‘The Alamo’: A History Lesson That Delivers The Goods
By David Germain AP Movie Writer
Remember the Alamo? Recall anything more than the war cry it inspired, "Remember the Alamo," and the fact that it’s where Davy Crockett and a load of Texas freedom fighters died?
You’ll come away with quite a history lesson from John Lee Hancock’s "The Alamo," which generally delivers the goods as entertainment without becoming a stuffy classroom project.
The film drags a bit for the first hour in its exposition of the issues that led a raggedy assemblage of 200 men to hole up in the old Spanish mission in San Antonio and fend off a Mexican force 10 times its size for almost two weeks.
Yet Hancock, a native Texan who co-wrote the script, has crafted an intriguing dynamic among his heroes, ably led by Billy Bob Thornton as Crockett, Dennis Quaid as Sam Hous-ton, Jason Patric as Jim Bowie and Patrick Wilson as William Travis.
Hancock’s version forgoes the larger-than-life nobility of Hollywood’s most famous depiction, the 1960 epic "The Alamo," directed by and starring John Wayne as Crockett. None of Wayne’s holier-than-thou preachiness carries over in Hancock’s vision, an earthy story of decent men who find resolve in a hopeless situation not so much from patriotism as from one an-other.
"The Alamo’’ grabbed headlines as the latest Hollywood "troubled film’’ after Disney yanked it off the schedule last December to give Hancock more time in the editing room (the job came to Hancock after Ron Howard, who remained a producer, decided against directing it).
The only real trouble with the movie was the overly optimistic release date Disney picked, hoping to qualify "The Alamo’’ for the 2003 Academy Awards. That earlier release date likely would have left the studio holding a much duller three-hour turkey instead of Han-cock’s crisp, two-and-a-quarter-hour finished cut.
The film provides a speedy introduction to 1830s Texas politics and the personalities that would make the Alamo live on in legend. Texas, part of the newly independent Mexico, is viewed as a land of opportunity for many Americans until Mexican dictator Santa Anna (Emilio Echevarria) starts flexing his muscles.
Houston, commander of the Texas army, is one of many settlers pushing to make the land a separate republic. Bowie, a broody frontiersman who carries the big, fat knife that bears his name, and uptight yet upright Travis forge an uneasy alliance as leaders of the Alamo troops. Crockett, recently departed from Congress and looking for fresh adventures, simply turns up at the Alamo at the wrong time.
"Well, I understood the fighting was over. Isn’t it?’’ Crockett says, his trace of a smile vanishing as realization sinks in that he’s entered a war zone.
With only one other feature film be-hind him (the feel-good baseball tale "The Rookie,’’ also starring Quaid), Hancock admirably marshals the action and scope of "The Alamo,’’ though he tends to overdo the mythic imagery _ bodies splayed in skeletal trees, a slain soldier face down in a river with a halo of blood.
The battle scenes are rousing, considering how repetitive 19th century cannon and musket fire can become. Painstakingly designed sets, props, costumes and particularly the hoary stylings of hair and beards lend great authenticity, as does Carter Burwell’s memorable, rootsy score.
Thornton’s hearty performance an-chors the film, while Quaid largely is left on the sidelines until the aftermath of the Alamo massacre. Even then, Houston’s vengeful engagement with Santa Anna’s forces feels rushed, coming off as a rather clumsily appended epilogue.
As Bowie and Travis, Patric and Wilson present a captivating study of how the needs of the moment can foster cooperation, concord and even re-spect between utterly opposite sorts of men.
It’s a fine microcosm of the civilizing cement that turned pioneer rabble into the Republic of Texas and later, the 28th state.
"The Alamo," is rated PG-13 for sustained intense battle sequences. Running time: 136 minutes.