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Remember Thornton, Forget ‘The Alamo’
by Jeremy Mathews
I don’t want to ruin the ending for you, but all these silhouettes (who wants to look at photos of the actors?) fall to Santa Anna’s army in “The Alamo.” Try to remember.  

“The Alamo”
Touchstone Pictures
Directed by John Lee Hancock
Written by Leslie Bohem, Stephan Gaghan and John Lee Hancock
Produced by Mark Johnson and Ron Howard
Starring Dennis Quaid, Billy Bob Thornton, Jason Patric, Patrick Wilson, Emilio Echevarría, Jordi Mollå, Leon Rippy, Tom Davidson, Marc Blucas and Robert Prentiss
Rated PG-13

(out of four)

“The Alamo” suffers from too much history and too little to say. The film displays an eagerness on the part of its makers to be fair to all sides, but loses the passion to take any meaning from the events that occurred in San Antonio, Texas, back in 1836. It makes a valiant effort to humanize rather than glorify and vilify its characters, but the organization and execution don’t fit, recalling the grandiose spirit of previous works on the subject with contrasting content.

Whether you believe that the fighters died for freedom from Spanish general and would-be dictator Santa Anna, the self-proclaimed “Napoleon of the West,” or for the right to own slaves, there’s something here for you.

The film’s saving grace is Billy Bob Thornton’s portrayal of frontiersman Davy Crockett, whose legendary reputation as a bear-wrestling river jumper follows him everywhere. Serving in Washington, D.C. as a congressman from Tennessee, Davy (he prefers David) clearly can’t be the person portrayed in a hero-worshipping play by an actor with a cap that puts the ’coon back in ’coon-skin. Yet to some degree, he has to embody what his name represents to everyone else. Thornton plays the hero as a good-humored, down-to-earth man who is both thoughtful and brave, but struggles with his idolized status.

Crockett joins the Texas militia in exchange for land at the encouragement of Col. Sam Houston (Dennis Quaid), who envisions Texas as a free, self-governed nation.

Crockett goes to the Alamo, a former mission post that has been a key military position for years, as two other main figures arrive: a soldier and lawyer named William Barrett Travis (Patrick Wilson), who is given control of the Alamo in the commanding officer’s leave, and James Bowie (Jason Patric), a famous knife fighter and colonel of the volunteer soldiers. The rugged Bowie and learned Travis don’t get along very well, while Crockett serves as a mediator between the two.

Meanwhile, Santa Anna unexpectedly marches his Alamo-dwarfing battalion 300 miles in the winter to San Antonio. He is seen as a threat who prefers to kill everyone rather than let them surrender or make them draw straws to decide whom he executes as examples. Houston believes that the Alamo is an overrated post and doesn’t want to send backup after Santa Anna surrounds the people. He knows that he doesn’t have enough troops to defend the Alamo and instead plans to attack after the Alamo fighters deplete the army.

While I’m sure that there are many embellishments, no one can fault the film for historical omission. Along with the inspirational “die fighting” speeches from Travis, we hear a speech from Santa Anna about teaching the land-stealing bandits a lesson instead of letting them surrender to explain his massacre. Black slaves talk about how Mexico doesn’t allow slavery, while Bowie won’t even free his slave on while his deathbed.

But this historical information ultimately fails to translate into real motivation. People feud and unite, cluttering the plot with repetitive conclusions, but never really create an urgency to the very urgent situation.

Director John Lee Hancock completely spoils the fair-to-all-sides approach with an overly romanticized style. It’s difficult and in the end more rewarding to achieve what “The Alamo” fails to do—create a genuine understanding of all the characters. After failing at this goal, the historical epic flounders around, unsteadily flapping from one character to another.

One of the film’s weakest points is the usually impressive Carter Burwell’s dreadfully epic score during the battle sequence. Sometimes it sounds like he’s trying to rip off “The Lord of the Rings,” and other times it’s just plain ridiculous. The music might have worked over a denouement, but over the battle scene it’s simply inappropriate. No music would have worked fine.

The long siege is relentless, and not in an effective way. The film lays out the positions and logistics, but lacks poetry and grace.

“The Alamo” would be useful in a history class, to bore and inform students.

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