Movie Review

 

The Alamo

Production Company: Touchstone Pictures
Directors: John Sayles, John Lee Hancock
Principals: Dennis Quaid, Billy Bob Thornton
Rating: PG-13 (violence)

By Gregg Tubbs

(UMCom) -- It’s 1836, and what is now Texas, is still part of Mexico. "The Napoleon of the West," General Lopez de Santa Anna and his army are determined to keep it that way. But newly appointed general of the fledgling Republic of Texas, Sam Houston (Dennis Quaid) has other ideas. His army is small and his authority is uncertain, but all he needs is the right moment and a unifying event to defeat Santa Anna. Miles away, a courageous band of rebels, defending a dilapidated Spanish mission, provide Houston with the catalyst he needs, and the battle cry that will lead his "Texians" to victory-"Remember the Alamo!"

General Sam Houston (Dennis Quaid, center left) had ordered the fort to be burned down - and was surprised to find that men were willing to defend it instead. Copyright © 2004 Touchstone Pictures
The Alamo
is a sprawling and stirring retelling of the near-mythic showdown between Santa Anna’s overpowering force and the 200 defenders holed up in old San Antonio’s last stronghold, the Alamo. Where this film differs from, and excels over other Alamo movies, is its refusal to give in to familiar myth. The most famous earlier version is the 1960 film of the same name, starring John Wayne. That film build’s its strength by playing up the heroic and iconic nature of those who died defending the Alamo-among them, Colonel William Travis, Jim Bowie (of "the knife" fame) and most famous of all, Davy Crockett, played by larger-that-life Wayne himself. This "legend playing a legend" stunt heightened the mythic symbolism to the point where, the story could have just as easily been set on Mount Olympus.

The beauty of the new film is that it brings the story back to earth and peels away more than a century of myth making, to show us the real, life-sized people behind the legends. In the process, these flawed, conflicted human beings seem all the more heroic, for making a stand against terrifying odds. Travis (Patrick Wilson) is a young, ladder-climber, leaving his family to take the risky Alamo command, not because he believes in the cause, but because it can advance his military career. Bowie (Jason Patric) is a bit of a rogue, who sees the Alamo as an opportunity to redeem a largely wasted life. Best of all is Billy Bob Thornton’s wily but weary Davy Crockett, the ex-congressman, Indian fighter, frontiersman and backwoods raconteur.

General Santa Anna (Emilio Echevarra, center right) - flanked by (left to right) Gen. Ramirez y Sesma (Harry Weeks), Col Jose Batres (Mauricio Zatarin), and Gen. Castrillon (Castullo Guerra) - led thousands of Mexican soldiers against the Alamo. Copyright © 2004 Touchstone Pictures
The initial messages of The Alamo are those that have made this story compelling from the start: standing up for your beliefs, opposing injustice, loyalty and courage even while facing death. But this new Alamo also explores unexpected themes, untouched by earlier versions. One is that all stories can be seen from multiple points of view. We see this in scenes that illustrate the Mexican point of view, even giving us insight into Santa Anna’s rationale for stopping the rebellious "pirates" at the Alamo. We also glimpse the moral downside of the westward movement of American pioneers, when Crockett recounts a heartbreaking story from his experiences fighting Indians in the woods of Tennessee. The film shows that throughout history, land was almost never peacefully acquired, but usually gained at the expense of others.

The Alamo is also about the allure and hazards of celebrity. Davy Crockett was an early media superstar, the subject of books and stage plays in his own lifetime. He was known as a frontier Superman, who could "ride a thunderbolt and whip his weight in wildcats." His own gifts of exaggeration helped build a public persona that no one could live up to.

Three men -- the young, brash Lt. Col. William Travis (Patrick Wilson, left); the living legend David Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton, center); and the zealous, passionate James Bowie (Jason Patric, right) would lead the men at the Alamo. Copyright © 2004 Touchstone Pictures
Thornton’s Crockett, is a man so trapped by his own mythos that he can never just be himself. He alternately denies, and then propagates his reputation. At one moment he is telling tall tales about his exploits and in another more private moment, he confides that he never wore a coonskin cap until he saw an actor portraying him wear one on the stage. In this fascinating exchange, we see a man who is now imitating his own imitators just to satisfy the public. He even admits, during lull in the battle, "If it was just simple ol' David from Tennessee, I might drop over that wall and take my chances. But that Davy Crockett fellow, they're all watching him." So he stays and fights.

But his hero’s persona also gives hope to the men around him. They draw strength from knowing the great Davy Crockett is on their side. In the end, Crockett himself draws upon his own mystique, to become nearly as big as his legend. This alone, and Thornton’s blazing performance, are reason enough to remember this Alamo.

Gregg Tubbs is a freelance writer living in Columbia, Maryland.

This article was developed by UMC.org, a ministry of United Methodist Communications.



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