Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger wishes he'd seen this before he visited San Antonio and bought a little plastic replica of the mission in the Alamo gift shop. If so, he might have sprung for the pewter one.
"There have been many ideas of what Texas is, what it should become, and we are not all in agreement. But I'd like to ask each of you what it is you value so highly that you are willing to fight and possibly die for. We will call that Texas."—William Travis
The Alamo joins Titanic and The Passion of the Christ in the ranks of high-profile blockbusters with foregone conclusions. If you don't already know that William Travis, Jim Bowie, and David Crockett died defending the Alamo from a Mexican army led by Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana, then you are one of those statistics that the newspaper loves to invoke when they discuss the sorry state of American education. The real questions before this court are: As a movie, does The Alamo compel our attention and demand our emotional investment? As a historical feature film, does it correctly capture the essence of the story?
Facts of the Case
You know the men. Jim Bowie (Jason Patric, Narc), a rough but charismatic leader who wields the SUV of knives. William Travis (Patrick Wilson, Angels in America), an unlikable dandy saddled with command of a backwater fort. Above them all, with a reputation that loomed as large as his shadow at dawn, David "Davey" Crockett (Billy Bob Thorton, The Man Who Wasn't There), a man who can leap rivers and slay hordes of bears.
You know the time and place. March of 1836 in the disputed land of Texas, owned by Mexico but in full rebellion for its own freedom. The Alamo was an incomplete Spanish mission in the town of San Antonio, converted into a makeshift fortress.
You know the outcome. Santa Ana (Emilio Echevarría, Die Another Day) and his army camped outside the Alamo for 13 days, and slaughtered everyone inside during a brief predawn raid. The cocky Santa Ana was later smacked down by General Sam Houston (Dennis Quaid, The Parent Trap).
Well…that's about it. It seems you already know everything.
The Alamo's strengths are in plain view. They built an Alamo. A whole Alamo, on 50 acres of land in the rolling hills of Texas. They built a fledgling San Antonio to boot. Notable Alamo experts were brought in for fact checking. In terms of pure historical accuracy, we're unlikely to ever see its equal. Astute nitpickers can still find fault, but for a Hollywood historical epic, history is given much more weight than usual.
Dogged adherence to factual accuracy gives The Alamo a gritty and realistic feel. When Lieutenant Colonel J.C. Neill is showing Travis the shored-up pike wall, and nonchalantly indicating that an 18-pounder is enough to secure the corner, it dawns on you that you are there watching the real Alamo. Their Alamo is more real than the actual Alamo.
The extras took the names of fighters who were there. Despite some funny-looking hats here and there, this rough crew of historical reenactors is deadly serious and absolutely convincing. In the disc extras, director John Lee Hancock points out that there was never an unconvincing look in any of the extras' faces. These modern Texans are perhaps the most compelling part of the whole movie.
All of this points towards The Alamo's greatest strength: If you are a Texan, you'll probably swell with pride at this film. It does justice to the only state to join the Union as its own republic.
Historical accuracy is supplemented by solid cinematography from Dean Semler. He uses cranes, wire-traveling cameras, tracks, and other advanced camera techniques to great effect, such as showing us the trajectory of a cannonball or putting us into the middle of a cavalry charge. Though the DVD transfer and general video quality are average (the backgrounds are hazy, the palette is overly dark, and edge enhancement crops up), the cinematography is well-handled.
The video quality is average, but the soundtrack shines. Music, dialogue, and effects are crystal clear. The surrounds and bass channels are effectively used to create atmosphere and tension. The battles are of course the main benefactors, but quiet moments are equally attended to.
Extra content goes a long way toward filling in the back story for this film. The most notable extra is a full-length commentary by Alan Huffines and Stephen L. Hardin, historical consultants for the film. In many ways, The Alamo is their film, and they own up to it in the commentary. They tell us (in a pretty entertaining manner) what was accurate and what was glossed over. This is the kind of alternative commentary that DVD should use more often. The director may not always be the best person to talk about the film.
Let's save the best for last. David Crockett is a legend, but the man was real. Billy Bob Thorton ensures that we don't forget it in a deeply nuanced, but above all real, performance. Thorton doesn't strike me as the most charismatic actor of our day, but he is passionate. He imbues Crockett with believable foibles, a lust for attention, and a grounded sense of himself. Though Billy Bob has to recite some of the worst dialogue in the movie, the strength of his performance carries many scenes.
As a historical feature film, The Alamo does correctly capture the essence of the story.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Though an argument can be made that we should judge movies in a vacuum, certain facts about The Alamo's production are hard to ignore. The Alamo was granted a huge budget, somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 million dollars, and made back roughly 25 percent of that in box office revenues. Financial success and artistry don't always go hand in hand, but this is an epic flop. Intended director Ron Howard pulled out of the production with stars Russell Crowe and Ethan Hawke, to be replaced by John Lee Hancock, Dennis Quaid, and Patrick Wilson. The cast/crew replacement decisions make a Hollywood-executive kind of sense: Hancock and Quaid are both Texans, and they worked together on the previous Buena Vista effort The Rookie.
Unfortunately, Hancock did not have the experience to step in the middle to lead a large-scale epic with thousands of extras. The Rookie was a successful movie, but it was on an intimate scale. Ron Howard, with his experience in "big" film filmmaking, was better suited. Hancock shot nearly 100 hours of footage on the grandiose set and tried to make a movie in the editing room. Once again, Hancock went with the familiar in editors Eric L. Beason and Paul Covington, but they seemed overwhelmed by the large scale. It isn't anyone's fault; converting 100 hours of epic footage into a two-hour film is a Herculean task.
This challenge results in a confusingly, frustratingly edited film. The editing continually took me out of the movie, causing me to question where the plot was going. It is choppy and lacks cohesion. Subplots start, or seem to start, but they don't go anywhere. For example, a fired-up slave strides across the courtyard, headed for Lt. Col. Travis Henry's office with a determined look on his face. It is obvious that a powerful conversation is about to take place. The conversation never materializes. This is but one example of odd editing decisions that warp the flow of the story. The editing during the siege on the Alamo is particularly awkward, giving us little idea of what is happening (specifically, why Santa Ana is not attacking). The information is there; it just isn't laid out clearly.
Rumor has it that Hancock wants to release a director's cut with another hour or so added in. If he does this, I have no doubt that it will drastically improve my opinion of the direction, editing, and story.
Given the film's de-emphasis on mythical superhumanity in the characters, it is puzzling why The Alamo leans so heavily on trumped-up Hollywood standbys. The conflict between Travis and Bowie is established through muttered insults when they pass each other in the street. Romantic or touching moments are cued with swelling music, unbelievably swelling music that bulges and finally erupts from your speakers to reach a peak of splendiferousness. I love it when music tells me that something is tragic. Music is not the only culprit, though. Every other scene features worried people huddling in darkness with the gleam of a thousand candles lighting their faces. Speeches and machismo rule the day. The Alamo seems familiar, not because of the history but because you've seen this stuff in most of the romantic epic adventures of the last 15 years. What Southwestern epic would be complete without stirring Celtic music?
Though Thorton gives a fine performance and Patric skates by on moody charisma, the rest of the cast is average at best. When Quaid is good, he's really fun to watch. In this film he scowls and growls and stares, but we don't get a sense of who Houston is supposed to be. The performance is so off that it casts suspicion on his previous fine performances. Patrick Wilson makes Travis suitably annoying by becoming suitably annoying. The most I got out of Patric's Bowie character was that he drinks a lot and got into a fight once. The best supporting performances, aside from the freedom fighter extras who upstage most of the cast, are Jordi Mollà as Juan Seguin and Castulo Guerra as General Castrillon. Jordi Mollà has carried mediocre efforts like Second Skin; he is the kind of actor who pours all of his intensity into each role. I'm glad that Mollà carries the Hispanic contingent, because the script makes a mockery of Mexicans. I enjoyed watching Echevarría's Santa Ana, but the character was a puppet worthy of the most stereotypical propaganda film.
Speaking of the script, either Hancock threw it away or it wasn't particularly conscientious to begin with. Some…okay, much…well, really most of the dialogue in this turkey is laughable. No wonder the actors didn't shine: They had crap to work with.
I mentioned one of the extras above, a laudable commentary track. The rest of the extras are less impressive. The "Making of" featurette is a good example of its genre, but "Deep in the Heart of Texans"…well let's just say that if Texas was a 268,601-square-mile ass, this "Deep in the Heart of Texans" featurette would be a 100,000-square-mile pair of lips ready to kiss it. "Walking in the Footprints of Heroes" is somewhere between the two, breezy but slightly informative. The deleted scenes show a substantial subplot involving Santa Ana's lust for a young girl, and it does nothing to improve pacing or characterization.
Bland direction, poor editing, uninspired performances, and a heavy dose of artificial sentimentality add up to one unfortunate conclusion: The Alamo is a slow and frustrating film. It does not compel our attention or demand our emotional investment.
I desperately wanted to love this movie, but it thwarted me. If the filmmakers had toned down the swells of music, upped the humanity, and found a clear direction, it might have been a powerful film. Texans have an innate reason to love it, and the film is competent enough that it might engage some viewers. To those two groups, I say enjoy it with my compliments.
I've seen this movie done with more fire, passion, and soul-stirring. It was not John Wayne's version of The Alamo, but rather Mann's The Last of the Mohicans. The battles for Fort William Henry are equivalent in scale but much more powerful because we care about the characters. The waiting gives us more to do. The character infighting is more bitter and compelling. It is a superior effort delivered with half the budget.
It would be so easy to put a pun in here about forgetting The Alamo. But this court is above such childishness.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Touchstone Pictures
• "Walking in the Footprints of Heroes"
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