Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Alamo (2004)

Less Hollywood - More History

- The Battle of the Alamo, a pivotal event during the Texas Revolution, has been depicted in many different forms throughout American folklore and American film. However, not until the 2004 film The Alamo have the events of history been so accurately portrayed on the silver screen - from San Felipe to San Antonio to San Jacinto....

The story of the Battle of Alamo is a compelling one, easily and often turned into a heroic fantasy tale because it strongly plays to the human condition: A group of men, outnumbered and surrounded by a superior force, stand firm in the face of certain death to fight for freedom. It also helps (from the American perspective) that the old Spanish Mission is guarded by a great cast of larger than life heroes fighting against an easily identifiable bad guy in the Mexican tyrant Santa Ana who wants to snuff out all hope for freedom. Because romanticizing the Battle of the Alamo is so easy, the story has been immortalized inside the imaginary world of American legend to the unfortunate extent that most people nowadays are far more aware of the legend of the Alamo than the actual historical event. For example, every American has the coonskin cap-wearing, rifle swinging, bear-wrestling, Mississippi-jumping caricature of Davey Crockett permanently engrained in their psyches from birth but know little to nothing about the real man. Easily accessible 20th Century films taking a bonkers approach to history, such as The Last Command (1955) and the John Wayne-starred/directed The Alamo (1960), go far in making the problem worse.

In The Alamo however, fantasy is largely left behind. The story of the Alamo is told in this 2004 film about as well and as accurately as any film could, including many of the unpleasantries and failures that some prefer to leave out of the narrative. Because this film does not give a fictional account of the Battle of the Alamo in which a collection of morally-sound superheroes battle it out against a savage mob of Mexican banditos, critics and audiences alike generally did not know what do think of it at the time of its release. However, as an enthusiastic student of the true event in history, The Alamo really entertained and moved me.

I think it is safe to say that there will never be a more accurate depiction of the Battle of the Alamo ever put on screen than the 2004 film The Alamo. All the other previous so-called "Alamo" films include so many inaccuracies that it becomes hard to even consider them actually based on the real events; it feels more like they took character names from the Alamo and wrote a fictional story than adapting the historical event into a film. Unlike these Alamo imposters, the 2004 Alamo film actually takes you back in time and makes you live the Alamo experience. A few minor historical inaccuracies pop up throughout the film (most notable to Alamo buffs is the characterization of Juan Sequin) but are not significant enough to change the overall story. Also, the number of inaccuracies in this 2004 Alamo film is in shorter supply than say.... the 1960 John Wayne Alamo film (which would be laughable if it was not so insulting to the memories of those who died).

Using a lot of real lingo from back in the late 1830s and revealing through dialogue a lot about who the characters really were, The Alamo contains a strong sense of authenticity. While told largely from the Texas/American side of the war The Alamo does take a fairly balanced viewpoint in its adaptation. The Texan/American "heroes" of legend are shown to be flawed people of fact and, unlike other Alamo adaptations (like say.... the 1960 John Wayne Alamo film), the Mexican army is not portrayed as a bunch of bungling gorillas with their bayonets fixed (believe it or not, the Mexican army had a strategy in taking the Alamo). The forceful atmosphere of The Alamo proves that the events and characters of the historical account of the Texas Revolution is far more interesting, exciting and compelling than any warped interpretation of legend.

The Alamo excels in telling history's side of the Alamo story but it also has great overall entertainment value. Ron Howard was originally set to direct but dropped out when the film was not appropriated with a large enough budget - John Lee Hancock was then hired as the film's director and crafted this excellent Alamo film. Hancock does an especially good job capturing the spirits of those inside the Alamo. The fear, the courage, the infighting are felt deeply by the audience. The visuals are great as well; whether considering the cinematography (cinematographer Dean Semler behind the camera) or the action scenes, The Alamo looks great. Of course the ultimate success of the film boils down to how the actual Battle of the Alamo is depicted. As goes the portrayal of the Battle of the Alamo, so goes the rest of the movie! Luckily, the final battle of the Alamo is portrayed especially well by Hancock and company; the scenes are both intense and heartbreaking with great camera work and special effects.

Also, one cannot discuss The Alamo without mentioning composer Carter Burwell. Burwell writes a brilliant and beautiful score for the film that is my pick for his best score ever - and that is not exactly an easy choice between just Miller's Crossing (1990), Rob Roy (1995) and Fargo (1996), let alone the rest of his filmography. The stirring melodies that Burwell composes for The Alamo are a crucial part in how emotional the film is. My favorite scene of the film, for example, features a particularly moving fiddle solo....

In The Alamo, the story is told well, the visuals are stunning, the atmosphere is deep, and the music is powerful. However, the highlight of the film has to be the cast of characters and the actors who portray them which above anything else drive the film. Hancock assembled a terrific cast: Dennis Quaid as General Sam Huston, Billy Bob Thornton as Colonel David Crockett, Jason Patric as Jim Bowie, Patrick Wilson as Lieutenant Colonel William Travis, and Emilio Echevarria as Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana. All the performances in the film are memorable and impressive - Quaid is wild but authoritative as Huston, Patric's performance is as unpredictable as Bowie was, and Echevarria gives a snarly performance as Santa Ana. Patrick Wilson does an especially good job as Travis, making him a kind of loathsome hero who grows into a strong leader throughout the entire Alamo ordeal. However, the film does play down some of Travis's real-life wild side; often times Travis comes across as a coward when history would describe him as a man who dove head-first into danger more often than not.

The standout performance in the film, sadly overlooked by the Academy, is Billy Bob Thornton's portrayal of Colonel David Crockett. Doing more to seemingly channel Crockett rather than simply play a role, Thornton's performance is extremely refreshing. Colonel David Crockett has not been given a fair and accurate portrayal too often throughout film and folklore. Thornton's incarnation in The Alamo, however, draws a firm separation between Crockett the man and Crockett the legend. Instead of portraying Crockett as the superhero "Davy" Crockett, as the character has often been depicted, Thornton portrays "David" Crockett as he really was: a hero - yet also a real and flawed human being whose priorities and intentions for coming to Texas may not line up with the rest of the men. As Crockett was the solid morale rock for those inside the Alamo, so is Thornton the thespian rock of the 2004 Alamo film.

A powerful, character-driven and largely historically accurate depiction of the famous battle, the 2004 film The Alamo is, by far, the best film about the Battle of the Alamo. The story of the Alamo is an epic tale of bravery where men are facing a no-win situation and still do not back down - The Alamo does the story great justice. Those men inside the Alamo died for something they believed in; if they did not believe in what they were fighting for above all else, they would have left the old mission - and there were plenty of opportunities for them to do so. This heroic true story of a group of men (and a few women) who stared fate in the eye and stood firm for freedom makes the average person think about what they are willing to fight and to die for. Not everybody finds something in life that they treasure and are willing to sacrifice themselves for but the men inside the Alamo did - and that is a truly powerful, chilling, and humbling thing to consider. This terrific underrated 2004 film The Alamo really brings these feelings out and on screen in a way that is unrivaled by other Alamo-set stories and many other war films in general.

CBC Rating: 9/10

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