Forget this Alamo: Viewers surrender to boredom
At last the truth can be told about the 1836 Battle of the Alamo. Although the 185 defenders of the mission-fortress were hopelessly outnumbered by the forces of Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna (Emilio Echevarria), they were really defeated in the 13-day siege because they talked each other to death. At least that's how it appears in John Lee Hancock's version of The Alamo.
Santa Anna, "the Napoleon of the West," is fleshed out more than in previous American versions. We see his disregard for human life ("What are the lives of soldiers but so many chickens?") and some irony may be intended when he says he's fighting so future generations of Mexicans won't have to beg for crumbs from the United States.
The usual supergroup of American heroes is inside the Alamo for all or part of the battle. They're led by Lt. Col. William B. Travis (Patrick Wilson), who has to earn the men's respect. It doesn't help that he says things like, "One crowded hour of glorious life is worth an age without a name" and, more to the point, "We must engage in delay until reinforcements arrive."
The men wait for Travis to be anointed by their chosen leader, Jim Bowie (Jason Patric), who spends most of his time in bed dying of consumption, typhus, pneumonia and/or alcoholism, tended by the sister of his Mexican sweetheart. The way it's photographed, his signature knife looks bigger than Excalibur.
Former Tennessee Congressman Davy Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton), persuaded by Sam Houston (Dennis Quaid) to move to Texas because it's "what Tennessee was," passes the time spinning the "truth" behind his legend, which is being perpetuated by an actor impersonating him in a one-man show.
And what of Houston? When he gets word that reinforcements are needed, he gathers 124 men but awaits 400 more before moving them to the Alamo.
The legend of the Alamo is as ingrained as Crockett's, so the screenplay can hardly avoid seeming clichéd, although it does leave out Travis drawing a line in the sand when he offers his besieged comrades a chance to leave "under the white flag of surrender." Most of the new ideas, however, are ill-conceived.
Each evening around sunset the Mexican army band plays "De Guella" (translated as "Slit Throat") before their soldiers attack the Alamo. One night Crockett mounts a rampart and plays a counterpoint on his violin. He's unamplified, of course, yet the Mexicans are still able to hear him over their own, much-louder musicians. It's like "Dueling Banjos" in Deliverance, except Crockett's mouth ain't so purty.
For contemporary relevance there's a scene of Travis divorcing his wife before the battle and a montage of the men writing letters home. Two African Americans, indentured servants, debate the wisdom of fighting for the white man. Bowie gives one a chance to leave, although "I will still own you 'til the day you die."
Most of the combat scenes are composed of brief snapshots and fleeting impressions rather than a sustained account. There's certainly nothing to compare to the battle at the beginning of Cold Mountain.
To give the story a happy ending– and what would The Alamo be without a happy ending?– an epilogue spotlights Houston's 18-minute victory over Santa Anna's troops following the other battle, leading to Texas' independence from Mexico and later statehood.
When troops are first assigned to defend the Alamo, Santa Anna is thought to be 300 wintry miles away, and it's reasoned that "a good rifleman and a 12-pounder should hold it." Concern is expressed that the soldiers will be bored.
They should have worried about the audience.