It started life as a supposedly gritty R-rated project to be helmed by Ron Howard, with Russell Crowe cast as Davy Crockett. But Howard and Crowe walked (though the former is still listed as producer), whereupon the project inherited John Lee Hancock as director and Billy Bob Thornton as Crockett, and was stripped of some of its grit, bringing it down to PG-13. (It still gets away with an upped violence quotient, presumably on the grounds of being historically “significant.”) You know you’re in trouble when you need a director less edgy than Howard!
The movie as originally conceived reportedly clocked in at three hours, and was supposed to hit theaters last Christmas. Its release was obviously pushed back, and the whole thing has since been re-edited (losing nearly an hour of footage in the bargain). I would like to think that the folks at Disney were doing us a favor, and had decided it would be needlessly cruel to ruin Christmas; the truth is simply that they knew they had a problem, that they didn’t have the Oscar-winner they hoped for, and that they needed to slap a Band-Aid on the thing before putting it out.
If nothing else, the filmmakers succeeded in making it shorter, and for this, I am grateful — though I admit that my eyes rolled back in my head the minute I saw that another film about the Alamo was headed our way in the first place. Did they make it better? Never having seen the longer version, I can’t say — but I’m hard-pressed to believe that they made it any worse. Anything that shortened the performances of Dennis Quaid (as Sam Houston) and Emilio Echevarria (as Gen. Santa Ana) would seem to be a blessing.
I have no clue what Quaid thought he was doing (or, for that matter, what director Hancock thought the actor was up to), but he plays 90 percent of the movie looking like a deer that was stuffed by a taxidermist going for that exact “caught in the headlights” moment — something that’s thrown into even sharper relief when Quaid’s otherwise-stoned-out-seeming Sam Houston is afforded two scenes of out-of-character lucidity.
Echevarria is another matter. The actor who was so brilliant in Amores Perros is saddled with a poorly conceived — almost comic opera — role as Santa Ana, who’s presented here with the kind of lip-smacking villainy that suggests Echevarria screened Wallace Beery in Viva Villa once too often.
The trailers went out of their way to suggest that the film would depict two sides fighting for what they believe in; however, The Alamo merely offers cardboard villainy in the place of a believable Santa Ana (complete with the general bedding a hapless young woman as respite from the rigors of battle).
The worst of The Alamo is that it wants to have its myth and eat it, too. The film cheerfully sets out to debunk the larger-than-life aspects of its heroes, only fitfully succeeding with Billy Bob Thornton’s Davy Crockett; yet then the movie proceeds to mythologize these guys anew. That is, if you can truly call it new, since much of The Alamo is built on movie cliches. I couldn’t decide whether to groan or laugh when Jim Bowie (Jason Patric) let us in on the fact that he has TB by coughing blood into a handkerchief, but all I could think of was Cornell Wilde as Chopin in the ultra-campy biopic A Song to Remember. I definitely settled on groaning, though, when stiff-backed William Travis (Patrick Wilson) had to prove himself as a good and brave fellow in not one but two painfully calculated scenes.
While the movie flirts with rewriting history, it neatly sidesteps anything too revisionist, or else just doesn’t explain itself. There are bits that play on the Texians wanting the right to own slaves; however, this is never presented as a real issue, nor is the fact that the Texians are backing out of an agreement to pledge their allegiance to Mexico. Those issues are just too thorny for this movie, which also suffers from Pearl Harbor syndrome. Much as that earlier film couldn’t leave its story at its central event — and had to drag on for another 45 minutes to show Japan getting some comeuppance in the Doolittle bombing raid on Tokyo — The Alamo isn’t about to leave America (even if it wasn’t yet America) with its nose in the dirt; the film goes on for one more reel to show Houston destroying Santa Ana’s army, capturing the general and getting him to sign over Texas as the price of his life.
Whatever else The Alamo is, it’s nothing if not a product of the era in which it was made. The only thing that really sets the film apart from anything else done on the topic is Billy Bob Thornton, whose take on Crockett is almost worth the price of the ticket. His performance is fresh and humorous — and even uncomfortably real at some points. But the film itself is simplistic history and pompous, jingoistic propaganda; worst of all, it lacks much in the way of excitement.
And finally, it’s all rather ordinary. Doubtless, The Alamo would play better to a Texas-history enthusiast, but this film is far from the intelligent epic it aspires to be.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke