If there’d been a back door at The Alamo, the old joke goes, there’d be no Texas. More to the point, there’d be no The Alamo, the latest take on the siege that culminated in mass bloodshed on March 6, 1836. The Alamo galvanized a ragtag rebellion against Mexico into a full-scale war of Texan independence, immortalized David ”Davy” Crockett, Jim Bowie, and William Travis, and made an old church the emblem of a new republic. Disney’s The Alamo, on the other hand, became a symbol of studio thrift (it passed from the pricey hands of Ron Howard to those of John Lee Hancock), then slang for ”troubled picture.” But beyond legend, beyond rumor, beyond punditry, what really happened at the Alamo? History — and paying moviegoers — will be the judge.
The good news is, if I really screw up, we can just get Terrence Malick to take over,” deadpans director John Lee Hancock, looking over his shoulder at his notoriously reclusive friend. ”Come to think of it, that’s not a bad idea.”
It’s early summer in Dripping Springs, Tex., and the heat is making Hancock even more self-effacing than usual. The lean, boyish 47-year-old has plenty of reasons to feel humble. This is only his second time at the helm of a feature — his first time with a budget over $25 million — and if he isn’t feeling the pressure already, a film legend has dropped by for a look-see. And for a genial, likable guy with a reputation for decency, Hancock sure has a lot of war spread out in front of him.
His problem today is one of 19th-century decorum. Sam Houston, played by Lone Star State native Dennis Quaid, sits astride a jumpy white horse, trying to stuff a pistol in his coat; it falls out every time he rides. After a couple of takes, he asks permission to defrock. Hancock looks reluctant. The on-set historians have noted that Houston never appeared in shirtsleeves, even in battle. Historical orthodoxy, a high priority for the scholarly Hancock, vies with expediency.
”It’ll be a trivia question,” ventures Quaid, hopefully.
Devastating as Quaid’s wardrobe malfunction may be, this is hardly the first crisis to rock The Alamo. In 2002, with construction well underway on the $10 million, 51-acre set, Disney split with the film’s director, Ron Howard. Fresh off the Oscar triumph of A Beautiful Mind, Howard and producing partner Brian Grazer estimated the cost of an Alamo movie at $135 million, $37 million (against 37 percent first-dollar gross) of which would go to them and Russell Crowe, who was to play Houston. Howard envisioned a violent, multilinear take — with an audience-limiting R rating. Given Howard and Co.’s hefty gross participation, the movie would’ve had to make nearly $200 million domestically before Disney saw dollar one. The deal began to disintegrate — and Hancock was asked to step in. (Howard, who retained a producer credit on the movie, declined to comment for this story.)
”They probably had more faith in me than I deserved,” Hancock laughs. A golden boy whose critically lauded and G-rated debut, The Rookie, had just made $76 million for Disney, Hancock had initially turned down an offer to rewrite the script. After a draft from Stephen Gaghan (Traffic) came in, Hancock assumed directing duties from Howard and went to work narrowing down a sprawling story that contained not only the siege of the Alamo and the Battle of San Jacinto but also the lesser-known Battle of Goliad. Recalls Stephen Hardin, one of the film’s two on-set historians. ”In John Lee’s hands, the script sort of jelled.”