Cinema Signal:

The Alamo Reader:
A Study in History

. "The Alamo"

This depiction of Texas' revolution against Mexico in 1836 reminds us of the difficulty America had in becoming what it is today. But the problem in bringing it to the screen is that the lore tends to serve for the visceral. The filmmakers here seem to have been working out of over-reverence to legend to create more than distant shapes of the people and sacrifices involved.

Not built as a fort, the Alamo became one when it was fortified with heavy cannon to ward off a succession of attacks. When Lt. Col. William Travis (Patrick Wilson), James Bowie (of the "Bowie Knife") (Jason Patric), and David "Davy" Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton) came to the never-completed monastery, an earlier attack by Mexico's dictator General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna (Emilio Echevarria) had been warded off and his return with a bigger army anticipated. The 189 men defending the garrison were to hold off an attack by the 2,500 man Mexican army long enough for the arrival of the American army being formed by General Sam Houston (Dennis Quaid).

Houston couldn't get it together in time, the men of the fort held on for 13 days, and were crushed under Santa Anna's order to "take no prisoners." Afterward, Houston tracked Santa Anna down to San Jacinto, defeated and captured him and, instead of putting the tyrant to death, exacted a treaty ceding Texas to the union.

In the attempt to forge cinematic drama out of these historic events, director John Lee Hancock creates an epic of archetype figures animated by a sense of heroic stature. But it takes a much more adventurous approach with internal character to engage us in the stakes. Thornton's Crockett comes closest to developing a bond with his demonstration of courage, self-deprecation of his "reputation" and, touchingly, his violin accompaniment to the Mexican army's oft-played anthem. Patric's surly bullying of Wilson's Travis seems more a device for building conflict than a reliable portrait of the man. When Travis electrifies the people in the Alamo by picking up a spent Mexican cannon ball and carrying it to his cannoneers with the order to send it back, it's a momentary ignition of dramatic interest which, after petering out into the general dullness, serves to illustrate the character sparks the picture lacks.

The production is entirely pro, with cinematographer Dean Semler's photography capturing the texture of the setting and spectacle of battle with rich tonality.

The men who died at the Alamo will always inspire us with the tragedy of their sacrifice but Hancock's attempt at dramatizing it rises only slightly above the agonizing "Gods and Generals" and leaves limited respect for his leadership.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Billy Bob Thornton and Patrick Wilson
Davy Crockett and Lt. Col. William Travis await the attack

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