Witnessing the fall of a decrepit fort in The Alamo may well be a religious experience for those who swear allegiance to Texas. But those not of the Lone Star faith must settle for an earnest history lesson. Texan director John Lee Hancock’s moderate, apolitical, war-is-hell dramatization of the famous 1836 battle that shaped the future of a free and independent American Texas isn’t nearly the flop that the exceptionally harsh and unavoidable advance chatter has suggested it is. (It’s not the jingoistic call to patriotism of John Wayne’s 1960 version, either.) But ”The Alamo” never harmonizes into a cinematic experience any more resonant than the average, manly, why-we-fight pic, or coalesces into a stirring cry for freedom.
This Alamo is a thing of restrictive moderation, a momentous American event reenacted expensively but too tastefully. It’s a screwy wiring deep in the heart of Texas that Davy Crockett emerges as the true star in this saga, while Gen. Sam Houston (Dennis Quaid), treasure hunter Jim Bowie (Jason Patric), fort commander William Travis (Patrick Wilson), and Tejano leader Juan Seguín (Jordi Mollá) blur into a chorus of Men With Guns.
Indeed, as played by Billy Bob Thornton with an oaken bucketful of born-on-a-mountaintop charisma, the Tennessee native emerges as a legend more stirring than that of the battle itself. And when he gives up his life in the wreckage of the Alamo (in a grand-gesture demise of debatable historical accuracy that, according to the director, is the most ”heroic” of three credible scenarios), so goes the picture. Even before Quaid’s drink-fueled Houston storms in, with furrowed brow and tight jaw, to defeat Mexican general Antonio López de Santa Anna (Emilio Echevarría) at the Battle of San Jacinto, the momentum dies with Crockett and the loss of Thornton’s easy, ol’ boy magnetism. No wonder the final, victorious fight for Texas has been cut to a coda-size minimum.
Although the image-conscious Crockett (who, we learn in a fact-finding line of dialogue, preferred to be called David) was only one among many famous men whose fates crossed in San Antonio, it’s frontiersman, politician, and media star Crockett we remember, in his Neil Young wardrobe. This Crockett isn’t, for example, just an accomplished down- homey violin player — he actually fiddles on the roof of the danged fort itself, defying the death dirge the Mexican army band plays each night and improvising a tune around their spooking trumpet blares. Hambone and silly as the conceit is, complete with close-ups of Thornton’s fingers flying in a frenzy of faux fiddling, at least it’s something new.
As nailed together by Hancock (”The Rookie”) from a committee-made screenplay by Leslie Bohem, Stephen Gaghan, and himself, ”The Alamo” settles for being something old, something borrowed, and something (thanks to the cinematography of ”Dances With Wolves”’ Dean Semler) dusty brown. In place of edge, Hancock supplies pedagogy and reverence; in place of provocative discomfort that might invoke the complicated character of the American urge for freedom (and head-butting), the balm of the expected. Information about the principals is doled out just like that, as information — about Bowie’s terminal illness, say, or Travis’ ungentlemanly abandonment of his young wife and children — rather than as an organic part of the building showdown. (Patric doesn’t help matters by masking all entry into Bowie’s psyche behind opaque eyes and a perpetual expression of pinched peevishness.) A couple of black men make an appearance representing all of slavery. A couple of women appear to — well, to wipe the fevered brow of the dying Bowie and then vamoose, near as I can tell.
We’ll never know, from this movie history, who these brash, squabbling, varied men — and invisible women — were who clung to their patch of the Southwest against all odds, holding out for 13 days against thousands of Mexican soldiers and the dawning knowledge that no one would save them in time. But out of this ”Alamo” we do know, at least, that word of mouth is often no truer than legend. David Crockett, it turns out, began wearing a coonskin cap for consistency with the popular actor who played him on stage.