(Originally published in Rocky Mountain Bullhorn)
It would be too easy to just say “Forget The Alamo,” Disney’s new block-blunder about the 1836 battle for the Texas fort between Mexican conqueror Santa Ana’s army and an outnumbered group of American soldiers. But avoiding the film might not be a bad idea.
Were The Alamo’s outcome ever in doubt, a measure of anticipation and surprise might have helped mask the mechanical construction of John Lee Hancock’s ungainly debacle. Unfortunately, while designed to elicit sympathy and reverence for the brave souls who lost their lives attempting to protect The Alamo from the invading Mexican horde, the finished film – after a well-publicized rocky road to the screen – turns out to be an example of shamelessly manipulative mythmaking. A familiar if clunky tale of courage in the face of insurmountable odds, it willfully forgoes historical accuracy or narrative believability. Add in a little semi-covert racism, and what you have is a would-be epic that comes dangerously close to making the wrong kind of history.
In the interests of dramatic convenience, Hancock unfailingly relies on black-and-white characterizations whenever possible. While Americans Sam Houston (Dennis Quaid, growling his way through perhaps his worst performance in a decade) and Davy Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton, straining to lay on the good ol’ boy charm) are brave and noble to a fault, their adversary – Santa Ana (Emilio Echevarrîa), known as “The Napoleon of the West” – defiles virginal young beauties, drinks tea out of fine china, and barbarically professes “What are the lives of soldiers but so many chickens?” This kind of ridiculous stereotyping extends to the Americans’ slaves (whose bickering about their white masters turns them into hackneyed caricatures) and the decorative, uniformly weepy American wives and daughters. Even when the film flirts with shades of grey – such as the alternate visions of heroism offered by drunken knife-wielder Jim Bowie (Jason Patrick) and his foppish rival William Travis (Patrick Wilson) – Hancock’s adherence to rousing, simplistic conventions turns his story into laborious mush.
Thornton’s humane Crockett is the film’s only potentially engaging character, but because The Alamo provides multiple multicultural perspectives on the drawn-out build-up to the momentous siege, the bear-fighting legend is reduced to a colorful sideshow novelty. Still, this tame desire to be everything to everyone comfortably jibes with the bloodless, made-for-TV action, the lowlight of which is a laughable shot from the viewpoint of a hurtling cannonball that’s directly derived from similarly buffoonish cinematic history lessons Pearl Harbor and The Patriot. The Alamo might have been a defining moment in the country’s evolution, but when it comes to movie memorials, there are far better ways to immortalize American heroism than via an impromptu “battle of the bands” competition between Santa Ana’s marching band and Davy Crockett’s lively fiddle.