One common complaint I've heard from people, who've only relied on the negative pre-buzz on The Alamo, is that we don't need another movie about this story since it's been told so often. With only The Rookie to his major credits, you'd expect that director John Lee Hancock would fashion another crowd pleasing bowl of mush, but the only people likely to praise The Alamo's virtues are History Channel devotees. Texans would rather remember the myths they've grown up with or seen in unabashedly patriotic Walt Disney and John Wayne renditions full of Lone Star state flag waving. The idea that failed marriages, political opportunism, and land grabbing stood behind defenders of the San Antonio mission simply doesn't wash with traditional Texas hero mythology. But that's exactly what Hancock strives to do in his flawed epic, as if patterning his new Alamo epic after the advice Billy Bob Thornton (as Davy Crockett) offers an obviously uncertain Colonel Travis before addressing his men: "tell the truth."
Of course, the film's historical accuracy must now be inevitably dissected and debated, but I'll leave that for professional historians. The greater themes of Hancock's treatise contain validity and may get overshadowed by the details, but does the drama work cinematically?
A mixed blessing, at times The Alamo strikes fresh chords of honesty but other times holds back by inserting formulaic scenes to placate the mainstream. Most of the problematic scenes involve Sam Houston (Dennis Quaid), whose brief story frames the movie and provides the uplifting ending that Hollywood thinks American audiences demand after a devastating massacre. An extended DVD version might provide more nuances in Houston's character, as only glimpses are allotted here to get down to a 137-minute running time. It's certainly not the heroic personification that Texans generally envision, with Houston seeking solace from the bottle when not scheming for power, or skipping rocks across the river while tactically retreating before inflicting his Waterloo style revenge on the self-proclaimed Napoleon of the West.
His one-dimensional adversary, Santa Anna (played by Mexican character actor Emilio Echevarria) doesn't fare much better. Strutting around like a peacock, the Mexican general ruthlessly executes prisoners to make sure the rebels fear him, and he doesn't regard his own troops any higher than expendable chickens that ensure his glory in battle. His only honorable act consists of allowing Mexican nationals to vacate the Alamo before the final massacre, a rote exercise that's been established in historical records. Rather than wait one more day for a 12-pound cannon that would spare Mexican troop casualties, he maps out a simplistic battle plan that his officers regard with disdain. How hard is it to figure out a way to overwhelm a handful of enclosed rebels when you have 7,000 soldiers at hand? Unlike a film like Tora! Tora! Tora!, Hancock doesn't strive to get inside the enemy's head, instead serving up a ridiculous and malevolent caricature of an adversary.
Sufficient backstory information is included to let us know that the San Antonio mission has served more as a fortress than a church for over a hundred years and that many are being lured to Texas territory with promises of land—760 acres worth. But primarily the film focuses on the characters of the three legendary principals of the Alamo, confirming John Wayne's basic outline that militia Colonel Jim Bowie (Jason Patric) conflicts directly with steady (by the book Lt. Colonel William Travis (Patrick Wilson) with Davy (Call me David) Crockett serving as liaison between the two head-strong leaders. An uncomfortable truce is brokered between the two, which grows to greater respect and acceptance due to Bowie's bout with tuberculosis and Travis' act of bravado when Mexican cannon balls blast into the undermanned fortress.
All three main characters reveal human qualities never before allowed in sacred Alamo stories. Emotionally cold and so dedicated to military life that he forsakes his wife and family, Travis signs divorce papers and farms his son out to another good family so that he'll have adult male supervision (and hopefully a better father figure than he could be). The more outgoing Bowie contrasts radically with Travis with his passion for life, but he's wondering if his land-grabbing has been worth it, having lost his beloved wife and knowing full well that tuberculosis will soon end his life. By far the most developed character is Crockett, and the perfectly cast Thornton brings an honest humanity to the "lightning-riding" Tennessee legend never portrayed previously. In fact, Crockett freely admits that he never even donned a coonskin cap until a contemporary actor began portraying him in one—it was politically expedient to match the wildly popular play persona.
Hancock draws freely on the old adage that "heroes are made—not born" in his earnest history lesson. Although the idea that Crockett sought out new frontiers after Tennessee got too civilized is all part of popular lore, this film emphasizes his political motivations. In addition to the promised Texas land, Crockett anticipates reviving his political career in the new territory, mistakenly believing that the conflict with Santa Anna is over. Had his folklore reputation not preceded him, he might have lit out for the hinterlands. Fortunately, for Alamo lore and for the sake of this film Crockett stays put, dominating the narrative and manufacturing the best scenes. Any good war movie worth its salt incorporates anti-war sentiments, and Crockett fittingly gets two outstanding moments—one time compassionately chatting with a young wounded Mexican soldier, and another invoking the tradition of comrades in arms by breaking out his fiddle on the Alamo rooftop to liven up the nightly dirge played by the Mexican army band. It may be hokey, but Thornton's flying fingers, sincere musicianship, and good naturedness make this one scene to remember.
Thornton has another memorable scene following the carnage, as this new debatable sequence doesn't have Crockett making his last stand flailing away on the Alamo steps or getting bayoneted outside Jim Bowie's doorway. The unlikely scenario gives Crockett a chance to surrender, and his homespun response gives us one last shot of humor before he goes out honorably. It also contrasts 180 degrees with Santa Anna's similar moment in front of Sam Houston, tarnishing forever any glories the general had obtained earlier against the Spanish.
The Alamo, like its protagonists and defenders, remains an imperfect film when dealing with its lesser characters. But it hits enough true notes to elevate it above the usual patriotic flag waving renditions to recommend it. Documentary films weren't around in 1836, so it's up to filmmakers like Hancock to offer new interpretations that don't just rely on accepted folklore. If nothing else, the contrast between the flesh and blood characters here and previous fictionalized and glorified heroes should spark enough interest to inspire curious viewers to seek out more source material. Expect this more realistic film version to air on the History Channel and be the subject of history professor roundtables in the near future.