In 1960 John Wayne stepped behind the camera as a director for the first time when he made a three-hour epic telling of the events surrounding the siege of the Alamo in what is now Texas. The Duke cast himself as Davey Crockett. Wayne surrounded himself with several of the great actors and movie stars of the time – Richard Widmark as Jim Bowie, Laurence Harvey as the gentlemanly Colonel Travis.
The point I am venturing to illustrate here is that John Wayne made a movie called The Alamo, and now writer-director John Lee Hancock has made a movie called The Alamo – these are both are separate entities, both made at different times, by different artists, for different reasons. Lots of “critics” will use this opportunity as another reason to take a cheap shot at John Wayne but I say that both have their place.
That said, I do think that John Lee Hancock’s version of The Alamo is a beautifully shot, wonderfully written, and acted with expert craftsmanship by a fine array of character actors. If I found any weakness in the film it is in director John Lee Hancock’s sense of pacing. This film feels like it was intended to be a lot longer than it’s current two hours and ten minutes and went through some trimming that had an affect on the pacing.
The battle of The Alamo is one of those famous, pivotal events in American history of which the details are not that well known – the phrase “remember the Alamo” is part of the common lexicon but that actually refers to the real pivotal battle that came after the slaughter at The Alamo when General Sam Houston rallied his troops by screaming “remember the Alamo” as he took his army into swift, and punishingly decisive battle against Mexican General Santa Ana’s forces, a battle that lasted all of eighteen minutes and ended with Santa Ana agreeing to sign over all the land that is now Texas to Sam Houston in return for sparing his life.
The actual siege of the Alamo lasted thirteen days and ended in a horrible slaughter as thousands of Mexican troops descended on the hundred year old mission and killed the few hundred rag tag American troops (along with Davey Crockett, Jim Bowie and Colonel Travis). The Americans stayed and defended the Alamo because they believed that the future of Texas depended on it, but also because they believed that help was on the way, and it wasn’t.
There are some terrific performances in this movie that aren’t grand in their presentation, but resonate with their subtlety and power. Billy Bob Thornton as the legendary Davey Crockett delivers the most eccentric of the portrayals. Thornton, and some very interesting writing, portrays Crockett as a hero by hype rather than deed but is able to infuse the portrayal with a real charm and depth. A wonderful actor named Jason Patric (who turned down the role of Christ when Mel Gibson offered that movie to him) plays the wracked with consumption, whiskey swilling, tough guy Jim Bowie with a haunted quality that makes you feel he is doomed right from the start.
But there are also two performances turned in by relative newcomers that are worthy of note – first, Jordi Molla (who was terrific opposite Johnny Depp in Blow) as the Mexican Captain Juan Seguin, a solid hero of this whole event in that he was the one who left the Alamo and guided General Sam Houston to the armies of Santa Ana so that Texas could be won. And one of the largest roles, both in the movie and historically is that of Colonel William Travis, an educated, well-spoken gentleman and career soldier who had more guts than the frontiersman he fought with gave him credit for. Travis is played by a wonderful new actor named Patrick Wilson (who recently won a well deserved Golden Globe award for his work in the HBO film “Angels in America“). Wilson gives Travis a poignant sense of badly wanting to be a good man and a good soldier and to do the right thing, but the deck is so stacked against him that nothing he does will result in victory and he knows it. All he is left with is his own sense of dignity and his honesty in dealing with the men serving under him.
When The Alamo is good, it is very good. The battle scenes are terrifically and terrifyingly stages. The characters are well drawn and memorable, and the storytelling is smart and interesting (for a change we have a film that doesn’t venture to insult the intelligence of the average twelve year). When it isn’t quite so good, it is still okay, it just feels a bit slow and uneven.
All in all, The Alamo is a great historical event given a painstakingly detailed, passionately written and acted cinematic treatment that is well worth seeing.
Image Courtesy of Buena Vista.