The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Alamo (2004)

Right from the get-go, it seemed 2004's The Alamo was doomed. Casting problems with casting and directing and especially the rating -- make it a hard R or a more family friendly PG-13 -- hung over the production.  Then once director John Lee Hancock finished the movie, an hour of his finished product was hacked away and the release date pushed back three months.  Finally released in theaters Easter weekend against Passion of the Christ, Hancock's movie bombed, barely making $20 million. Failure in theaters, yes, but that doesn't take away from one of my favorite movies on one of my favorite subjects.

It's February 1836 and less than 200 Texans and Mexicans have holed up in the Alamo, a crumbling adobe mission outside San Antonio.  Mexican dictator Santa Anna (Emilio Echevarria) leads an army numbering almost 5,000 men and means to squash this rebellion no matter the cost.  Inside the Alamo, three men lead the tiny garrison; Jim Bowie (Jason Patric), the infamous knife fighter, David Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton), a famed frontiersman and ex-Congressman, and William Travis (Patrick Wilson), a young unproven officer in the regular army.  As the siege wears on day after day, General Sam Houston (Dennis Quaid) tries to assemble an army to come to the aid of the besieged Alamo.  But inside the doomed mission, the defenders see more Mexican troops arriving daily and know what awaits them if they don't surrender.

Before I dive in, I'll say that ever since I was a kid, the story of the Alamo has appealed to me. I'll read and watch anything I can find on the subject. John Wayne's The Alamo is one of my two favorite movies, and even with extremely high expectations going into this one upon its initial release, I loved this movie. It feels crazy that it's almost 10 years since it was released in theaters. It is a shame also that Hancock's believed 3-hour version will never see the light of day. As is right now at 137 minutes, it has its fair share of flaws. At times, it's far too rushed. It has Pearl Harbor Syndrome as well, insisting on a happy ending as opposed to a more appropriate ending. But when it does get right? It hits a home run.

The shame of it is, Hancock has finished the most accurate re-telling of the Alamo battle, including the build-up and actual battle. An immense set in Dripping Springs, Texas was built including the actual Alamo mission and the nearby town of San Antonio. Like Wayne's version, having a full-scale set adds to the realism of the story and battle. The characters are not the legends we remember them as, but the people they actually were. People with personalities, hopes and dreams, fears and desires. The Alamo defenders weren't frontiersman, but townspeople like bankers, lawyers, farmers, and store owners. Without making them into the mythological characters they've become, Hancock has made a very human, personal movie. It's easy to see and feel what the defenders went through; an impossible situation with no easy resolution.

The Alamo story typically presents three main characters, the Alamo trinity of Crockett, Bowie and Travis. I'll get to all three, but the best performance hands down belongs to Billy Bob Thornton as Crockett. This is not the Fess Parker Crockett, but instead a regular guy who's tied down by his own legend he had little to do with creating. Of all the Crockett performances, this is the best, one I thought Thornton deserved an Oscar nomination for. The defenders look to him for support, for answers, for a way out. A monologue mid-siege is transfixing to watch, subtle and quiet but nonetheless highly effective. Another scene has Crockett playing his fiddle atop the Alamo walls, harmonizing with the Mexican army's band playing the Deguello (a high point of Carter Burwell's unassuming but still moving score). Watch the scene HERE. Somewhat controversially, the 2004 Alamo handled Crockett's death in a way no other Alamo movie even dared touch, Thornton rising to the occasion.

The diary of a Mexican soldier -- Enrique de la Pena -- who served at the Alamo claims that Crockett was captured in the closing moments of the battle and brought before a gloating Santa Anna. He was executed with a handful of other prisoners who survived the battle. This is the way the 2004 version chooses to go with, a scene that ends up being the most memorable one in the whole movie. This is Thornton bringing this man to life. Under his breath, Crockett mumbles 'Davy Crockett' as he faces death, his legend hanging over him as the Mexican army awaits what he will do. You can watch the scene HERE. Crockett's death -- whether by surrender/execution or going down fighting -- is maybe the most controversial aspect of the battle for Alamo buffs, but as presented here I can't understand anyone objecting to it.

Onto the other 2/3 of the Alamo trinity. About as far removed from a Hollywood star as possible, Patric is ideally suited to play Jim Bowie, a man who's earned his reputation where Crockett has had his thrust upon him. He's a hard-drinking, stubborn fighter, willing to fight it out if he believes he's right. Playing Colonel Travis, Wilson too shines, showing the transformation the young Alamo commander makes in such a short time as he attempts to rally the mission. All three men make these historical figures people and not just a name. Echevarria doesn't fare so well as Santa Anna, making the Mexican dictator a villain in the vein of a James Bond movie. Quaid too struggles to bring Houston to life, but much of his part was cut when the movie was hacked at to the tune of an hour of lost footage. Jordi Molla as Juan Seguin, a Mexican messenger from the Alamo, especially represents himself well as does Leon Rippy, Marc Blucas (as messenger James Bonham) and Kevin Page as Micajah Autry, Crockett's friend.

What The Alamo does well is especially evident in the choice to stay accurate to the final assault the morning of March 6 when the defenders were overwhelmed and killed to a man. It shows the attack in the morning darkness in an extended sequence that runs almost 15 minutes. Watch most of the sequence HERE. The scale is impressive, giving a real sense of what the battle must have been like. Actually imagine the setting; an enemy closing in on four sides and you've got nowhere to run. It isn't presented as a noble, heroic fight but a gruesome hand-to-hand conflict as sheer numbers overwhelm the Alamo defenders. It starts off in a great sequence as Crockett plucks the string on his fiddle, the shot changing with each pluck as the Mexican army silently approaches the Alamo walls. The most effective moment is a quiet one. Delirious with sickness, Bowie lies in bed barely able to move. He buttons up his vest, ready to face whatever comes through the door. As Rippy's Ward says "We know what awaits us and are prepared to meet it."

Wrapping up the movie is a rushed 20-minute follow-up, Houston's victory at San Jacinto. Like the Doolittle Raid being tacked onto Pearl Harbor, it feels unnecessary. It doesn't take away from a moving story though. The cast is nearly perfect, the music fitting and not your typical historical epic score, the actual Alamo set is a sight to behold, the camerawork and the visual are stunning, and like other successful Alamo movies, it gets the message across. Facing impossible odds, these defenders stood their ground, ready to give their lives because they believed they were right.

The Alamo <---trailer (2004): ****/****

No comments:

Post a Comment