The Alamo

written by Leslie Bohem, Stephen Gaghan and John Lee Hancock

directed by John Lee Hancock

starring Dennis Quaid, Billy Bob Thronton, Jason Patric and Patrick Wilson


review by Stephen Notley

As a Canadian I wasn't all that familiar with the Alamo; before I saw The Alamo all I really knew about it was that it was in San Antonio and that we were urged to remember it. Nonetheless, it's always interesting to see how America mythologizes itself; The Patriot, for example, stands out as a particularly self-congratulatory and historically flabby recent bit of American self-fabling.  Now, in these barfingly and myopically patriotic times, just how disgusting and rah-rah We're-Number-One was The Alamo going to be?

Shockingly, the answer is "not terribly". For a movie about one of the core pieces of American myth, The Alamo is curiously restrained. There are few glorious speeches, hardly any heartwrenching slomo shots of courageous proto-Americans giving it their all and almost no chest-thumping assertions of American manifest destiny in the face of the scurrilous Mexican horde. Instead The Alamo is oddly human, more interested in tweaking myths and legends than in repackaging them in the usual blaring Hollywood style.

Unsurprisingly, The Alamo is rather light on the historical and political background to the conflict. All we're told is that the Mexican army and the armed forces of the not-yet-Texas Republic had traded control of the lightly fortified Alamo a couple of times and at this particular moment, 1836, it was the Texians' turn to run the place. Not wishing to split his forces Texian General Sam Houston (played by Dennis Quaid) had pulled most of his strength out of the fort, leaving it in the hands of a few rag-tag Texian soldiers and militiamen, among them Davy Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton) and James Bowie (Jason Patric), the fellow after whom the Bowie knife is named. Soon enough jowly Mexican General Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana pops by with a couple of thousand soldiers and our Texian heroes are forced to hole up in the Alamo to await certain death.

Compared to the siege of, say, Helm's Deep, the siege of the Alamo comes off as positively civilized. The Mexicans set up camp a couple of hundred feet away and then, in true Mexican manana spirit, just sit there. Over the next few days the combatants look at each other across a field and toss the occasional cannon shot back and forth. The Texians work on strengthening their defenses while the Mexicans end each day with some marching band music. It's almost friendly, really.

Inside the Alamo refreshingly unsentimental character development is the order of the day. Billy Bob Thornton's Crockett (who prefers "David" to "Davy") wryly brushes off the other men's awe at his legendary status, mentioning that he only wears his trademark coonskin cap because he saw it in a play. Sure he's a good shot, but he never claims to be anything special, and he tells a sobering story about his involvement in another battle in which they burned a cabin full of injuns to the ground. Meanwhile additional drama comes from tension between Bowie, who leads the militiamen, and Lt. Col. William Travis, the inexperienced 26-year-old commander of the Texian regulars; both are flawed men and neither thinks of himself as a hero. The movie handles all this with a light touch, showing us how Travis gradually earns the respect of his men, detailing how Bowie sat out most of the fight bedridden from consumption, taking the time to point out the decidedly mixed feelings the Texian slaves had about dying for their owners.

Eventually the Mexicans attack and, well, win, killing everybody and leading the film towards its Texas-establishing coda as Sam Houston whips up an army, invites them to remember the Alamo and creams the weakened Mexican army at San Jacinto river. And yet even then the movie never really gives in to the shmaltzy impulse, preferring to keep things simple and character-based rather than majestic and legendary, resisting the urge to paint the story larger than life. Instead it feels about the same size as life, and that feels good. In an America bloated with self-importance, The Alamo is humble and human. I'll remember it.

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