The Alamo (2004)
“You will never forget”
Director: John Lee Hancock
Cast: Dennis Quaid, Billy Bob Thornton, Jason Patric
Synopsis: Based on the 1836 standoff between a group of Texan and Tejano men, led by Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie, and Mexican dictator Santa Anna’s forces at the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas.
John Lee Hancock’s take on the infamous massacre at the Alamo in 1836 is refreshingly free of the over-patriotic flag-waving that some American writers and directors feel compelled to include when depicting events from the nation’s past, but still strays perilously close at times to teary-eyed sentimentality. Clearly not one for the action fan so much as for the history lover, the film strangely fails — or perhaps doesn’t try — to inject any kind of excitement or tension into the battle scenes and seems more interested in the motivations of the principal characters. This isn’t a bad thing, but it does leave a film fatally vulnerable at the box office — a fact borne out by the picture’s relatively poor performance. And because the film focuses more on the people involved and their interaction, it sometimes resembles Hollywood’s historical epics of an earlier age. There really isn’t that much violence, and what is shown is never dwelt upon.
Where Hancock’s The Alamo differs from earlier films, though, is in its portrayal of the characters. Jim Bowie (Jason Patric) is seen as a sometimes rowdy drunk leading an equally inebriated band of renegades. For the most part, Bowie’s participation is peripheral, despite being in the thick of the battle, and his role seems simply to illustrate the changes undertaken by Patrick Wilson’s uptight Lieutenant-Colonel William Travis. Similarly, Davey Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton) is something of a mild-mannered character who plays the violin, only wears his famous hat because it’s worn by an actor in a famous play about him (the burden of celebrity is touched upon a couple of times in the film) and hates being called Davey.
As mentioned earlier, the massacre itself, while not exactly anti-climactic refuses to pander to Hollywood convention by showing acts of selfless courage and heroism. The characters fight for their lives with the desperation and fear of men who know they are about to die, and this is one of the film’s strengths. The people are real in a way they so often aren’t in this type of film.
All in all, while the film fails to secure itself any kind of niche, I was pleasantly surprised by both the writing and performances. If you are the kind of viewer who likes their action delivered as part of an intelligent and insightful package you could do worse than to seek this out.