Director tackles complicated story of `The Alamo'

Filmmaker seeks to show gritty, violent truth of siege

Movies: on screen, DVD/ Video

April 08, 2004|By Glenn Whipp | Glenn Whipp,LOS ANGELES DAILY NEWS

History is very messy, and Texas history is messier than most.

So says filmmaker Joseph Tovares, a Texas native, whose well-received film, Remember the Alamo, premiered this year on PBS' American Experience.

"The frontier was a very unforgiving place. It was never about good guys and bad guys. The truth is in the gray areas."

Messy history makes for interesting reading, but it has a tougher time fitting into the time constraints of a feature film. John Lee Hancock, another Texas native, knew that two years ago when he agreed to update that most famous slice of Lone Star history, The Alamo. Still, in hindsight, he acknowledges, "There's a reason people do epic films with just one character. It's more difficult with an ensemble. You want to represent all these different points of view and you just run out of time. It's incredibly difficult."

The Alamo, which opens tomorrow, is the 13th feature-length film to examine the 1836 siege of the famous San Antonio landmark where fewer than 200 men, including legends like Davy Crockett and James Bowie, battled thousands of Mexican soldiers led by dictator Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. The best-known film version was John Wayne's 1960 epic, a movie more concerned with espousing Wayne's flag-waving patriotism than dealing with historical facts. It was a commercial and critical flop.

"With the John Wayne movie, well, there was a place called The Alamo and there were a few of these famous men there -- otherwise you pretty much have to know it didn't happen that way," says historian Bruce Winders, curator at San Antonio's Alamo complex.

And veracity was important to Hancock, who, like Ron Howard before him, wanted to make an Alamo movie that dealt with facts more than mythology. Howard spent several months in late 2001 and early 2002 honing a script, first with filmmaker John Sayles and, later, screenwriter Steven Gaghan (Traffic). The idea, Howard told the Daily News in a 2002 interview, was to make a Traffic-like movie, depicting the events surrounding the siege from multiple points of view.

"We did a lot of research, talked to many, many people and spent a lot of time thinking about how to do this thing in a way that had never been done before," Howard says. "It was an ambitious idea, and I'm not sure if we ever really nailed it."

Ultimately, Howard and Disney parted ways, though Howard remained as producer. There were differences over budget (Howard and producing partner Brian Grazer were looking at $125 million; Disney wanted to cap it around $80 million), rating (Howard adamantly wanted to make a graphically violent, R-rated movie; the studio wanted a more family-friendly PG-13) and compensation (Howard and producing partner Grazer and actor Russell Crowe, who was to portray Gen. Sam Houston, wanted $30 million up front, plus profit participation; Disney wanted the paydays smaller with more money coming later if the film turned a profit).

Hancock, fresh off a left-field hit with the G-rated baseball film The Rookie, was offered the job after Howard passed. What was he going to say -- no? He grew up in Texas City and, like many other Texas boys, played the Alamo in his back yard when he was a kid.

"Lord knows I directed it enough times in that back yard," Hancock says. "In some ways, it felt like my personal destiny to make this movie."

Like Howard, Hancock wanted to make an unsentimental movie, rooted in facts and told from many different points of view. He took a pass at the screenplay, now credited to himself, Gaghan and Leslie Bohem (who initiated the idea and took it to Howard). And as much as Hancock wanted to stick to the facts, he found himself incorporating some of the mythology, as well.

"You have to at least acknowledge that it's there," Hancock says. "There were three questions everyone always asked me when I was making the film. Are you going to have [Lt. Col. William] Travis draw a line in the sand? And I did -- only it was to show where the well was going to go. The Bowie knife? Is he going to pull it out? Of course. And the coonskin cap -- is Davy going to wear it? And he does in the one scene where he's playing the mythological version of himself.

"But I don't see these guys as superheroes flying over the Alamo in capes," Hancock continues. "So you use the mythology to access the characters and then you debunk it."

It is a common practice in historical films these days, Winders says.

"There's much more acceptance of flawed heroes in movies now," he says. "In fact, I think people prefer to see their heroes as human."

Adds Tovares: "You couldn't make that John Wayne version today and get away with it. Audiences are more demanding."

Wayne himself didn't get away with it, although his movie has won a devoted following over the past four decades. Both a love letter and a piece of propaganda at a time when Cold War tensions were escalating, Wayne's Alamo is filled with rousing patriotic speeches, delivered by The Duke himself, playing Crockett.

Hancock's Alamo contains its share of speeches, too, but it tries to give equal air time to the participants. The movie aims to portray the conflict as one that's not simply Mexicans against Americans, but one that includes many Tejanos (Mexicans living in the Texas territory) rebelling against the imposed rule of Santa Anna.

"Everyone has their own Alamo -- it's a tough story to tell," Tovares says. "You have the traditional white, Anglo-Texan view of the Alamo. Then you have Mexican point-of-view and then you have the Tejanos, who largely saw their future tied to the influx of Anglos. They were very active in recruiting people to come to the territory."

For film events, see Page 35.

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