Back in the mid 1950's, Disney gave us Davy, Davy Crockett, king of the wild frontier, and showed him going down fighting at the Alamo. Times have changed, and Disney has changed with them, and now Disney has given us The Alamo, which tries demythologize the epic siege, humanize the characters, and add a bit of political correctness into the bargain. The result is a slow moving, uneven film that seems to have suffered badly in the editing.
The movie begins a year before the siege with Sam Houston offering Davy Crockett 640 acres if he will come to Texas and volunteer for militia duty. Director John Lee Hancock tries to explore the motivations of Crockett, Bowie, and Travis, but largely comes up short. Reportedly Disney screened a three hour version of this movie and demanded a shorter running time. As it is, all we get is that Travis was a womanizer who had marital problems, Crockett wanted land, and Jim Bowie was a short tempered drunk. The early scenes in the movie that focus on character development are too short to give us a real sense of these men, and serve only to slow down the plot.
The siege itself is depicted as a lonely, grim struggle against hopeless odds without the flag waving and hokum of the 1960's John Wayne epic. Like John Wayne before them , the film makers have constructed a replica of the Alamo. But where Wayne staged his epic on an arid, open landscape, Hancock uses a green pastoral countryside that gives the feeling of a small scale, but still heroic struggle. Hancock sticks closer to the historical facts of the siege, with the arrival of the Mexican troops coming as surprise to the Texians, and the final Mexican assault beginning under cover of darkness. Aerial shots of the beleaguered fort, with Mexican troops climbing scaling ladders, lit by flashes of musketry, are striking, and resemble the siege of Helmís Deep from The Two Towers.
The performances are uneven. Patrick Wilson seems out of his depth as Travis. Jason Patric manages to convey a sense of Jim Bowie as a killer or men, but mostly he just stares into the distance mourning the death of his wife, and occasionally seeing her in visions. He is badly underused. So is Dennis Quaid, who in the role of Sam Houston has little to do but scowl. Billy Bob Thornton is delightful as Davy Crockett. It is Thornton who is forced to carry the heaviest burden of political correctness in this movie. At one point he stops to grieve over a fallen Mexican soldier, even though he is outside the walls of the fort and fully exposed to enemy fire. In another scene he tells a story about burning Indians alive. In the movieís most striking departure from previous Alamo films, Crockett does not go down fighting to the very last, though Hancock still dispatches him in cinematic style.
Another bit of political correctness emerges when Travis sends out couriers to ask for help. The movie emphasizes the contributions of Juan Seguin and other Mexicans in the fight for Texian independence. Thus we see Travis sending out Seguin to carry a message to Sam Houston, who will not allow Seguin to return to the Alamo. We see nothing of Jim Bonham, who did return knowing that the Alamo was doomed. When Travis makes his speech to the garrison, offering them the chance to leave, he shows them letters promising help, but explains that he does not believe any help is coming. No clue is given as to how any of those letters reached him.
For all of its faults, The Alamo has some effective moments, and might have been better if Hancock had been able to develop some of his themes at greater length. Visually, itís a treat, with outstanding costumes by Daniel Orlandi, very good sets, and some lovely scenery. But watching it, one gets the impression that much was left on the cutting room floor. Perhaps when it comes to DVD there will be a directorís cut that will reveal a much better movie. As it stands, when movie goers remember The Alamo, they will probably remember the one with John Wayne.