Growing up in Texas means that the battle of the Alamo was shoved down my throat at an early age. Throughout my time in Texas public schools, I was subjected to Alamo pop quizzes, Alamo field trips, and even occasional Alamo re-enactment. Texans take the Alamo pretty seriously. So while it’s likely that those suffering from die-hard Texas pride will get a kick out of director John Lee Hancock’s vision of just what happened, the rest of you will no doubt be left out in the tumbleweeds.
The Alamo is just the latest in a long string of mediocre attempts at bringing this amazing historical event to the silver screen. For those not subjected to the deplorable Texas school system, The Alamo was an old Spanish mission in 19th Century Texas. At the time, Texas was just a big chunk of Mexico, ruled over by General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna (Emilio Echevarria), self-styled “Napoleon of the West.” Folks in Texas didn’t take kindly to his heavy-handed dictatorship and revolted against the powerful Mexican war machine (hard to say that and not laugh). Back then they called themselves Texians and organization wasn’t their strong suit. So when Santa Anna responded, they weren’t exactly prepared.
Holed up in the broken down, ill-equipped Alamo were a couple hundred Texians; both white and Mexican. Surrounded by thousands of highly trained, heavily armed Mexican troops, they were utterly doomed and knew it. But under the leadership of a young and somewhat inexperienced Lieutenant Colonel Travis (Patrick Wilson), they decided to stand and fight, buying time for Texian General Sam Houston (Dennis Quaid) to raise a big enough army to combat the Mexican threat. They held out for days against all odds, before at last being utterly overwhelmed and completely massacred by the merciless Santa Anna.
The Alamo adequately covers those details, throwing in some extra plot about Sam Houston and his post-Alamo defeat of Santa Anna. While these externals work for the most part, it’s only due to the bellowing, growling performance of Dennis Quaid, giving it his all in an otherwise emotionally stagnant role.
In fact, characters like Houston are just about the only things that do work in a movie more concerned with historical details than solid storytelling. Billy Bob Thornton in particular gives what may be his best performance ever, as mountain-man turned Congressman, turned Alamo defender, Davy Crockett. He plays him as a humble hero, somewhat embarrassed by his excessive fame but capable of living up to every one of the stories ever told about him. Crockett is the heart of The Alamo, a noble and flawed hero who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. He came to Texas looking for political gain, but ended up sacrificing himself to give the men around him hope. He stands atop the Alamo walls playing his fiddle in staunch defiance of Santa Anna’s besiegers. He lurks around the campfire while cannonballs roar overhead, telling tales about the brutality of war. He hangs back from the men and confesses that he’d rather jump over the walls and make a run for it. David Crockett, he’d get the hell out of there, but Davy Crockett… they’re all watching him.
Jim Bowie (Jason Patric) is there too, infamous knife fighter and all around gruff looking figure. He’s obsessed with the death of his wife and slowly dying from a terminal case of consumption. With him is Juan Seguin (Jordi Molla), leading a group of Mexican descended Texans. He’s ordered to leave the Alamo carrying desperate messages to Houston. Seguin vows to return but does so much too late.
However, the first conflicts of the film are between Bowie and Alamo commander William B. Travis, referred to not so affectionately by Bowie as a “self-important dandy.” It is Travis who ultimately rises to the occasion, inspiring and leading the Alamo’s defense, though only a temporary commander of a questionably defended fort. Travis is a recently divorced father, bound by duty and plagued by uncertainty and indecision. At first he gets little respect from his men and even in his most shining moments looks hopelessly young and near tears. Patrick Wilson does a solid job of bringing him alive in his final moments, finding bravery amidst despair.
Yet where The Alamo falls to pieces is in its total inability to really capture the impact of the Alamo siege itself. When the Mexican army starts bombarding the fort to deprive the Texians of sleep, Hancock cuts away to the next morning rather than showing us the effect of night after night of danger and deprivation. After Travis makes his rousing speech, giving his men a final choice, The Alamo skips to Colonel Bowie’s sickbed rather than getting us involved in the mind-numbing emotional gut wrench of facing almost certain death. Time and again, The Alamo chooses to cut away to or obsess over some mundane detail of history rather than focusing in on the heart of its story. Maybe it is historically accurate to tell the tale of Colonel Bowie, but it seems almost wasteful to spend the first half of the film developing his character, only to write him off in the second half as he lays feverish and useless in a sickbed. Perhaps it is even historically accurate to keep The Alamo’s battles so short and chaotic, but cinematically speaking it saps away the movies emotional strength and kills any chance the film might have had to ever connect with an audience. After two hours of siege, I don’t want to see the final attack on the Alamo over in two or three minutes. After an entire movie of building up these men as heroes, I don’t want to see them beaten by the Mexican army just because everyone inside the fort decided it might be a good time to go to sleep.
I like the way The Alamo has gone out of its way to humanize the historical figures caught up in its battle and I love the beautiful way the film portrays Texas and Texas pride. But great performances and big Texas skies can’t fix disjointed storytelling and bland action sequences. The battles are half-hearted and limp. This story needed a director with bold vision and style, someone who isn’t afraid to spatter his battlefield with realistic looking blood. Hancock just isn’t up to the task and as a result The Alamo feels lackluster and flat.