Turning its back on the patriotic and legend-enhancing motivations of John Wayne and others who have put on a coonskin cap, this new version of “The Alamo” is a historically credible but overly prosaic account of the most celebrated episode in the creation of an Americanized Texas. Refreshingly revisionist in the sense that it takes a relatively clear-eyed view of the messy lives and equivocal circumstances of many of the key participants, impressively produced action epic delivers a more truthful, less glorified rendition of the famous tale of a few stalwarts who held out for 13 days against an overwhelming Mexican army. Given its generally somber mood and admirable lack of inspirational hype, B.O. prospects look middling rather than large, which is what Disney would need to recoup its hefty investment.
As has been amply reported, this “Alamo” was the film on which director Ron Howard and Russell Crowe planned to reteam after “A Beautiful Mind,” only to walk after Disney balked at the projected $130 million pricetag and R rating. Director John Lee Hancock took over on a significantly reduced budget, but overages at least partly incurred by pic’s delay — and additional post-production in the wake of a canceled Christmas release — are said to have brought the cost north of the $100 million mark after all.
Whatever else can be said of it, the picture does convey a tangible sense of what it must have been like to be cooped up in a tiny compound while being bombarded by cannonfire over nearly two weeks of sleepless nights. Whether or not this constitutes entertainment value will vary from viewer to viewer, but much of the film’s merit rests in its logistical and political clarity, the care it takes to explain why the principals have traveled to Texas from the East and what’s at stake between the Mexicans and the “Texians,” as the rebels are called here.
But as edifying as it is to learn the specifics of how and why such luminaries as Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, William Travis and Sam Houston ended up duking it out with Gen. Santa Anna in the late winter and early spring of 1836, the dramatization is initially as dry and brittle as old parchment.
After a grim prologue depicting the aftermath of the central battle, action shifts to Washington, D.C., a year earlier, with Tennessee politicians Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton) and Houston (Dennis Quaid) comparing notes at a fancy dress gathering.
Expository reels emphasize how Texas, then a part of Mexico with a majority Anglo population drawn by generous land offers, repped a second chance for many men anxious to reinvent themselves after career setbacks and/or personal tragedies. Already legendary for Indian fighting and hunting, the personable Crockett went West after losing a re-election bid to Congress; Bowie (Jason Patric), a brawler known for his outsized knife, was in declining health after the death of his wife; Houston, a former governor of Tennessee, was a habitual drunk and unreliable militia leader; and the youthful Lt. Col. Travis was saddled with the responsibility of defending the Alamo after walking out on his wife and two children.
And while Santa Anna (Emilio Echevarria) is portrayed as an imperious dictator, a self-styled “Napoleon of the West,” he is also supplied with plausible reasons for his give-no-quarter approach to battle; with one of his generals having recently been humiliated by the Texians and unrest stirring, the leader is intent upon reconfirming Mexican primacy over the English-speaking “lowlifes,” as one onlooker refers to them.
Among the more engaging early scenes in the much worked-over script by Leslie Bohem, Stephen Gaghan and Hancock — if anything remains of the first version John Sayles prepared for Howard, it goes uncredited — there is a power struggle for command of the sequestered troops between Bowie and the untested Travis; a political scene in which Houston is found wanting by colleagues trying to forge a Republic in the territory, and some amusing interchanges in which Crockett and Bowie poke and prod one another as they try to separate truth from legend in their lives.
But once Travis eliminates any doubt about his intention to defend the Alamo with 189 men against Santa Anna’s roughly 2,500 soldiers, the film, along with the combatants, settles into a somewhat monotonous holding pattern marked by nocturnal explosions, minor skirmishes and anxious waiting to see if reinforcements will ever arrive.
To rattle the settlers’ nerves, the Mexican repeatedly play a cavalry ditty called “Deguello” (Slit Throat) to remind them of their impending doom, and in a way, the treatment of this tune sums up the film’s pros and cons. For John Wayne’s windy, ahistorical but genial 1960 version of the story, the director-star rejected the song as too banal and unattractive, and substituted the hauntingly beautiful alternate Dimitri Tiomkin had written for Howard Hawks’ “Rio Bravo” the year before, which imbued his picture with strong emotional resonance.
The actual tune as heard here is indeed annoying, but the filmmakers have turned this to their advantage in a charming scene in which Crockett, already established as an accomplished fiddler, provides his own imaginative accompaniment to the piece in a vigorous rooftop improvisation, an interlude that ultimately lends the film a poetic coda.
A more pronounced instance of how fidelity to history bogs down the proceedings involves Bowie, who by all accounts was so beset with consumption he was bedridden throughout the siege; so he remains here, to dull effect.
On the 13th day, Santa Anna launched an all-out pre-dawn assault (accurately portrayed, unlike Wayne’s film, which showed the attack as taking place in the dark). Staged with clarity as to strategy and event, the actual 90-minute battle takes 12 minutes onscreen, and while there is an extraordinary amount of shooting, bayoneting and stabbing, the amount of blood seen is tiny by contempo feature standards.
But the best of this “Alamo” is saved for the end. Again unlike Wayne’s version, which almost unaccountably ended with the heroes’ defeat without explaining the aftermath, Hancock and his collaborators offer a bracing delineation of how, over the following weeks, Santa Anna pursued Houston’s men through the wilds, fatefully split his army up and was finally surprised, taken prisoner and forced to cede all territory north of the Rio Grande in exchange for his life. This climax possesses a sense of anxiety, urgency and impending tilt in the balance of history largely missing from the rest of the film.
Pic benefits greatly from the rangy and reputedly accurate recreation of the Alamo and surrounding compound overseen by production designer Michael Corenblith not far from Austin. Setting has been employed by Hancock and lenser Dean Semler in a handsome but unselfconscious way, although mood of the film is perhaps most set by the weather, which blankets the action with a blue-gray overcast most of the time. Carter Burwell’s score, which employs Gaelic-sounding strains, is more conventional than much of his work, but happily avoids the insistent pounding and point-making of most modern big-picture soundtracks.
Performance levels are inconsistent. Thornton makes for an unusually self-deprecating but entirely plausible Crockett, bringing a friendly, uncloying down-home quality to the most famous defender of the Alamo. Quaid starts off wooden as Houston but delivers in the final 15 minutes, when Houston comes into his own in imagining he can outwit Santa Anna as Wellington did Napoleon. Still, it’s the most critical portrayal of a would-be hero in the piece.
By contrast, Bowie needs more innate wildness, nerve and charisma than is provided by Patric, who also looks far too robust for a man knocking on heaven’s door. And more star power would also have been useful for Travis, a man-in-the-making for whom Wilson can provide no bottom. Echevarria’s Santa Anna, and Jordi Molla, as Texas native Juan Seguin, who allied himself with the Anglos against Santa Anna, have their moments.