ALAMO - DVD review

Like its sets of the Alamo...the movie attempts to do more than is necessary, bogging down in minutiae where traditional facades would have done just as well.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.
Puccio

The Alamo? Oh, yes, I remember that.

In 1836 during the Texas war for independence from Mexico, a small band of less than 200 Texas resistance fighters occupied and defended the old mission known as the Alamo against the Mexican forces of General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna (or Santa Ana), who commanded an army estimated by the "Encyclopedia Britannica" as between 1,800 and 6,000 men. Among the defenders who held out for some thirteen days at the mission were Colonel James Bowie, Lt. Colonel William B. Travis, and Davy Crockett. When the Mexican army finally overwhelmed the Texans, General Santa Anna ordered that no prisoners be taken, and almost all of the insurgents were killed. It is further estimated that the Mexican army suffered casualties four to five times that of the Texans, and the time it took to wage the campaign gave General Sam Houston enough time to prepare for the defense of Texas and a counterattack, resulting in the capture of Santa Anna and the eventual liberation of Texas from Mexican rule. For the past 160-odd years, the Alamo has been for Texans a symbol of freedom, and for most U.S. citizens a symbol of passionate heroism.

Of course, if you were on the Mexican side, the battle was fought against an insurrection of rebels who needed to be quelled, so you can take your pick. The 2004 movie from Disney's Touchstone Pictures tries to be reasonably fair in presenting the outlooks of combatants on both sides, but in doing so it rather waters down the story and makes some of it seem like a History Channel documentary.

For movie buffs, this is the latest in a long line of films that depict the famous Texas siege. Fans of the old mid-fifties Davy Crockett television series (and movie) with Fess Parker will remember its ending with the battle; and fans of John Wayne will remember his 1960 rendering of "The Alamo." Before that, any number of movies about Crockett, Bowie, Travis, and Houston recounted the struggle. Unfortunately, none of them were especially well received by the moviegoing public. Wayne's release, for instance, cost at the time $12,000,000 to make and barely recovered half of that in ticket sales. This latest effort cost Disney $95,000,000 to make (how's that for inflation?) and took in less than a quarter of that in box-office receipts.

Enormous sets, budget concerns, constant delays, and creative differences lead to some of the new film's troubles, and then a holdup in the film's release date took a final toll. Director Ron Howard and stars Russell Crowe and Ethan Hawke all wound up dropping out of the production. In essence, the movie was itself a battle for the ages, and like the little band of Texas defenders, it was consumed by overwhelming odds.

Disney and its subsidiaries, Touchstone and Miramax, seem determined to resurrect the moribund Western genre despite massive public indifference. In 2003-04 they brought out not just "The Alamo" but "Open Range," "Hidalgo," and the animated "Home on the Range." I suppose we have to give the studio credit for trying, but of the lot only "Open Range" seemed to have any real heart. It will take an awful lot of DVD and television sales to make up the millions the studio lost on "The Alamo."

Which is not entirely fair. "The Alamo" is not a complete washout as a movie. Although it is probably longer than it needs to be at well over two hours, although it moves at a lumbering gait for the first thirty or so minutes, and although it emphasizes characterization and historical fact over the action an audience wants, it is not without its redeeming moments. It's that there probably aren't enough of them to justify spending 136 minutes of one's time on.

Not unexpectedly, perhaps, it is Davy Crockett who saves the day. While Dennis Quaid gets top billing as General Sam Houston, it is Billy Bob Thornton as Crockett who owns the picture. His Crockett is not the legendary bear-killing, Indian-fighting folk hero he's usually made out to be, but a rather quiet, self-effacing man whose best moments come when he's admitting that most of what people know about him is pure myth and hokum. It's hinted that as a former U.S. Congressman at the time of the siege, he didn't even come to the Alamo to fight (he wasn't aware there would be any fighting) but possibly to maintain his popularity. Still, he's most heroic when the chips are down. Thornton continues to make an impression with the range of his talents, from serious to comic, and if his Crockett had been the center of attention, the movie probably would have worked better.

But, as I say, Crockett is a secondary character in the film, with Quaid getting the lead as Sam Houston. Yet Houston is only in the film for a few minutes at the beginning, as a hard-drinking leader of a rebellious Texas militia, and for a few minutes more at the end, as the guy who finally defeats Santa Anna's army and secures Texas independence. Worse, Quaid is in his full grim-faced, almost expressionless mode, just as he was in "The Day After Tomorrow." I was afraid the man was going to break a tooth he kept his jaw clenched so hard. Except for looking determined about his cause, Quaid's Houston is practically invisible.

That leaves us with the film's other two stars, Jason Patric as the consumptive, alcoholic knife-fighter Jim Bowie and Patrick Wilson as the impulsive, headstrong, idealistic young cavalry officer William Travis, both of whom hate one another but are in dual charge of the various soldiers at the Alamo. These actors are good at portraying heroes with feet of clay, but because the movie divides its time almost equally among its four major characters--Houston, Crockett, Bowie, and Travis--it never develops any one of them in any depth. So, basically, we're left with four characters who are more enigmatic than we've ever seen them before in an Alamo movie. But at least previously we knew where they stood. Here we're given a little more information about them, and we know even less.

When it comes to storytelling, the movie's director and co-writer, John Lee Hancock ("The Rookie") owes a lot to Ken Burns and his PBS special, "The Civil War." Hancock's "The Alamo" begins at the end, with the engagement at the mission over, the camera panning over the carnage. Hancock obviously realizes his audience is in no doubt about the battle's outcome; then he flashes back to the beginning. The opening scene sets a melancholy mood and prepares us for what's to come. Crockett's heavyhearted violin playing is also reminiscent of the music in the "Civil War" series, as is the general tone of the picture.

However, because the movie is rated PG-13 it cannot display too much of the actual blood and guts of warfare, so don't expect another "Saving Private Ryan." It shows us just enough to get its points across, with the final battle itself surprisingly brief.

So, what other weak points are there, besides the movie trying to do too much in too short a time, which turns out to be too long, anyway? I'd say I could have done without the soap-opera melodramatics of the movie's first third, which almost had me heading for the door before the plot even kicked in. Also, a clichéd, one-sided picture of the Mexican dictator General Santa Anna (Emilio Echevarria) had me wondering if the villain of the piece could ever have been so very villainous as this in real life. The General is portrayed in the film as a stereotyped arrogant pig whose officers even appear to hate him. Like most tyrants, he controls through power and fear, and the movie reveals only the evil in him. "What are the lives of soldiers," he tells his commanders, "but so many chickens?" He is willing to sacrifice any number of his men for his own glory. Perhaps he was this evil. Who knows.

And what are the movie's best points, besides Thornton's Crockett? Well, it's handsome to look at, with beautifully rendered visuals--costumes, sets, and cinematography. I also liked the final battle sequence, although, as I say, it didn't seem to last very long. I liked the interchange between Crockett and Bowie when they reluctantly confess to one another that they probably aren't everything their legends make them out to be. And I appreciated the movie's hints that social hostilities were as demanding in 1836 as they ever have been, Bowie and Travis owning slaves who are themselves conflicted about whom to serve, and a number of Mexicans fighting alongside the Texans because they hate the despotic Santa Anna. Then, too, showing the reactions, if only briefly, of some of the Mexican army soldiers, clearly not wanting this war any more than the Texans, was quite poignant.

Maybe the film's downfalls are in trying to do too much, be too historically correct, and portray too many different characters all at once. Like its sets of the Alamo and the surrounding town, which were built to scale inside and out, the movie attempts to do more than is necessary, bogging down in minutiae where traditional facades would have done just as well.

Video:
The screen size is quite wide, measuring a ratio approximately 2.17:1 across my standard-screen HD TV. The transfer conforms to THX standards, it's anamorphic, enhanced for 16x9 televisions, and utilizes a relatively high bit rate. The result is that the picture quality is very good, with deep, lustrous colors--reds, blacks, and golds appearing particularly solid. On the other hand, the colors are a touch too bright to seem entirely natural, but it's of little consequence when they show up so well. Definition is good, if not always perfect, but detail is revealed effectively even in the darkest scenes.

Audio:
A wide front-channel stereo spread is but one of the many virtues of the film's Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. The balance throughout the frequency range is quite natural, and the bass is strong but never overwhelming, adding to the story's realism. As the action heats up, so do the rear channels, with the noises of horses, drums, bells, and bullets coming through vividly in the surrounds.

Extras:
The disc comes with more bonus features than are indicated on the keep case. For instance, there is an audio commentary with historians Alan Huffines and Stephen Hardin that is not advertised. I can't imagine why. Then there are five deleted scenes, which are announced, but with an optional commentary by director John Lee Hancock, which isn't. Next come three featurettes: "Walking in the Footprints of Heroes," eleven minutes briefly recounting the real lives of David Crockett, William Travis, Jim Bowie, and Sam Houston; "Return of the Legend: The Making of the Alamo," eighteen minutes of behind-the-scenes looks at the film and the filmmakers; and "Deep in the Heart of Texans," six minutes with Texans John Lee Hancock, Dennis Quaid, and others sharing their experiences growing up with stories of the Alamo. Finally, there are eighteen scene selections; a THX Optimizer set of audiovisual calibration tests; some Sneak Peeks at other Buena Vista releases; English and French spoken languages; and French and Spanish subtitles, with English captions for the hearing impaired.

Parting Shots:
It's hard for Texans not to remember the Alamo because it is so much bound up with their independence and statehood. And it's hard for the rest of the world not to remember the Alamo because there have been so many movies made about it. Disney's rendition of "The Alamo" comes across as a mixed bag: factually accurate; occasionally rousing; just as often touching; yet curiously distant and slow. Perhaps it will pick up a larger following on DVD than it did on movie screens. We'll see.

Ratings

Video
8
Audio
9
Extras
6
Film Value
6