Film Reviews

THE ALAMO (ROY)

By • Apr 9th, 2004 •

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Touchstone Pictures / Imagine Entertainment / Rated PG-13 / 137 minutes

I saw it a week ago, and moments with Billy Bob Thornton as David Crockett are still rattling around inside my head. I think, though, that aside from his performance, which grew from good to wonderful as the film progressed, one has to be a history buff to last this one out. It’s oddly passive despite its epic, combative subjective matter.

The Duke must be suckin’ down Margarita’s wherever that might be (he lies in an unmarked grave, as do many famous cadavers since Chaplin’s was stolen in Switzerland in 1978), celebrating the dismal reception of this latest THE ALAMO. His version, forty-four years old by now, and roundly trashed when it opened in 1960 for a wide variety of reasons including historical inaccuracies, American bias, foolish casting, and a tedious three-hour-and-fifteen+ minute running time that Wayne capitulated to by awkwardly trimming over a half hour of footage for general release (and the film still, inexplicably, went up for a Best Editing Oscar), is being remembered today as superior to the John Lee Hancock version for at least being energized and giving us heroic actors with whom to sympathize.

There were several other films about the battle at the Alamo, most notably one starring Sterling Hayden which focused on Jim Bowie called THE LAST COMMAND, which many felt had the superior final battle scene, and which is conspicuously absent on DVD in light of the recent film which, having had post production problems which forced it to open several months late, gave the owners of the Hayden version more than enough time to get theirs out. MGM has had a timely DVD re-release of Wayne’s recut (2 hrs. 42 mins.) THE ALAMO with new cover art resembling the unimaginative poster art for the theatrical version currently playing.

I’m gonna blame the failings of the 2004 version on director Hancock. The man has proudly proclaimed that he is a Texan and therefore has a stake in the subject matter he was shaping. Perhaps he was too close to the material, holding down performance and emphasizing history to the detriment of narrative drive. More to the point, his connection with the material may have made it difficult for him to see its flaws during the editing process. In other words he, like I can imagine I would have (I am an ‘Alamo’ aficionado who has been working on a screenplay about the event for thirty-five years but, since on my budgets I can’t afford two hundred extras let alone two thousand, have never seriously considered my version would get off the ground – I’m doing it for love), probably came close to orgasm getting all those little historical details right, and so I imagine did the citizens of Texas, but the amount of weight he placed on this aspect of the script and art direction are proving considerably less riveting to the other several billion people on the planet. Hancock may have been the wrong person to supervise this production to fruition.

I could go on about the comparisons with the 1960 epic. Alamo mission set designer Alfred Ybarra (’60) vs. Michael Corenblith (’04): Ybarra gets it! ToddAO 70mm Cinematographer William Clothier (’60) vs. Dean Semler (’04): Clothier’s classic framing proclaims ‘epic’…Semler, never comes close to encasing the story in ‘epic’ frames, though his portraiture work on the lead characters is admirable. Dimitri Tiomkin’s score (’60) vs. Carter Burwell’s score (’04): Burwell’s score has some lovely things going for it, but Tiomkin’s is very arguably one of the great film scores of the last century, and features the evocative song, ‘The Green Leaves of Summer’. Jason Patrick vs. Richard Widmark as Jim Bowie: Widmark wins, and he gets to use his knife during the film! Laurence Harvey vs. Patrick Wilson as Travis: Neither are great, and Harvey openly disdained making the film, but he rules! Dennis Quaid vs. Richard Boone as Sam Houston: This is the saddest comparison of all. Quaid’s Houston has a sour glower plastered on his mug for what seems like an endless amount of screen time. He frankly stinks! And since his so-called performance bookends the film, this is an Achilles heel of major destructive proportions. True, Wayne did have Frankie Avalon in his film (I’d love to ask ‘what was he thinking?’, except that I know exactly what he was thinking, so I can only wish he hadn’t had to think that way), and Avalon’s was the final image in the film, but Quaid’s damage to the new version far outweighs Avalon’s, to the point where a few shots of Billy Bob Thornton’s Crockett are pasted on at the very end in an attempt to cleanse the viewers’ palate of Quaid, but it doesn’t work.

Now Thornton vs. Wayne, that’s another story. Wayne was a terrific Crockett, but he was all wrong historically, and everyone knew it – adults, children, the unborn – no one was taken in by Wayne’s performance. He was the right age, almost on the nose, but he was pure Wayne otherwise; people just accepted it and loved it because Wayne was a specifically American icon, and this was his dream project, his PASSION OF THE CHRIST, if you will, his SWEET SWEETBACK’S BADASSSS SONG, something he passionately believed in, put up much of his own money for, and directed himself. Some speculated that if he could have played all the main characters he would have, and that if he could have found a way to have Crockett live, he would have – he’d only died a handful of times on film out of all his screen appearances – in that way representing a diametrically opposed approach to his screen persona from that of Mel Gibson, who would probably have played Jesus if he could have, just to get up there on the cross, suffer, and expire, and would probably have liked to die at the end of LETHAL WEAPON except that you just can’t do that with a franchise (I know; I tried it with THE SUBSTITUTE).

No, Thornton’s Crockett is as good as Wayne’s, and it’s a genuinely well-written part, and played by the actor as sweet, bright, crafty, witty, and melancholy. Thornton’s Crockett is beautifully coifed, in fact, had this film been a winner, some of those clothes might have caught on with the impressionable public the way coonskin caps caught on back when the Disney version played TV. Hancock found just the right way to play the revisionist version of Crockett’s death, and certainly one reason to catch the film, even if you choose to wait for DVD, is the haunting duet Crockett plays with the Mexican Army band, to the ominous tune of Deguello, the call of ‘no quarter’ that advised the Texians of their impending fate every night. The remarkable harmony of this duet was arranged by Carter Burwell, the Coen Bros’ gifted and eccentric composer, and the actual fiddling was essayed/taught to Thornton by Craig Eastman, and it’s a delicious piece of business, and all too brief. By comparison, Wayne’s Deguello was practically a symphony, played on marching horseback, and the version in the Sterling Hayden film was a harsh staccato, like gunfire, which blended easily into the creepy sound of bullet hits against the Alamo’s walls.

Speaking of sound, the only Academy Award that Wayne’s THE ALAMO won was for Sound, which it deserved. Interestingly, the sound in the new version is at times equally remarkable. The ground shaking detonations of the cannonball bombs Santa Anna’s army lobbed into the Texan stronghold will test the subwoofers of theater systems worldwide. One really feels what it was like to be psychologically punished by the twelve days of unending fusillade from the surrounding forces…and what it must have been like for those bunkered Iraqi forces during the Desert Storm offensive. After that little endeavor was over, the united forces of 500,000 pretty much found their enemy staggering around the desert with blood coming out of their ears. You get the sense of it here. Good strategy on Santa Anna’s part, who, by the way, is well played by Emilio Echevarria, a fine Mexican actor who is currently having to defend the film to his countrymen. Santa Anna, incidentally, left his wife, just as Travis and Crockett did. He not only outlived all his famous opponents both inside and outside the Alamo, he lived into his 80’s, one-legged and blind, where he sat in a village square and rattled on about the Alamo and his other exploits, regarded as a crazy person by the town children who routinely urinated on him for sport (which would have been the opening scene in my version).

This version, as opposed to the version Ron Howard wanted to make, is rated PG-13. I haven’t seen so many people die without bleeding since Fess Parker and company perished, again courtesy of Disney, that time with Walt in charge. The Duke’s version was a bloodbath compared to Hancock’s. Staging it at night helped in this respect – not having to show blood and guts – but the choice to make it anemic finally only added to the quiet nature of the film. It was definitely a ‘bottom line’ accounting department sort of decision, and ultimately tragically unwise.


Cast:
Sam Houston – Dennis Quaid
Davy Crockett – Billy Bob Thornton
Jim Bowie – Jason Patric
William Travis – Patrick Wilson
Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna – Emilio Echevarria
Juan Seguin – Jordi Molla

Directed by – John Lee Hancock
Written by – Leslie Bohem and Stephen Gaghan and John Lee Hancock

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