Don’t mess with Texas
Reviewers love writing about movies like The Alamo; at least we don’t have to worry about giving away the ending. Everyone knows that the Alamo was a makeshift fortress near the Texas village of San Antonio de Bexar where, in March 1836, the massacre of 183 rebels in the Texas War of Independence gave the army of Sam Houston a rallying cry that led directly to the establishment of the Republic of Texas. The new movie, directed by John Lee Hancock from a script he wrote with Leslie Bohem and Stephen Gaghan, aspires to be the last word on the subject. And who knows? Maybe it will be. It certainly looks authentic enough. The clothing looks hand-woven and pressed with irons heated on a wood-burning stove. The nighttime scenes seem to be taking place by the light of candles, campfires and oil lamps. And Hancock and company can boast of getting one thing right: For the first time, the final assault on the Alamo is shown as it actually happened—as a short, savage night firefight that was over before dawn.
Unfortunately, while Hancock (who inherited the project when Ron Howard walked out over budgetary and creative differences) and his writers were getting all these historical details just right, they neglected to develop any drama. The movie’s release was delayed from its original target date of December 2003, and the running time has gone through several changes, all of which suggests an uncertainty about the story the filmmakers wanted to tell—an uncertainty the film confirms. Did they want to focus on David Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton), the most famous of the Alamo dead at the time? On William Travis (Patrick Wilson) and James Bowie (Jason Patric), who shared command and, though they were less famous than Crockett in life, grew in posthumous legend to become his equals? On Houston (Dennis Quaid)? On Gen. Santa Ana (Emilio Echevarría), the corrupt and vainglorious commander who slaughtered the Alamo garrison? Or on Juan Seguin (Jordi Mollà), the Tejano officer Travis sent to Houston for help and who survived, returning a year later to bury the ashes of his friends? All of these characters, among others, parade through the film, but most of them are given such short shrift that only the most dedicated Alamo buffs will be able to sort them out.
The effect we get from The Alamo is that of a wealth of authentic historical details and factoids that never manage to come together into a coherent story. Hancock and company might have done well to follow the example of William C. Davis’ excellent book Three Roads to the Alamo, a triple biography of Crockett, Bowie and Travis that follows their lives as they converge in the Texas Revolution. But even Davis came up against an inconvenient fact: Crockett is by far the most interesting of the three. Bowie—a slave trader and land swindler—was pretty unsavory, though he was a good man to have on your side when the fight was on. Travis, on the other hand, was feckless and high-strung—only 26 when he died—but again, of unstinting valor when the chips were down.
Only Crockett seemed bigger than life in his own lifetime, and the inspired casting of Thornton is the best thing about The Alamo. But what happened at San Antonio in March 1836 always will be elusive, and all Hancock’s film can do is offer new conjectures in place of the old ones. We get no scene of Travis drawing a line in the dirt, but we do get Crockett playing his fiddle while the Mexican army’s band plays in the distance on that last evening. And, in trying to settle the unanswerable question of how Crockett died, Hancock gives us a scene just as Hollywood-corny as anything we got from Walt Disney or John Wayne in their versions of the story.
Hancock is so eager to avoid trite heroics that he deliberately underplays both the fall of the Alamo and the battle of San Jacinto six weeks later. The whole film seems to take its tone from Carter Burwell’s lugubrious, dirge-like musical score. It’s a miscalculation that undoes the movie. In trying to give human dimension to one of the legendary events of American history, the creators of The Alamo succeed only in making it dull.