Originally designed as a 125 million-dollar, R-rated Ron Howard film, John Lee Hancock's The Alamo takes the rating down a notch and saves, when budget overruns are said and done, the cost of Russell Crowe's salary (Crowe intended to play Sam Houston for Howard). The result probably won't please Disney, Howard, Hancock, or the PG-13 mall crowd, and yet it's not a bad film. Though it's basically old-fashioned and too bombastic by half, The Alamo nevertheless represents a big step forward from the dubious 1960 John Wayne film by acknowledging the flaws of its iconic characters and fitting in a fair amount of commendably accurate historical detail.
According to Hancock's version, the humble Texan outpost known as the Alamo—four low ramparts ringing a roofless church—was the best line of defense against General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, commander of the Mexican army. As played with ruthless brio by Emilio Echevarría, Santa Anna may be unlikable, but he has a point when he blusters, "They are pirates...not soldiers"; the Americans are the interlopers, staking their claim to the Mexicans' native land. In the opening scenes, Gen. Sam Houston (Dennis Quaid) stumps for his cause—making Texas a republic—by encouraging ex-Congressman Davy Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton) to settle there. The skeptical Crockett ("Now what would I want with Norte Mexico?") comes around, seeing the move as a healthy postscript to his fame. Though in real life, Crockett was aware of the threat posed by Santa Anna, the screen Crockett blanches to learn that the Alamo's fighting days aren't over.
Jason Patric plays the knife-wielding Jim Bowie as an understandably surly, hard-drinking consumptive with nothing to lose or gain but his legacy, and Patrick Wilson (HBO's Angels in America) plays Lt. Col. William B. Travis, the commander who must, and does, earn his troops' respect. When handing over the outpost, the outgoing Col. Neal feeds Travis a history lesson about the grounds, punctuated with the sentiment "As goes the Alamo, so goes Texas." Though Marc Blucas is billed, he all but disappears into the crowd, owing to significant cuts in the film made since its originally scheduled opening last fall; likewise, Hancock reduces Quaid's Houston mostly to a series of intense glowers.
Many will find The Alamo painfully talky, but no one can accuse the film of having too little dramatic flair. The screenplay—credited to Leslie Bohem, Stephen Gaghan, and Hancock (though John Sayles also reportedly toiled on it)—depicts the characters as good talkers; though Troy is still a month away, The Alamo has the tragi-mythic feel and sensitivity to honor of an Ancient Greek epic. Hancock sets a haunted tone from the outset, beginning with a series of forlorn images from the battle's aftermath, then introducing his principal characters by rooting through their waylaid lives and wistful memories. Fair warning: though the thirteen-day standoff takes up most of the running time, Hancock holds the final siege at bay until an hour and forty minutes into the picture, then devotes only about eleven minutes to the assault (the last twenty minutes follow Sam Houston to his open-ground confrontation with Santa Anna, a strategy the screenwriters efficiently summarize).
This much-contested project at times seems at war with itself. Among the highlights: Crockett's energetic violin-playing on "The Mockingbird Quick-Step," an aural collage of letters to loved ones on the eve of the final siege, and a single, computer-enhanced, wide-shot perspective on the assault. Among the lowlights: Crockett's rooftop fiddling during the standoff, the unnaturally pumped-up mix which ill serves Carter Burwell's score, and Crockett telling a dead, fallen comrade "I'm real sorry about all this" (Crockett's exit line is even more ridiculous).
Hancock's at his best not when he bolsters the patriotic mythology but when he punctures it (as Crockett says of his coonskin-cap image, "People expect things"), and when he underscores the impact of the event on contemporary history. With its visually slick Hollywood treatment and stentorian patriotism, The Alamo invites contemplation of a grittier treatment, but I'll take this study in fallibility over pablum like The Patriot any day of the week.