Its sad to think that people gave up their lifes blood defending and attacking The Alamo. The loss of human life is always a tragedy. Adding to that very real tragedy is that the film version commemorating that event is such a stinker.
Now, any retelling of what happened way back in 1836 in San Antonio is going to be problematical. If you want to stay within calling distance of the facts, that is. On the one hand, you had a group of settlers from the United States grabbing land that, strictly speaking, wasn’t theirs to grab. Their leaders are a motley crew of swindlers, drunkards, the deserters of pregnant wives, and debtors on the run from creditors. On the other hand, you have General Santa Ana, one of those megalomaniac types with dreams of conquest that history likes to throw out on the world stage every so often, the type who thinks of his infantry, and pretty much everyone else, as so much cannon fodder.
There are several ways to overcome this obstacle when making a film, but writers Leslie Bohem, Stephan Gaghan, and John Lee Hancock, who also directed, have chosen not to use any of them. The opening sequence shows the morning after the siege is broken by Santa Ana’s troops. It’s a slow pan of the dead and this is about as lively as things are going to get. And don’t forget, the flashback about the battle is forthcoming. There is even a bonus battle that follows what happens after The Alamo fell and the one thing that all the battle sequences have in common is a peculiar torpor. Even in the most heated portions of the fracas, whether running for cover or advancing with extreme prejudice, the people on screen seem much more concerned with taking meticulous care in hitting their marks than with giving the impression that they are in a life or death situation. The filmmakers have obviously decided to use as their model those educational films, maybe even filmstrips, that are inflicted on soon to be history-hating students at the middle school level.
Certainly the writing and direction display that same level of creativity. The dialogue is mostly exposition of the driest nature, explaining the history behind the history, as it were. And rather than making this rowdy band of Texans fully realized, three-dimensional people, lively, charismatic and interesting, our filmmakers have chosen the hagiographic route. Thus, they are not only ethically challenged, they are boring. The latter being, of course, the real kiss of death. Take Jason Patric as Jim Bowie, inventor of the knife that bears his name. Perhaps before all the bullet and knife wounds, the consumption, malaria, and excessive drinking, this was a fun guy, but Patric plays him as someone with one expression left. And it’s not a good one. Even in the flashbacks to Bowie’s earlier, happier life, Patric looks vaguely pained, as though there might be am incipient problem with gas. Then there’s Patrick Wilson as Colonel Travis. While it is important to make him seem less macho than Bowie, the man from whom he is attempting to wrest control of the troops, playing it as a frightened rabbit was just not the way to go. Dennis Quaid tries hard as Sam Houston, but is ultimately defeated by an eccentric display of facial hair. Billy Bob Thornton, however, as Davy Crockett, makes a game attempt to liven things up. He’s projects a nice, world-weary self-deprecating humor and just the suggestion of the spark that would make him seem larger than life to those around him, becoming the subject of countless tall tales, many spun by him, and catapulting him into the immortality of the fabric of American folklore.
As for the rest, only Emilio Echevarria as Santa Ana stands out, and that due more to the character who sports endless quantities of gold braid and insists on marching through the Mexican hinterlands with a full service of fine china and delicate crystal. The other guys are homogenized into oblivion as neatly as the Texans were obliterated by Santa Ana. A task made easier, according to the film anyway, because the Alamo’s defenders had a penchant for standing up straight and tall on the walls of that fortress, making a much bigger target for the Mexicans. Thornton is also given the only good lines in the film. The others are left with that tedious exposition that I was on about before and a series of those inexplicable macho displays that men get up to when trying to impress each other.
It never does quite get around to giving us a point of view about all this, aside from the requisite yelling of “Remember the Alamo” and promoting Texas as a secular religion. If cinematically it’s a mess, politically, it’s a muddle. Ultimately, the only people that anyone can really feel sorry for as far as being forced to give up their lives, are the Mexican soldiers, the non-officers, that is. Torn between their admiration for Crockett (he was that famous in his own lifetime), and fear of what will happen to them if they don’t follow orders, they were just so many pawns, or, as Santa Ana thought, fodder for his dreams of empire. Yet I seriously doubt that the makers of THE ALAMO intended that as a reason for wasting so much time and money.