Remember the Alamo? Me neither. And neither do the folks behind The Alamo, Hollywood's latest attempt to separate fact from fiction, history from myth, what we know from what we wish we knew. Green-lit in the aftermath of 9/11, John Lee Hancock's Tex-Mex epic may want to remind us what we're fighting for in Iraq and Afghanistan -- "freedom," to borrow a buzz word from President Bush. But it also has a revisionist streak; it wants to scrape away some of the lore that's adhered to this legendary battle in the last 168 years. To say that this puts the movie at cross-purposes with itself is to acknowledge how difficult it is to tackle this subject without incurring some cuts and bruises. But Hancock, a native Texan, can't seem to decide what his movie's about. Every generation gets the Alamo it deserves. Hancock's waffles.
Take Billy Bob Thornton's Davy Crockett. A Tennessee woodsman who'd considered a run at the presidency, Crockett was perhaps America's first pop-culture celebrity -- a living legend. In Thornton's hands, he's a self-deprecating good ol' boy who doesn't fall for his own publicity but who, when it counts, becomes...a living legend. The Alamo has him going by the name he preferred, David, thereby bringing him down a notch. But it also has him dying splendiferously, which has no basis in fact, firing the first shot, which has no basis in fact, and shooting an epaulet off General Santa Anna's shoulder, an incident that, like the epaulet, was created out of whole cloth. "We won't be making anything up," co-scriptwriter Leslie Bohem told an interviewer. "Everything in here is going to have some strong basis in fact." Liar.
Like John Wayne's 1960 version, in which Wayne himself wore the raccoon on his head, Hancock's Alamo is a study in competing masculinities. Jason Patric's James Bowie, who leads the militiamen, is too hard, pulling out his Bowie knife to resolve minor disputes. Patrick Wilson's William Travis, who leads the military regulars, is too soft -- too much the clothes horse. And Thornton's Crockett is just right, a man's man who isn't afraid to be seen as a coward. "We're gonna need a lot more men," he says when Santa Anna's army falls into formation outside the Alamo's walls, and you can hear the echoes of Roy Scheider's line in Jaws, "You're gonna need a bigger boat." Likewise, Crockett's campfire story about greasy taters (don't ask) has echoes of Robert Shaw's U.S.S. Indianapolis peroration in Jaws. The guy is Brody and Quint rolled into one.
Then there's Emilio EchevarrÃa's Santa Anna, who dines at a table lit with candelabras while his men -- those who survived the long winter march over the mountains -- tend to their frostbitten toes. By all accounts, Santa Anna, "The Napoleon of the West," was a ruthless warrior, treating his army like so many toy soldiers, but EchevarrÃa lays it on pretty thick, smiling like Dr. Evil right before he demands a ransom of "one meelyun dollars." The thing is, at least there's some juice in EchevarrÃa's performance, some pleasure. Compare it to Dennis Quaid's Sam Houston, who appears to be suffering from a bad case of piles throughout The Alamo. It's Houston who, late in the movie, having drawn Santa Anna's army into a trap, gets to shout "Remember the Alamo!" But his voice is so low, so husky, it sounds more like "Where's Elmo?"
"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend," someone says in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. With respect to the Alamo, we've been printing the legend so long that the facts may be unrecoverable. And yet Hancock has tried to recover them. He pays lip service to the born-and-bred Mexicans who defended the Alamo and were then buried under an avalanche of Anglo-American myth. And he shows us that slavery was one of the things Texans were willing to die for. But if you're going to revise history, why not go all the way? Explode the myths and let the shrapnel fall where it may. Wayne's Alamo, released at the height of the Cold War, was little more than an anti-communist rallying cry, but at least it was made with conviction. Hancock's Alamo wants to burrow deep into the heart of Texas without offending anybody.
The result? It barely scratches the surface.