Alamo, The (2004)

Reviewed By Chris Parry
Posted 05/29/04 10:06:11

"I don't deserve mercy. I do deserve a drink. I just watched The Alamo."
2 stars (Pretty Bad)

The Alamo was rated PG-13 for 'sustained intense battle sequences'. I found this very odd since I don't actually recall any sustained intense battle sequences. In fact, over the entire course of this 137 minute film, I seem to recall only about eight minutes total of actual combat. Can you get a PG-13 for 'sustained intense conversations about absolutely nothing while standing around scratching your nuts'?

John Lee Hancock has the kind of name that makes you think he might have been standing on The Alamo when it was pounded by the Mexican Army, thereby becoming Texan legend. In fact, John Lee Hancock was a TV director who had modest success with the by-the-numbers Disney baseball flick, The Rookie, so when Disney couldn't get Ron Howard to helm their summer war epic version of The Alamo, Disney drafted in the new kid to take over. It turned out to be a dud move.

The Alamo is nearly as exciting as Rosie O'Donnell giving a lapdance; you may well have a physical reaction to the experience, but chances are it isn't going to be a positive one. This is bland, boring, long, poorly constructed, horrendously written, unimpressively shot, lazily acted stuff. History freaks will laugh at the short cuts taken, action freaks will laugh at what passes for action, and drama buffs will be driven to despair by the maudlin, sugar-coated two-hour-plus salute to failure that this film ended up being.

In case you've never heard of The Alamo before, in a nutshell, Mexico wanted Texas, but so too did the white folks. So they duked it out a bunch, generally swapping this tiny little middle-of-nowhere fortified town every few years until eventually Mexican General Santa Anna came a-marching in with 3000 soldiers, surrounded a couple of hundred whiteys and their slaves, and got busy with the shootin'. The crackers sent for reinforcements, but none came, so they went down fighting, with names such as Davey Crockett and knife-fighter Jim Bowie going down alongside them.

Of course, as Mexican Generals are not always the cleverest goons in the garrison, Santa Anna decided to parlay his victory by chasing down Texan General Sam Houston, and duly got his hiney handed to him with the rallying cry of "Remember The Alamo" being heard over the battlefield.

Sounds like an interesting story, huh? Well, it is, if you're reading about it, but watching it played out on the big screen is nothing short of tedious. John Wayne did a version of the story back in the 60's which was rife with racial stereotypes, and the new version isn't far off. Black characters are there, but only get about eight lines between them, displaying themselves as either foolhardy or cowards, depending on which cliche you're looking at. The Mexicans are also there, fighting for both sides, with about as much characterization on either end as you might see in a Fox News report. "Ooh! Bad guys who hate Americans! Eville!"

Then there are the main characters, not one of which is actually the slightest bit three-dimensional. Billy Bob Thornton's Davey Crockett is at least human-like, if hardly exceptional, while Jason Patric's Jim Bowie spends most of the film in the 'famous mostly dead guy' role that Eric Stoltz made famous in Congo, and Emilio Echevarrķa's Santa Anna has all the realism and scope of Cruella DeVil.

Standing out above the pack in terms of range is relative rookie Patrick Wilson, as Lt.Col. William Travis. Travis was the relative rookie who was given the job of leading the Alamo defenders while his superior officer took a powder, and though his character does, as everyone else does in this film, start off terribly, Wilson manages to save the day by adding a few layers to the guy and making him sympathetic to the audience.

In the end, only he and Billy Bob can claim this victory, as everyone else who had anything to do with this film looked to have been phoning it in. Sam Houston may has well of been played by Randy Quaid, rather than Dennis Quaid, since all he does is scowl, pose and scowl some more.

Early on, it seemed Hancock had been studying Kurosawa's directing methods, because he went to the Japanese master's old go-to before a battle, where his characters would go over the plans of the war, with maps, for the audience. Here, The Alamo seems to gather momentum as the audience can actually see what lies ahead, but in practice Hancock throws viewability to the wind, relying on jump cuts, close-ups of smoke, yelling, a ridiculously loud and ever-present Disney score, and absolutely no sense of where the dead and dying are in relation to the attack. Was Billy Bob fighting the Mexicans at the south wall, or the east? Was that the Lt. Colonel who was chased down into a hole and butchered, or was it some random kid? Was that a Mexican gun blowing up crackers, or a cracker barrel blowing chunks out of Micheal Eisner's leaf blower crew? Damned if I know, and in the end, damned if I even care.

There was a movie in this story, but it sure as hell wasn't the one Hancock found. If anything, the story of Sam Houston and his battle to raise troops, then his guerilla tactics after the Alamo had burned, were far more interesting than what happened at The Alamo itself. In Houston, you have a man torn between what he knows he must do to win and what his men want to do - go protect their brethren, even if it means dying in the act.

That, Mr Hancock, is the makings of a movie. Billy Bob Thornton playing a fiddle on a fencetop is not.

Ultimately, I'm almost certain that Hancock had a longer cut in mind when he made this flick. It took literally months to shoot and they blew $90m on the budget (which came in $82,000 under, to the director's credit), much of which surely went on effects and expensive battle recreations. But in the final cut you seem to have large swathes of talky time, 'long minutes of standing around doing bugger all' time, a few minutes of actual battle action, and then the kind of final act wrap-up that may as well have been told in "where are they now" titlecards, for all the attention paid to actually portraying the scenes for the audience.

The final battle in the legend of The Alamo lasted only eighteen minutes. On screen, it seems to last precisely four cannon shots. What is this, a sitcom?

Actually... yeah, it is.

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