True appreciation of John Lee Hanc0ck’s… 2004 epic cannot be achieved until viewers acknowledge it is not a remake of the 1960 John Wayne film of the same name. Wayne’s version is jingoistic in message, clumsy with history, and two dimensional about characterization. Hancock’s film shows the defenders as flawed freedom fighters, not hokey legends spouting patriotic platitudes. Historical accuracy often weighs down otherwise entertaining scripts; “The Alamo” walks the fine line between epic film making and history lesson.
Billy Bob Thorton steals every scene… as the most human David Crockett yet put on screen. Larger than life against his will, Thorton’s Crockett is a reluctant warrior forced to the Texas frontier out of political necessity. His fiddle playing and homespun Tennessee wisdom are awkwardly received by the firebrands dominating Tejas politics- Dennis Quaid’s Sam Houston balances the bottle with his ambition, while Jason Patrick broods as Jim Bowie- dying a slow consumptive death, mourning the life he could have had in Texas. William Travis, as portrayed by the understated Patrick Wilson, receives the most extensive reevaluation; long thought of as the rigid, inexperienced amateur, Hancock and screenwriter Stephen Gaghan more accurately show Travis as a deeply flawed man seeking redemption as a soldier in Texas. The well fleshed out performances are the strength that help the film stand on its own- and eliminates any comparisons to the two-dimensional caricatures of the 1960 version.
There is just enough action… to keep the pace of the film moving- at times it does get bogged down with dialogue. Thorton serves as comic relief and his scenes are always the most enjoyable (his harmonic interlude to the Mexican march of “Degüello”is the most powerful of the film.) Hancock is careful to use the historical record to dramatic effect- gone is the infamous line in the sand drawn by a wooden Travis- replaced with a painful, but honest appeal to troops facing certain death. Travis’s stirring letter to the Texas government provides proper context to the heroism of the defenders. Historical details are presented accurately(the final assault occurred before daybreak) and Hancock does an admirable job preventing the film from being just another dry history lesson. The film presents both points of view while, for the most part, avoiding the politically correct preaching of recent historical epics (see Kingdom of Heaven, Cold Mountain, Last Samurai.) The film does labor through Houston’s victory at San Jacinto, carrying the narrative well beyond the walls of the beleaguered mission. Focusing squarely on the Alamo is difficult with a script so rich in Tejas political maneuvering.
To many film fans… John Wayne will always be the burly incarnation of Davy Crockett, bravely meeting death at the point of a Mexican bayonet. It is more difficult to imagine Crockett being executed after surrender, regardless of what the historical record tells us. Hancock’s retelling of the story fits perfectly into film history as the perfect blend of character, legend, fact- even fiction. The critical analysis is that the film does justice to all those involved- a rare feat in an industry willing to sacrifice accuracy for self-righteous story telling.