The Alamo (2004)
The Alamo was originally going to be the jewel in Disney’s 2003 Oscar crown. It began with a star-studded pedigree: Ron Howard directing, a screenplay by John Sayles and Stephen Gaghan, and Russell Crowe starring. Things got dicey when budget figures were debated, and Howard insisted on an R-rated cut for authenticity. After some creative wrangling, Howard left to get his gore fix on with another flick (The Missing), Crowe went off to sea (Master and Commander), and Disney tapped Johnny Lee Hancock to direct in the wake. Trouble is, Hancock had only directed one previous film, 2002’s The Rookie. The 90 million dollar movie was supposed to be released during December 2003, just in time for Oscar season. However, the editing needed more time, so Disney’s supposed award-grabber was delayed until April 2004. Now, given the final PG-13 product, were the wait and creative compromises worth all the trouble?
In The Alamo we follow the men of Texas, including surly drunk Jim Bowie (Jason Patric), idealistic Sam Houston (Dennis Quaid), girly aristocrat William Travis (Patrick Wilson), and legendary Davey Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton). They want to make Texas their home, but Mexican General, Santa Anna, has different plans and wants to reclaim the land for the glory of Mexico and, more importantly, for the glory of himself. As Santa Anna storms into Texas, a meager number of men take refuge in the Alamo, an old Spanish mission, and arm themselves for an eventual battle between the merciless General and his thousands of soldiers.
The pacing of this movie is about as fast as a tumbleweed. An entire act of this movie involves Texans and Santa Annas men exchanging a shot here, a volley there, back and forth and back and forth for no reason. It certainly doesn’t build tension. It just squanders time, and this thing is 2 hours and 20 minutes long! If it weren’t for my free bag of popcorn I would have fallen asleep countless times during viewing.
The acting of The Alamo may make you want to throw up a white flag yourself. Jason Patric spends the majority of his time on his back with teeth clenched, and when that’s not the case hes lookin’ to get his famous blade a cameo. Quaid seems to have a frog permanently lodged in his throat. The only performer who walks away unscathed is Thornton. He gives a humanistic touch to the familiar character of Davey Crockett and shows the wear of living up to legend.
Perhaps the most shocking thing about The Alamo is how poorly directed it is. I know Johnny Lee Hancock has only one previous movie under his saddle, but my jaw hit the floor when I saw how flat his direction was. Scenes and angles are very awkwardly framed, everything is too flat or too rigid, his cinematography is an underwhelming mixture of silhouette shots and dusty hues, his sets look like a high school production, and his action scenes are staged without any sense of excitement or tension. Excluding one shot that shows the battle on all four sides of the Alamo, seen prominently in the trailers and TV spots, there isn’t a single shot in this entire film that looks great. This is one of the worst looking $90 million film I have ever seen.
The script is another factor in driving down the entertainment. The makers strive for historical accuracy and to show both sides of the conflict without bias. So we get what all modern historical films feature now, namely the Famous People with Flaws. Bowie drinks a lot. Travis is unsure of himself and leaves his family. Boone doesn’t live up to hyperbolic legend. This information is fine, but The Alamo tries so hard to get the characters accurate that it fails in getting the characters right. I’m not calling for the return of myths, but The Alamo is so focused on the details that that’s all these characters become: historical details instead of living, breathing people.
The script also shirks any kind of detailed look at the role of minorities involved during the siege. Black people hardly mention slavery (and Texas would go on to become the largest slave state), women are designated as caregivers, either tending to the wounded or becoming floaty fantasies. The Alamo feels more like a eulogy than a film. And how many eulogies do people pay 5-10 bucks to go see?
I think what ultimately sinks this movie for me is my roots. I’m not from Texas, I dont know anyone from Texas, I dont know if everything is bigger in Texas, and I dont know if I’ve ever messed with Texas, but the lone star state clings to the martyrdom of the Alamo like the crucifixion of Jesus. When I was watching The Alamo I kept having one reoccurring thought: is this accomplishing anything? In my assessment, no it did not. A bunch of Texans banded up in an old mission and fought Santa Anna but there was no reason for it and nothing was really gained. Someone will argue that they held up Santa Anna and allowed Sam Houston to collect his army and eventually take down Santa Anna. I would counter that with, ”You know what else could delay Santa Anna? Anything.”
The Alamo is an overlong, overly serious, flat, uninteresting bore. It feels more like a textbook and less like a story. Sure its not the jingoistic flag-waver that John Wayne’s 1960 version was, and I can appreciate trying to get history right, but The Alamo is so insanely by-the-book serious that its as fun as a funeral march. It seems like the director and the producers were so afraid of telling the story of the Alamo wrong that they lost the ability to tell a good story. Only ardent history buffs, and maybe ardent Texans, will find anything appealing about this boring history lesson.
Nate’s Grade: C