Not Much To Remember

Billy Bob Thornton as Davy, Davy Crockett is best thing about uninspired 'Alamo.'

April 09, 2004|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Thank goodness for Davy Crockett; without him, the Alamo could have proven the blandest heroic siege in movie history.

Advance billing has trumpeted The Alamo as a true depiction of the battle that swayed Texans' hearts and minds toward independence - a problematic assertion, given how little really is known of what actually happened on that February morning back in 1836. All the fort's defenders died, meaning history has had to rely on legend and the accounts of the victorious Mexicans, who failed to report in detail the manner in which the rebellious Texans were killed.

This Alamo may stray as close to the truth as Hollywood will allow, and for that, history buffs should perhaps be grateful. But as a movie, it comes up wanting. It's seriously devoid of back story; just what everybody was fighting for, and why, is never made clear. For its drive, it relies on such tired war-movie cliches as last-minute letters to loved ones and dandified opponents who just don't measure up in the heroism department. And for all its attention to detail, it never feels quite real; the cinematography is too muddied, the characters too stock, the script too measured.

But it does have Billy Bob Thornton's Davy Crockett, a legend in his own mind as well as everyone else's, who, when his bluff is called, comes through in genuinely heroic fashion. He's the film's most layered character - in fact, he's really the only one - and Thornton's performance is as deft as it is crowd-pleasing.

So compelling is the Crockett character that audiences may wish the film was about his entire life, rather than this concluding chapter in it.

The film opens with Crockett and Sam Houston (Dennis Quaid, in perpetual scowl) in Washington, bemoaning their respective positions. Crockett, whose frontier exploits have been blown all out of proportion by the popular culture of the day, is afraid the good voters of Kentucky are beginning to see behind the facade and may not be willing to return him to Congress, while Houston despairs of ever being able to lead Texas to the independence from Mexico he so fervently wishes for it.

Both men will find their redemption at the Alamo, Crockett by dying there, Houston by turning military defeat into emotional victory. Seven weeks after the Alamo battle, on the fields of San Jacinto, he demolished the forces of Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, exacting revenge - in the film's emotional coda, Quaid's Houston leads his forces into battle by first uttering the memorable line "Remember the Alamo!" - and gaining independence for Texas.

Thornton and Quaid have the movie's showiest roles, but there were other key figures at the Alamo. As renowned knife fighter Jim Bowie, Jason Patric proves too laconic for dramatic purposes, and repeatedly lets his knife upstage him (it doesn't help that he spends most of the film dying from consumption). As 26-year-old William Travis, the lieutenant colonel who unexpectedly finds himself in charge of the fort's defenses, Patrick Wilson is given little to do but act intimidated and unwisely brash. He is properly stirring, however, while giving his famous speech before the Mexican attack, in which the men are given one last chance to leave before engaging in the battle they will almost certainly lose.

Director John Lee Hancock (The Rookie), who co-wrote the script with Stephen Gaghan (Traffic) and Leslie Bohem, resorts too often to the tried-and-true, giving us myriad shots of mournful faces and even throwing a faithful dog into the mix, the better for us to understand the Texans' tragic plight. Santa Anna (Emilio Echevarria) comes across as a preening fool, munching on pastries while his men die in battle. True, history has not been kind to the general's reputation, but his treatment here seems like overkill.

And one last thing: Was there no heroism or honor on the part of the Mexican soldiers? Save for a quick inspirational speech in which Santa Anna stresses his refusal to kowtow to American interests (a speech that sounds more 2004 than 1836), the Mexicans are portrayed as little more than cannon fodder.

The Alamo could have been a very different film; original director Ron Howard dropped out (along with his star, Russell Crowe) when the powers-that-be at Disney/Touchstone objected to his plans for a gritty, R-rated take on what must assuredly have been an ugly, dispiriting siege. Hancock and his fellow screenwriters have given us a film that, while maybe having a sense of history, has little feel for it.

The Alamo

Starring Billy Bob Thornton, Jason Patric, Dennis Quaid

Directed by John Lee Hancock

Rated PG-13 (violence, mild language)

Released by Touchstone Pictures

Time 137 minutes

Sun Score **

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