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The Alamo   C

Touchstone Pictures

Year Released: 2004
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: John Lee Hancock
Writers: Leslie Bohem, Stephen Gaghan, John Lee Hancock
Cast: Dennis Quaid, Billy Bob Thornton, Jason Patric, Patrick Wilson, Emilio Echevarria, Jordi Molla, Wes Studi, Leon Rippy.

Review by Rob Vaux

Despite the claims of history and ad copy alike, The Alamo is disappointingly easy to forget. Its Oscar pedigree was scrapped in favor of several months of revisions, and while the final product is inoffensive, it's also uninspiring as well. The iconic name is surrounded by a heady cocktail of history, legend, and flat-out mythology -- so potent that director John Lee Hancock never settles on the best way to navigate it.

The siege of the Alamo served mainly as symbolism: a small group of men, fighting for the freedom of Texas, resisted overwhelming odds for 12 days before finally falling to the vastly superior army of Mexican General Santa Anna. Two months later, with the massacre as ultimate rallying cry, Sam Houston routed Santa Anna at the Battle of San Jacinto and secured Texas' independence. The Alamo approaches the subject with a pick-and-choose mentality: bits of historical detail here, flashes of hearsay there, and a big expensive studio production to make it all look pretty. We follow events through the eyes of four men: tall-tale hero David Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton), steadfast intellectual Col. William Travis (Patrick Wilson), dying drunkard Jim Bowie (Jason Patric), and Houston himself (Dennis Quaid), watching from the sidelines before finally settling the blood debt with rumbling authority. One by one, they find themselves in the title's converted church, where the Mexican army plans to crush them and place all of Texas beneath their boot.

Hancock develops an agreeable tone, but the question of authenticity vs. entertainment dogs him throughout the proceedings. At times, he dwells on specific factoids (Bowie's terminal illness, for example), which only raggedly tie in to the larger drama. Other times, fanciful speculation takes over. There are some inspired bits of malarkey (Crockett plays his fiddle in harmony with the Mexican drum corps' battle hymn), but they feel like patchwork when married to the you-are-there grit. How can we feel history coming to life when Santa Anna (Emilio Echevarria) starts twirling his moustache, or a hoary voice-over reads doomed letters to loved ones? The cast stabs at the material with similar results: occasionally amusing, often drab. Thornton has the best of it. His "King of the Wild Frontier" is actually a bit of a coward, trapped by his inflated public image and now resigned to living up to it. It's a new spin on the character that gives The Alamo its strongest elements. Patric and Wilson are in tougher circumstances: the script gives them little of memorable note, while Quaid is basically a healthier, more cunning version of his underrated Doc Holiday in Wyatt Earp.

Above all, The Alamo is devoid of the energy that the subject requires. DP Dean Semler gives it a nice look, and the battle scenes are decent, but the momentum struggles to find a rhythm. Instead of heroic defiance, we're left with the sense of plodding inevitability: not that the Alamo held out against all hope, but that Santa Anna toyed with them for awhile and then crushed them like grapes. San Jacinto is handled equally swiftly, and while the description of Houston's tactics is enlightening, it lacks the blood-stirring thunder that such a climax requires. The real battle may have been over in 18 minutes, but it needs more dramatic weight than The Alamo gives it. Even the notion of unity against a common foe is perfunctory, embodied by Jodri Molla's tight-lipped Tejano and never given more than a few passing nods. We need to know more than what happened at the Alamo: we need to feel it. What did these men accomplish? How did their previous lives help shape their famous deaths? Were they more than convenient martyrs? We're never really sure and neither is The Alamo. It's just a lot of pretty postcards and some nice fellas we don't mind hanging out with -- okay for a historic landmark, but thin soup for a would-be epic.

Review published 04.09.2004.

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