Standing on a rooftop at the Alamo, the apparently valiant and suddenly insightful Davy Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton) pulls out his fiddle. He’s responding to the increasingly annoying march that the enemy forces, led by Mexican General Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana (Emilio Echevarría), play before each assault on the fort. As these assaults have been going on for days (the siege will last 13), each bringing cannon fire (“Fuego! Fuego!”) and Mexican advances, the U.S. troops are weary and agitated. They’re also grateful to have Crockett stand up.
While this is most obviously a cocky gesture, it is also a strangely collaborative one: the Mexican soldiers continue to play with Crockett’s accompaniment and, much as in the fiddle-and-harmonica scene in Matewan (1987), for a minute, these mortal enemies forget their self-claimed missions and territories, their conflict momentarily quelled in what Crockett deems “harmony.” Whether or not this scene is left over from John Sayles’ early scriptwriting efforts for The Alamo, back when it was set to be directed by Ron Howard, cost some $125 million, star Russell Crowe, and merit an R rating, is unclear. But it’s a rare moment of grace and reflection in a film that might be charitably called incoherent.
So much has gone wrong for The Alamo that it almost feels like piling on to say any more about it. But it’s hard to find much that’s right about it. The movie arrives in theaters directed by John Lee Hancock (The Rookie); written by Leslie Bohem, Stephan Gaghan, and Hancock; rated PG-13, starring Dennis Quaid as blustery drunk Sam Houston; reportedly costing $107 million, that is, still $32 million over the $75 million budget granted by the same company, Disney, that spent $100 million to make Home on the Range; and plainly cut to ribbons by someone (Hancock’s three-hour version now edited to two hours and 15 minutes, with Marc Blucas part [as messenger James Bonham] reduced to a couple of one-second pans and one voiceover line, and Wes Studi disappeared altogether).
As taxing as they surely were, these logistical difficulties can’t compete with the political and historical problems associated with Alamo mythology. The 1836 land grab mounted by Houston and the Texians (settlers on technically Mexican land who wanted to establish a nation apart from the U.S.) was hardly welcomed by the Mexican or U.S. government. Hancock’s movie allows that the Alamo’s 200 or so defenders are assorted ne’er-do-wells: cheats, drunks, bad card players, and debtors, led by the last-minute appointee to command the fort, Colonel William Barrett Travis (Patrick Wilson), who has abandoned his pregnant wife and two children.
But it is the mighty fiction — of the film and the Alamo — that these losers are roused to heroism: all were massacred by Santa Ana’s 4000 troops. According to the movie, Travis earns his men’s respect, despite his repeated demonstrations of incompetence, then inexplicably inspires everyone, including himself, when facing death: “Texas has been a second chance for me,” he says, “For lands and riches, but also to be a different man, I hope a better one.” He goes on to encourage them to die for Texas, at that point less a place than an dream. Specifically, an imperial dream. (Eventually, this dream would end with Texas as the Union’s 28th state.)
Among the men who nod sagely in response to Travis’ speech are the “Lion of the West” himself (Crockett) and his equally legendary buddy, Jim Bowie (Jason Patric), designer of the knife that bears his name. These two share an early moment, admiring that knife, as Bowie reveals that he is dying of various ailments (consumption, malaria, pneumonia), as well as old knife and bullet wounds.
Though Bowie is weak, he remains both obnoxious (resisting Travis’ inexperience and priggishness) and perversely noble. Consigned to bed for the film’s hour, Bowie is tended by his dead Mexican wife’s sister, Juana (Estephana Lebaron, whose resemblance to her sister leads to Bowie’s sweaty romantic hallucinating) and his slave Sam (Afemo Omilami). Bowie sends both to their “freedom” when Santa Ana grants Mexicans and Negroes in the fort safe passage, though Bowie refuses to give up legal possession of his property (this might be ironic, as he makes the point that he will survive the assault and his illness in order to reclaim Sam, but it’s not a particularly funny joke).
When the Mexicans do breach the fort, as they must, the film cuts between bloody fighting scenes and Bowie buttoning up his vest and readying his guns, so he can shoot a few of them varmints as they kill him. This sets in motion a lengthy “final battle” (that will be followed by another final battle, at San Jacinto, where Sam Houston reappears to give the film a relatively “happy” ending by leading 910 men to victory over the Mexicans), which involves much cutting between personal fights, for Travis, Crockett, and other secondary characters.
This battle provides a moment of realization for Travis’ slave, a boy named Joe (Edwin Hodge). Earlier advised by Sam (Bowie’s slave) that he should look out for himself when the battle begins (“You clean up their shit, but damned if you gonna die for ’em too”), Joe instead stays with his master until the end — of Travis. At this point, Joe is left alone and afraid, muttering the words Sam said would set him free: “Soy Negro. No disparos.” The film never does reveal what happens to Joe, though most other supporting players are accounted for (likely, this is one of the many scenes cut from the theatrical release). While its acknowledgment of the slaves’ plights is commendable, The Alamo — at least in the current chopped-up form — can’t (or won’t) represent the extent to which hypocrisy, racism, bullying, and anxiety (as well as the usually extolled courage and ambition) shaped the emerging United States.
And so The Alamo resorts to legend, reiterated and refracted. Crockett appears here as an admirable egotist, who resists wearing the coonskin cap for which he is renowned, looks after the men who look up to him, and rides out to defend the Alamo because his friend Sam Houston asks him to do so. He is also remarkably self-aware and somewhat humbled by his own celebrity: before he leaves for the fort, he is a guest at a stage performance based on his life, referring to the actor playing him as “Davy Crockett” (he prefers to be called David).
Bowie, by turn, is a wily and lovable rapscallion, devoted to his men, who resent the high-falutin’ excesses of more formally educated, less field-experienced leaders like Travis. Santa Ana is perhaps the easiest caricature: a straight-up deplorable despot in history, he is here a man obsessed with ostentatious displays of power and wealth, his tent outside the Alamo equipped with fine china, white tablecloths, and silverware. He is also, of course, devious and cruel, willing to sacrifice his men (this opposed to the ostensibly noble Texians), whom he sees as expendable in the cause of his own advancement. Such sketchy representations simplify their interactions and rearrange their legends, so that the Americans look like underdogs, only wanting to preserve their claims to land they’ve stolen. As in history, their deaths — and the fact that Houston does take down Santa Ana and take possession of Texas — make them look righteous.