Year Released: 2004
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 127 minutes
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For a number of reasons, I didn’t expect this picture to prove nearly as much fun as it did. Originally slated for Christmas release, it was bumped to Easter weekend, a spot on the calendar not exactly synonymous with blockbuster promise. I had read that John Sayles had a hand in its direction but then, in recent weeks, noticed his name had disappeared from the trailer’s credits. Developments in Iraq have pretty much sucked the fun out of the whole war thing where I’m concerned. And then there’s the fact that we all know how the story of the Alamo turns out.
One of the movie’s many surprises was that I actually didn’t and I suspect that will turn out to be the case for millions of other non history majors too. As told here, the saga pivots on the fates of three larger than life figures. The one with whom we spend the most time is Davy Crockett, the fabled Indian fighter turned failed politician. Billy Bob Thornton supplies the heart and soul of the film playing him as a salt of the earth type bemused by his own legend.
When things go sour for him in Tennessee, Crockett heads for Texas in search of a fresh start. The script is light on detail here but we gather it’s an up and coming corner of the frontier, a land ripe with possibilities for a well connected self-starter. Apparently, American forces had driven off the Mexican army a while back and many, Crockett included, were under the impression the issue of the territory’s sovereignty had been settled.
Arriving within the Alamo’s walls at about the same time is Jim Bowie. If you don’t know why he’s famous when you walk into the cineplex, you aren’t going to when you walk out. He’s got a big knife and a bad case of TB. That’s about it when it comes to character development here. For much of the film Jason Patric seems a little like a male model who’s wandered out of a western wear commercial but he does manage a moving death scene.
Far from San Antonio and determined not to come a whole lot closer to it is Texas founding father Sam Houston. Dennis Quaid is on familiar ground here having so beautifully played another alky of the old west, Doc Holliday, in Lawrence Kasdan’s Wyatt Earp. Aside from emptying whiskey bottles, he isn’t given a lot to do until the end of the film but his character bursts to life at that point and provides one of The Alamo’s most gratifying surprises.
The movie contains echoes of two motion pictures one might be unlikely to associate with it. When General Santa Anna (Emilio Echevarria) unexpectedly returns and surrounds the 150 or so men in the fort with thousands of troops, Thornton stares out at the assemblage and offers this variation on the well known line from Jaws: “We’re going to need more men.”
For the next two weeks, the Americans trapped in the Alamo did their best to prepare for battle and keep from going crazy. The portrait writer-director John Lee Hancock offers of the soldiers’ day to day routine is likely to remind many of that rendered of life at sea between engagements by Peter Weir in Master and Commander. Both portray military existence as long stretches of drudgery and boredom broken up by periodic outbursts of mayhem.
While the massacre is a wall-shaking and effective bit of high decibel drama, some of the movie’s best moments come during the Texans’ long brave wait for almost certain death. Thornton brings a quiet dignity to scenes in which he recounts with regret the horrors of an Indian slaughter in which he took part and, later, climbs the fort’s battlements to accompany Santa Anna’s military band on his fiddle. That night the Mexicans didn’t bombard the Americans with their usual sleep-depriving cannon fire.
The Alamo certainly has more of Hollywood than the History Channel to it. With the exception of its central characters, most are familiar shorthand creations. The motives key figures had for getting anywhere near the doomed outpost to begin with-namely the quest for personal treasure-are left fuzzy. And the filmmakers gloss over the reality that Mexico did, in fact, own Texas and was merely attempting to prevent its property from being stolen out from under it by a rag tag collection of fortune hunting opportunists. Is there any doubt the President would have dispatched U.S. forces to do the same had presumptuous Canadians tried to shanghai a chunk of Michigan?
This isn’t a school text, though. It’s a big fat studio production (the set is the largest built by Hollywood in modern times) that infuses old fashioned epic tradition with contemporary sensibility and convincing, cutting edge CGIs. In that context, Hancock and company may not have made movie history. All the same, they’ve made history into a movie almost sure to surpass your expectations.
Posted on April 13, 2004 in Reviews by Rick Kisonak
If you liked this article then you may also like the following Film Threat articles:
- THE ALAMO
- THE ALAMO
- “BAZAAR BIZARRE” AT THE ALAMO DRAFTHOUSE
- HORROR FLICKS AT THE ALAMO
- SUMMER FILM SERIES AT THE ALAMO DRAFTHOUSE
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