there' feel.  Use of computer imagery is apparent only fleetingly (most noticeably in a cannonball's point of view sequence).  Carter Burwell's ("The Ladykillers") score is stirring.


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