The Alamo (2004)

Cynthia Fuchs

'A lot of people who have seen this movie are surprised that we have depicted these people warts and all,' says historian Stephen L. Hardin.

The Alamo

Director: John Lee Hancock
Cast: Billy Bob Thornton, Dennis Quaid, Jason Patric, Patrick Wilson, Emilio Echevarría, Afemo Omilami, Jordi Mollà, Marc Blucas
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Touchstone
First date: 2004
US DVD Release Date: 2004-09-28
Historian Stephen L. Hardin: We wanted to make this story accessible to all the flawed people sitting out here in the dark theater, and now all the flawed people sitting in front of the television.

Historian Alan Huffines: And there are two flawed people talking to 'em right now.
-- Commentary track, The Alamo

"A lot of people who have seen this movie are surprised that we have depicted these people warts and all," says historian Stephen L. Hardin on the commentary track for the new DVD of The Alamo. "Houston's an alcoholic, Bowie's a land swindler, Crockett's a failed politician, Travis has abandoned his wife, in fact, he abandoned his pregnant wife to come to Texas. But [director] John Lee [Hancock] wanted to depict these people as real, flesh and blood human beings, not alabaster figures, but people like the rest of us, with shortcomings, flaws." This decision, adds Hardin's commentary track partner, historian Alan Huffines (the film's military advisor and active duty Texas National Guard), contradicts what seems almost a "religion" in Texas, concerning the Alamo and the state's "origin myth."

While the expert advisors detail the film's adherence to such facts, as well as its divergences from history (for instance, Juan Seguin is portrayed here as "Houston's conscience," and speaks English, though he did neither, quite, in life), they are plainly anticipating controversy. But the sort of controversy The Alamo ignited during production had little to do with history, and more to do with mundane movie industry arguments.

The resulting film is notoriously uneven, but it does conjure the occasional soaring metaphor, as when Davy Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton), standing on a rooftop at the Alamo, suddenly turns insightful. He 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. The film arrived in theaters in obvious disarray: written by Leslie Bohem, Stephan Gaghan, and Hancock, rated PG-13, starring Dennis Quaid as blustery drunk Sam Houston, and reportedly costing $107 million, and 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. (The DVD helps to bolster these stories, if not with the apparently forthright historians' commentary, then with three featurettes: the 18-minute "Return of the Legend: The Making of The Alamo," follows the usual making-of structure, interviews with cast and crew, extolling the exacting nature of the production; "Walking in the Footsteps of Heroes" offers biographical info on Houston, Crockett, Bowie, and Travis; and "Deep in the Heart of Texans" considers shooting in Texas, the efforts to maintain "authenticity" and inevitable compromises.)

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 a 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.





'We're Not Here to Entertain' Is Not Here to Break the Cycle of Punk's Failures

Even as it irritates me, Kevin Mattson's We're Not Here to Entertain is worth reading because it has so much direct relevance to American punks operating today.


Uncensored 'Native Son' (1951) Is True to Richard Wright's Work

Compared to the two film versions of Native Son in more recent times, the 1951 version more acutely captures the race-driven existential dread at the heart of Richard Wright's masterwork.


3 Pairs of Boots Celebrate Wandering on "Everywhere I Go" (premiere)

3 Pairs of Boots are releasing Long Rider in January 2021. The record demonstrates the pair's unmistakable chemistry and honing of their Americana-driven sound, as evidenced by the single, "Everywhere I Go".


'World War 3 Illustrated #51: The World We Are Fighting For'

World War 3 Illustrated #51 displays an eclectic range of artists united in their call to save democracy from rising fascism.


Tiphanie Doucet's "You and I" Is an Exercise in Pastoral Poignancy (premiere)

French singer-songwriter Tiphanie Doucet gives a glimpse of her upcoming EP, Painted Blue, via the sublimely sentimental ode, "You and I".


PM Picks Playlist 3: WEIRDO, Psychobuildings, Lili Pistorius

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of WEIRDO, Brooklyn chillwavers Psychobuildings, the clever alt-pop of Lili Pistorius, visceral post-punk from Sapphire Blues, Team Solo's ska-pop confection, and dubby beats from Ink Project.

By the Book

The Story of Life in 10 1/2 Species (excerpt)

If an alien visitor were to collect ten souvenir life forms to represent life on earth, which would they be? This excerpt of Marianne Taylor's The Story of Life in 10 and a Half Species explores in text and photos the tiny but powerful earthling, the virus.

Marianne Taylor

Exploitation Shenanigans 'Test Tube Babies' and 'Guilty Parents' Contend with the Aftermath

As with so many of these movies about daughters who go astray, Test Tube Babies blames the uptight mothers who never told them about S-E-X. Meanwhile, Guilty Parents exploits poor impulse control and chorus girls showing their underwear.


Deftones Pull a Late-Career Rabbit Out of a Hat with 'Ohms'

Twenty years removed from Deftones' debut album, the iconic alt-metal outfit gel more than ever and discover their poise on Ohms.


Arcade Fire's Will Butler Personalizes History on 'Generations'

Arcade Fire's Will Butler creates bouncy, infectious rhythms and covers them with socially responsible, cerebral lyrics about American life past and present on Generations.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Thelonious Monk's Recently Unearthed 'Palo Alto' Is a Stellar Posthumous Live Set

With a backstory as exhilarating as the music itself, a Thelonious Monk concert recorded at a California high school in 1968 is a rare treat for jazz fans.


Jonnine's 'Blue Hills' Is an Intimate Collection of Half-Awake Pop Songs

What sets experimental pop's Jonnine apart on Blue Hills is her attention to detail, her poetic lyricism, and the indelibly personal touch her sound bears.


Renegade Connection's Gary Asquith Indulges in Creative Tension

From Renegade Soundwave to Renegade Connection, electronic legend Gary Asquith talks about how he continues to produce infectiously innovative music.


A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.