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Published: 4/9/2004

Movie review: The Alamo ***

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Davy Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton), left, fights off a Mexican soldier in The Alamo.
Davy Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton), left, fights off a Mexican soldier in The Alamo.
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The Alamo doesn't end the way you might think. That would be negative, wouldn't it? History is not altered in this lavish, dust-colored, staunchly middle-of-the-road Disney epic, of course. That would be a bit crass, and writer-director John Lee Hancock (The Rookie) is a Texan, too; and from the looks of his movie, a well-meaning, high-minded, reverential one.

He goes easy on the histrionics that might have turned this into a gun and flag-waving jamboree; but he's also careful to not entirely separate the legend from the truth. This is a western for a more self-aware, public relations-savvy age. And a far blander one, too. History just gets - well, repositioned a little bit - the good follows the bad.

In recent years, Pearl Harbor pioneered this strategy: Why end with the destruction of a fleet on that fateful December morning when you can leap forward a few months and end with a smashing raid over Tokyo, transforming a Day of Infamy into a glass-half-full picture of history. That sand-blasting, scrub-down approach to ambiguity and discomfort has always been Hollywood's (if not America's) way of dealing with its blood-soaked history, but particularly that 1836 massacre at the Alamo. (It's no surprise both Pearl Harbor and this new Alamo are from Disney; though the latter is in a classier league.)

For the record, there have been nine earlier films depicting those seminal events in San Antonio, where 187 settlers, soldiers, and Tejanos (Texans of Mexican descent) held their doomed ground for 13 days against 7,000 Mexican troops. Four were silent, four were made for television; and the most famous, or infamous, came in 1960 from John Wayne, who directed (with an uncredited assist from John Ford), and starred as Davy Crockett. Wayne, not surprisingly, transformed a heroic and little understood battle into a manipulative bombast of jingoism; so upbeat it was, it veered into an unintentional comedy.

The Alamo is not nearly as shameless - and not nearly, unfortunately, as pointed or passionate. It's heartfelt and involving for stretches, but it doesn't have the fire in its belly you'd hope for. What worked for me was the history. I sheepishly admit, I didn't know much about the Alamo, aside from it being in Texas, everyone perishing, and that its defenders included a who's who of western legends: the consummate showboater Crockett; adventurer Jim Bowie (whose knife, of course, bears his name); outside the fort, principals included Tejano leader Juan Seguin, who went for help but was denied by a tragically indecisive Gen. Sam Houston. When no help was sent, the fort was overrun, but Houston, knowing Mexican dictator Santa Anna had overplayed his card, won the rest of Texas in a battle that lasted less than 20 minutes.

That's the eastern seaboard version anyway; Texans highlight other points. I remembered most of it from high school social studies, and the mostly straightforward way Hancock lays out that history, debunking the details when necessary (if gently and awkwardly), becomes the engine for this Alamo, pulling you through the so-so filmmaking. The Alamo, before Ron Howard dropped out of directing it, before a mountain of bad buzz attacked it, and Hancock was forced into cutting 45 minutes, was set to be Disney's big winter Oscar contender, and you can see why: It's backlit and sunbaked, tasteful and apolitical.

The kind of expensive, tasteful filmmaking that eats up award-season nominations, and sells history books for a brief time, but never endears itself, or lingers in your head. The Mexican soldiers are no longer just indistinguishable hordes - both sides become indistinguishable hordes: stoic, thinly written fodder. Two black men are thrown in to represent slavery. The effect is mildly revisionist, and without the poetry of a great western, careful to avoid offending, and more in line with a tepid TNT western: the details suck you in, the filmmaking holds to a trot.

But about that ending again.

Santa Anna, you might be interested to learn, did not succeed in retaining Texas. It became the 28th state. The siege at that tiny mission in the middle of nowhere begins 45 minutes into the picture, after much John Ford-like positioning of heroes in open doorways. Then that siege ends a half hour before the film does, leaving room for a dimly reasoned denouement.

Here's the rub. After being introduced in the first third as a bungling political animal and a drunk, General Houston (Dennis Quaid, jaw jutted, mutton-chops restricting the blood to his head) returns to the story to avenge the Alamo, but his actions come off so vague, they push the film to a stalemate. Was it strategy that led Houston to lure Santa Anna into a trap? A failure of nerve?

Hancock is careful to show repulsion for the wholesale slaughter of those Mexican troops; but it's an odd note that never quite gives the story the symmetry that's clearly intended. Shades of gray deepen a drama, especially a historical drama. Without the poetry of the filmmaking to deliver those nuances, you'd be just as likely to take away that Houston stalled his support of the Alamo because he knew it would give him an opportunity to coin a phrase, to deliver the immortal cry: "Remember the Alamo!"

That balance Hancock intended, however, is not completely missing: It resides in Billy Bob Thornton's performance as David - don't call me Davy - Crockett. More comfortable with debunking his tales of bravery than performing them, he shows up in San Antonio on a lark, a retired Congressman who thinks "the fighting around here has stopped - hasn't it?" He finds himself trapped in this out-of-the-way mission, but not just by Santa Anna (played by Emilio Echevarria as a mincing Dr. Evil, teacup in hand, pinkie raised).

Thornton's Crockett gives a weary smile to every story he hears of his own fabled exploits - fighting bears, leaping across raging white water in a single bound - and Thornton the actor satisfies that need for Crockett to embody that American history in all its complicated fluidity: He's not the guy these soldiers expected, that doesn't mean he can't live up to that myth, especially in his final desperate hour. Thornton is entertaining and knowing, fallible with the man and generous with the frontier saga, and you wish The Alamo followed his lead: When the truth becomes legend, he delivers the truth, but he prints the legend.

Contact Christopher Borrelli at 419-724-6117 or cborrelli@theblade.com.



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