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Alamo, The  (2004)

 

Starring: Dennis Quaid, Billy Bob Thornton, Jason Patric
Director: John Lee Hancock

Rating: PG-13

Studio: Touchstone

Release Date: 04.09.04

Review Posted: 04.09.04

Spoilers: Minor

 

By Sara M. Fetters

 

"The Alamo" Not Worth Remembering

 

Few tales in U.S. history provoke as much discussion and patriotic ferocity as the story of the Alamo. The story of a few hundred men, women and children holding out for thirteen days against the overwhelming army of Mexican General Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana is a rallying cry speaking to the unbending nature of American willpower. In Texas, men like James “Jim” Bowie – yes, the man with the knife – and Tennessee iconoclast David “Davy” Crockett aren’t just heroes, they’re saints; patriots who gave their lives in order to see the rights and freedoms of men prevail in a despotic wasteland.

 

But truth is always a much less misty-eyed animal, whereas history can be colored through the lens of the viewer. It is the truth of the matter, the facts of what led up to the Alamo and the subsequent events that followed that most interested original screenwriter John Sayles (“Lone Star,” “Casa de los Babys”). It was that original treatment that originally drew director Ron Howard (“The Missing”) and with him star Russell Crowe (“A Beautiful Mind”), but with their salary demands and Howard’s insistence on crafting a brutal, R-rated story pushed the boundary of what Touchstone Pictures, a division of Walt Disney Entertainment, had anticipated, the studio decided to pass on working with the superstar duo and proceed in a decidedly different direction.

 

Instead, Touchstone turned to writer/director John Lee Hancock (screenwriter “A Perfect World”) whom most recently met with great success with Disney’s Texas baseball drama “The Rookie.” Re-writing Sayles’ script, along with Leslie Bohem (“Dante’s Peak”) and Stephen Gaghan (“Traffic”), Hancock decided to take the true-to-life epic in a much more family friendly PG-13 direction. Surrounding himself with well known actors like Dennis Quaid (“Far From Heaven”) as Texian General Sam Houston, Billy Bob Thornton (“Monster’s Ball”) as Crockett and Jason Patric (“Speed 2: Cruise Control”) as Bowie, everything seemed to be in place to craft a rousing historical adventure.

 

Yet trouble lingered on. The director’s original three-plus hour original cut of the film did little to please either studio bosses or advanced test audiences. Thus, the original Christmas Day release for “The Alamo” was scrapped, Touchstone willing to give Hancock more time to chop down his sprawling buffet-size meal into a more manageable 140-minute snack.

 

Arriving in theaters today, the resulting $100-million dollar motion picture is a flawed, sprawling examination of the Mexican-American conflict that raises far more questions than it answers. Characters are introduced and then forgotten, while important moments in this event’s history are relegated to unimportance asides. But, it does succeed in making the fight inside the Alamo more than just a jingoistic land grab. And, unlike the forgettable John Wayne ego-filled monstrosity of the 1960’s, I did get that I was watching real, flesh and blood individuals instead of one-dimensional caricatures designed to arouse a boringly pedantic patriotic fervor.

 

For the most part, this incarnation of the story chooses to revolve around the relationship between Crockett, Bowie and beleaguered Lt. Col. William Barrett Travis (Patrick Wilson, HBO’s “Angels in America”), whilst the exploits the hounded Houston bookend the picture on either side. It is the first triumvirate relationship that is the most affecting. Thornton, in particular, is a treat. He really gets inside the ex-politician, come to Texas with his tail firmly stuck between his legs after a disastrous reelection campaign in his home state. Above them all he understands fully the difference between mythology and factuality, and in his furrowed brow it is apparent that only in their massacre can this rebel stand against Santa Ana (Emilio Echevarría, “Y Tu Mamá También”) ever have any real significance.

 

If only the rest of the cast was as fully fleshed out as Crockett is, however. Quaid is fine as Houston, a late film speech comparing his strategy to Wellington’s – the British General who brought down Napoleon – particularly effective. But, other than that one moment, this military man who love to see himself anointed President of an independent Texas is nothing more than an enigma, a soldier with aspirations to empire almost as great as Santa Ana’s.

 

At least he’s got more than one-dimension. Pity poor Echevarría, he’s stuck playing such an inhuman monster I wouldn’t be surprised if Mexicans throughout North America put up their noses and spat towards the picture. Only once does the script hint at greater depth towards the character, Santa Ana admitting to his inner circle his aspirations to rule all of Mexico, but fearing that the American’s won’t be satiated until “they rule the entire world.” It is a prescient sentiment, and taken in consideration with U.S. dreams of manifest destiny, not entirely out of the questions of rational thought.

 

The rest of what they can. Patric dies of consumption beautifully, while Wilson makes Travis a majestically tragic figure. But in what can only be described as glaring examples of the picture’s extreme re-editing, Jordi Mollá (“Bad Boys II”), playing famed Mexican hero Juan Seguin, is reduced to a scene or two of petulant whining. Yet, that’s better than what can be said for “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” favorite March Blucas. Playing famed militiaman James Bonham, his entire role seems to be edited clean out of the picture, the actor reduced to one excruciatingly silly voiceover as he writes a letter to loved ones.

 

If nothing else, “The Alamo” is still extremely well made, every dollar of the studio’s budget up on the screen. In fact, Dean Semler’s (“Bruce Almighty”) cinematography is lusciously filthy, the film photographed as if shot through a haze windswept Texas dirt. Even better is Michael Corenblith’s (“Dr. Suess’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas”) production design. No detail is left uncovered, no facet of 19th Century Texas left untouched, “The Alamo” a true period adventure where the world feels so significantly lived in I could almost imagine walking the tumbleweed ravaged streets myself. Only the usually reliable Carter Burwell (“The Ladykillers”) falters, his musical score a constantly intrusive influence upon an otherwise technically sound motion picture.

 

But it is the script and apparent lack of direction that finally does the film in. Hancock, a director who showed so much promise with “The Rookie,” can’t seems to juggle all his disparate story lines into one cohesive whole. Whole sections appear to be missing, characters fall by the wayside and the whole thing moves with all the care and precision of a 757 lumbering to get off the jet way. Unfortunately, much like past efforts to recount the tale, this is one version of the Alamo not worth remembering.

 

Film Rating: êê  (out of 4)

 

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