The director of the new Alamo movie—a Lone Star native with the revolutionary moniker of John Lee Hancock—has said that he wanted to make the definitive story of the fabled Texas last stand, not like that fat hunk of myth-making propaganda fashioned by John Wayne in 1960, at the apex of the Cold War. It's true that the rah-rah jingoism of Wayne's version is nowhere to be found in Hancock's. This is a careful and reasonably nuanced retelling, its canvas broad, its heroes imperfect, its key minor—at times even dirgelike, in a post-9/11 sort of way. (The movie opens with the bodies of Alamo and Mexican soldiers.) For a big-budget epic from a studio that isn't known for its historical (or artistic) revisionism, this is a very respectable effort. But the absence of politics is a kind of politics, too, and Hancock's The Alamo is likely to leave people scratching their heads and wondering, "What's the back story here?" This is a profoundly ahistoric movie—a definitive Hollywood muddle.
Over the years, many historians have respectfully suggested that the defense of this modest, crumbling San Antonio mission in the absence of an influx of norteamericano troops might not have been the wisest course for Col. Jim Bowie and Lt. Col. William Travis. The gringos had a couple of months' notice that the Mexican general, Santa Anna, was on the move with thousands of men: Maybe Bowie and Travis should have burned down the place (never much use as a fortress to begin with) and lived to fight another day. (That was the directive of Gen. Sam Houston, the commander of the Texas Army.) It's no secret that their motives weren't entirely pure, either. A large number of (non-Chomskyite) writers have suggested that U.S. rebels were trying to pull off something of a land grab at a time when Mexico had only just won its freedom from Spain. That was certainly consistent with Bowie's past: In his youth, he'd been one of the new country's most audacious real-estate swindlers, a man for whom Manifest Destiny meant concocting bogus claims for hundreds of thousands of acres. He moved westward to stay ahead of the government and his creditors—as did Travis, who beat it out of Alabama leaving a wife and kids behind. But there's no denying the valor of these Texians (as they were called), who fought and died in the 13-day siege and became part of our folklore. As well as our 28th state, the Alamo gave us two archetypes: Bowie, whose big knife had once cut the heart out of a man in the act of shooting and stabbing him; and Davy Crockett, the Tennessee bear-hunter turned politician turned folksy raconteur.
In this new telling (the script is credited to Leslie Bohem, Stephen Gaghan, and Hancock), the story of the Alamo is one of those quintessential American myths: of ragtag underdogs outmanned and outgunned, holding their own against a large, better equipped, and sadistic foe. The sadists in this case aren't the ordinary Mexican soldiers, portrayed as just doing their duty, but their leader, Santa Anna, played by the Mexican actor Emilio Echevarría (best known here for his role as a bedraggled, dog-loving hit man in Amores Perros ) as a cigar-smoking voluptuary who relishes the execution of his prisoners: He announces that to let any of them live would be seen as the workings of fate, whereas wholesale slaughter will be seen as the workings of Santa Anna.
The real Alamo fighters knew of Santa Anna's approach for quite a while, but in the movie it's presented as a rude shock—most of all to Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton), who enlisted in the Texas militia to revitalize his political career and hadn't figured on being at the wrong end of a siege. This is a little unfair to the actual man, who stuck around for months in San Antonio, but it's the best part of The Alamo—this conception of Crockett as a semi-fraud trapped by his own mythic persona who rises to the occasion and fulfills his destiny. It gives Thornton a chance to be the anti-John Wayne, dryly funny in his modesty, a natural politician and unnatural man of action. Thornton's gregarious warmth helps bolster Patrick Wilson's fine but low-key Travis, who's hobbled by a patchy script, and Jason Patric's fine but even lower-key Bowie, who's less swaggering than the occasion warrants. (It's a wonder that his men can even hear him.)
Dennis Quaid has much worse luck as Houston. A raging alcoholic (the Cherokee referred to him as "Big Drunk") who refused to take seriously Travis' pleading missives from the midst of the siege, Houston could easily be the other villain of the piece; and neither Hancock nor Quaid seem to know what to do with him. Quaid drops his voice, pops his eyes, and looks like a man who hasn't moved his bowels in months. When Houston gets the news of the Alamo disaster, he prays like the guilt-ridden king in Becket (1964), then comes back to life as an avenger, styling himself the Wellington to Santa Anna's Napoleon. This is meant as his redemption—and the movie's, since Hollywood depictions of disasters like the Alamo and Pearl Harbor must end, for commercial reasons, with Americans getting their own back.
Americans did, of course: They got Texas, which Santa Anna signed over in return for his life, earning everlasting disgrace in his native country. (It would become a U.S. state in 1845.) But thanks to Hancock's evasive storytelling, it's never clear why Houston moved so slowly or why so few Texians came to the Alamo's aid. The middle of the movie is pokey and unfocused—and, given the circumstances, bizarrely lacking in urgency. There was a fair amount of subterfuge in how the messengers got out, but Hancock seems stuck on Bowie slowly expiring from typhoid. The direction gives you time to ruminate on the dumb Hollywood touches, like the scene in which Travis petulantly fires his cannon at the Mexicans while Bowie is in the middle of a white-flag negotiation—a moronic act of insubordination if it happened. (It didn't.) And while dubious legend has Crockett narrowly missing the popinjay Santa Anna with his rifle, Hancock has him showing off by shooting an epaulet off the general's uniform. You think: "Why didn't he aim for the heart and end the whole thing right there?" Crockett's last scene is certainly novel: It's so heroically wiseass that you'll wonder why you never heard about it until now (three guesses).
Carter Burwell's score is disappointingly James Hornerish (conventionally romantic, with Celtic pipes), but it has one moment of sublimity: the stirring low brass and drums as the Americans lie sleeping and the Mexicans begin their surprise approach. That music supplies the mythic dread that's absent from the rest of the picture, despite Dean Semler's blue-lit mists and Michael Corenblith's expressive rubble. Hancock—best known for scripting A Perfect World (1993) and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997), and for directing the baseball inspirational The Rookie (2002)—stages battles with the skill of a competent Confederate re-enacter, but in a movie like The Alamo you hope for a little more horror at the waste of so many lives.
Hancock does make gestures toward social realism: The presence of slaves at the Alamo is finally acknowledged, and one scornfully advises another not to die for as well as clean up after the white man. (The political correctness is undermined by the clunky dialogue, which definitely pegs these two as "Negro" bit players.) As the tejano leader Juan Seguin, Jordi Mollà ponders the significance of fighting against his own Mexican brother, but the only thing that carries the scene is the actor's charismatic stillness. What I took away from this Alamo is that nothing motivates us like revenge. When we remember the Alamo, we don't remember the reasons we shouldn't have fought or the lives that were needlessly lost. We remember the galvanizing power of martyrdom. We remember that people, especially Americans, often never know quite how they feel about something until they feel mad as hell about it.