'Alamo' can't defend itself from being hokey

Friday, April 9, 2004


Special to the Journal-World

Billy Bob Thornton, left, wards off Mexican troops in the historical action epic, "The Alamo.

The sets are grand, the costumes are perfect, the history of the situation is clearly explained.

But despite the attention to all the cosmetic details, there's not a frame of "The Alamo" where viewers aren't aware they're watching a movie.

Director and co-writer John Lee Hancock ("The Rookie") crafts a film so enamored with its own mythology that it borders on becoming a parody of the 1836 battle/massacre that helped Texas gain its independence. The project looks authentic but feels fake.

It's a shame because the actual history surrounding the Alamo is intriguing, powerful stuff. And although a lot of the movie is routine -- it's siege centerpiece is no different thematically than "The Return of the King" -- audiences have a pretty easy time relating to this material. It's hard not to root for a small group of patriots defending themselves from a much larger force.

This epic event would be more palatable if it weren't approached like an EPIC EVENT. A sweeping camera moves in to a closeup of an actor as he surveys the enemy. His face grimaces from the brunt of his noble responsibility. Inspirational music chimes in.

If Hancock could show the heavens opening up and angels descending, he probably would have.

Also at the core of what causes the movie to seem so hokey is its portrayal of the main characters. There's the by-the-books William Travis, the loose cannon Jim Bowie, the zany-but-lovable Davy Crockett. This isn't a group of historical figures as much as it is a sitcom cast: "Everybody Loves the Alamo."

Even with these broad profiles, the most surprisingly believable character is the larger-than-life Crockett. Played by larger-than-life actor Billy Bob Thornton, the legendary adventurer works in this context precisely because he doesn't believe his own hype. Crockett is shown as amused by his alligator-wrestling, bear-killing reputation -- yet he's also a little apprehensive of it, as if he can never quite live up to expectations.

There's a great little throwaway image during Crockett's eventual execution (one interpretation of his fate) in which he sees a Mexican foe wearing a coonskin cap, implying that even the enemy can be counted among his fan base. In one of the film's few moments of subtlety, he dismisses the sight with a resigned laugh.

Thornton may be the best American actor working today. Part of his strength is that he -- like Gene Hackman or Morgan Freeman or Sean Penn -- can give terrific performances in forgettable movies. This latest effort helps hone that ability.


Alamo **


It may look authentic but it sure feels fake. Such is the problem with the latest take on the 1836 battle that helped Texas gain independence. "The Alamo" is so enamored with its own mythology that it borders on becoming a hokey parody. Only Billy Bob Thornton as Davy Crockett manages to bring some humanity to the event.

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"The Alamo" doesn't end with the 189 "Texians" dying at the hands of General Antonio López de Santa Anna (Emilio Echevarria) and his 2,500-strong army. Like "Pearl Harbor," the rah-rah film is not comfortable concluding with an American defeat. Whereas the World War II epic added a final act about Jimmy Doolittle's bombing raid on Tokyo, "The Alamo" follows Sam Houston (Dennis Quaid) in his cat-and-mouse game with Santa Anna's troops.

In its own way, this is the most interesting part of the film, even though Quaid gives a stiff performance and Santa Anna is depicted more as a James Bond villain than a political leader. It's here, however, that some actual military strategies are deliberated upon. It's certainly satisfying seeing the Napoleonic Santa Anna suffering through his own Waterloo.

Otherwise, the movie would have been nothing but watching people waiting around to die. Although the way filmmaker Hancock addresses the material, one half expects Travis, Bowie, Crockett and the rest of the defenders to rise from their graves after three days.