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THE ALAMO (2004)
U.S. Release Date: April 9, 2004
Distributor: Buena Vista
Director: John Lee Hancock
Writer: Leslie Bohem, John Lee Hancock
Producer: Ron Howard, Mark Johnson
Composer: Carter Burwell
Cast: Billy Bob Thornton, Dennis Quaid, Patrick Wilson
Running Time: 2 hours and 17 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sustained intense battle sequences)

Surrender The Alamo
by Scott Holleran

At the climax of writer and director John Lee Hancock's war drama, The Alamo, Lt. Col. William Travis (played by handsome Patrick Wilson) urges his men: "[T]hink of what it is you value so highly that you are willing to fight and possibly die for it. We will call that Texas."

These powerful words assert the ideals that make the Alamo a heroic event in American history. The surrounded men at the Alamo did not seek martyrdom in death; they sought freedom on earth—and they chose to fight for it. Unfortunately, the Alamo's heroism is absent from Hancock's epic.

The Alamo offers fine moments—with a wider scope than John Wayne's picture in 1960—but it does not show why the Alamo ought to be remembered.

The Mexicans' 13-day siege in 1836 was commanded by a thug, General Santa Anna, who had seized Texans' property and sought to establish a totalitarian regime. For militarily powerless Texans, who were part of Mexico and ready to declare Texas an independent republic, the sparsely manned Alamo mission was what stood between freedom and slavery.

Hancock deftly establishes the Alamo's military and geographical context and he quickly casts the beleaguered mission as the central conflict. Dean Semler's inviting images—silhouetted Texans contrasted by big, Western skies and lush landscapes—are often stunning.

The people are not. With thousands of troops led by Santa Anna (Emilio Echevarria with a demonic grin) marching toward them, four characters shape the defense of Texas: Sam Houston (Dennis Quaid), portrayed as part power luster, part pioneer; legendary frontiersman Davy Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton); blade-wielding Jim Bowie (Jason Patric), who produced the Bowie knife; and the Alamo's idealistic young commander, William Travis (Wilson).

Each man is a conflicted, questionable character. Hancock's trio have ambiguous reasons for staying inside the Alamo's doomed gates. Blustery Crockett is practically an accident of history, apologizing to his men and sympathizing with the enemy. Drunken Bowie is already half-dead. Honorable Travis is humbled before the last siege.

The reverse is also true: Santa Anna is portrayed as evil, yet he delivers a rousing, anti-American speech on the brink of victory, which is like letting Castro, Stalin or Pol Pot explain his side of the story. The script is spoiled by multiculturalism. Hispanic Texans who defended the Alamo—omitted from Wayne's picture—are included only to be supplied with pro-Mexican sympathies. The most memorable woman embraces blood, not liberty, as the only thing worth fighting for. It's as though nobody wants to be a Texan—or an American—not even the Texans.

Patric's Bowie is a self-pitying boor who deserves to be put out of his misery. Thornton as Davy Crockett is Hancock's embodiment of the Alamo's misplaced mythology; a fake who defies authenticity, alternately doubting himself and rising to the occasion. What's lining the walls of this Alamo is a bunch of drunkards, dolts and river rats. Only the aristocratic Travis possesses a sense of purpose and the will to act on his commands but he, too, falters.

If it's true that producer Ron Howard vacated the director's chair because he preferred a more violent motion picture, Hancock proves that war can be powerful without superfluous blood. Battle scenes are gripping. But Howard handed the reins to a moral agnostic. Hancock (screenwriter of A Perfect World and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil), dramatizes the Alamo without rendering judgment on those valiant men who defended it, which robs the Alamo of the reason it deserves to be remembered.


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