The story of The Alamo is the stuff of American legend, and the filmmakers behind this new adaptation assume audiences are familiar with the outcome of the historical siege. In the first few minutes of the film, we learn that everyone at The Alamo—nearly 200 men—was killed by the Mexican army, led by the ruthless General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna (Emilio Echevarría), "The Napoleon of the West." From there, General Sam Houston (Dennis Quaid) reflects on the events and the tale is told in flashback.
Located at a once major crossroads in San Antonio, Texas, The Alamo was not exactly a structure of significant strategic value. It was originally built as a mission before being converted into a fort, and was conceded back and forth between the Mexicans and Texans before the infamous siege in 1836. Santa Anna's forces were staved for 13 days before slaughtering the brave troops at The Alamo, led by three American legends: Col. William Barrett Travis (Patrick Wilson), James Bowie (Jason Patric), and folk hero/congressman Davy Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton).
The Alamo has been told many times before—most notably the 1960 John Wayne film of the same name and Disney's 1954 classic, Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier—and it's a familiar scenario used in other stories (for example, the Battle of Helm's Deep in The Lord of the Rings). It benefits from historical grounding, though it nonetheless begs the question of why it needs to be told once again. While many hate to admit it, some classic stories are in sore need of a renovation—or at least a fresh coat of paint for a new generation. The real question then is whether or not this particular Alamo is worth remembering.
Admittedly, my expectations were low going in. It's rarely a good sign when a movie is delayed from a prime, Oscar–hopeful Christmas release to the mid–April, pre–summer doldrums. The delay was supposedly due to director John Lee Hancock whittling down 1.4 million feet of film footage into a cohesive work. Still, the movie was originally attached to Ron Howard (who ended up producing) and Russell Crowe as Sam Houston. Instead, the studio opted for a smaller budget and a director whose only other significant work was 2002's The Rookie—which also starred Quaid.
Aside from his previous work with Quaid, Hancock doesn't initially seem like the ideal man to helm this project, and things do seem a bit shaky for the first twenty minutes of The Alamo. The story jumps in too quickly without properly introducing the leads, relying instead on clichéd dialogue and generic characterizations. Houston is portrayed as an oft–drunk idealist, desperate to enlist soldiers in the still developing Texas army. Crockett is ever the polite Southerner attending a play based on his life. Bowie is reduced to a grumpy drunk who can't go for a minute without whipping out the knife for which he's famous.
Whether or not these characterizations are accurate is beside the point. This movie absolutely fails at framing the expository events in historical and political context. Travis, Bowie, and Crockett are sent to The Alamo. Why? Who can say, since the film devotes so little time to acquaint us with each man. Audiences will be unanimously grateful that The Alamo is appropriately closer to 2 hours instead of a sprawling 3–hour epic like Pearl Harbor or Gods and Generals, but it sorely needs an extra 20 minutes of exposition.
It does, however, bring us to the action more quickly, with Santa Anna's troops surrounding the fortress before you know it. Here's where the film begins to come alive, and it's clear that this is where the filmmakers want to take us; indeed, a sad foreshadowing seems to hang over the film before The Alamo is even referenced. Hancock clearly enjoys staging a battle scene and does an admirable job with the fighting. He even impressively one–ups the famed money shot of the falling bomb from Pearl Harbor with a point–of–view camera that follows the trajectory of a cannonball from cannon to target.
More importantly, he enjoys focusing on the dynamic between three different leaders and how they interact, which brings us to the acting. It's adequate, but often wooden, which is less the fault of the actors than it is the fleshing out of the characters in the screenplay. Quaid plays Houston appropriately stoic, but a little stiff, and he's really only used in the film's bookends. Patric fares the worst, imitating a younger Mel Gibson with a poorly developed Bowie that does little more than drink, brood, and lie on a cot coughing his lungs out; did I mention he pulls out his knife regularly without ever using it? Wilson is more interesting to watch as a young uptight–but–loyal soldier hoping for a fresh start after splitting his family with divorce; he does a fair job of growing the Col. Travis character from inexperience to a worthy leader.
Make no mistake: Davy Crockett is the heart and soul of this movie, and it is surprisingly one of Thornton's most enjoyable and affecting performances. Maybe it's because I've seen him so somber and morose in too many roles, but yes, he does seem capable of charming a grin on a grizzly bear. He's a good ole boy reluctantly thrust into leadership because of his legend, and yet his skills as a soldier, celebrity, and diplomat prove valuable many times during the movie. The advice he offers Travis concerning speaking to the troops is especially poignant.
Sure, much of this is pure folklore and dramatization, but for the most part, The Alamo remains faithful to the historical facts, fictionalizing about as much as seems appropriate. It succeeds in retelling the tragic, patriotic tale to a new generation without relying on graphic violence or overtly modernizing it. Knowing what to expect of the story when going in, it's no disappointment. There are great moments, though it's ultimately a lightweight film and certainly not an Oscar contender. A fleshed–out script that better remembers the men of The Alamo—more than the fort or the battle—would only have served the movie that much more.
Talk About ItDiscussion starters
- Though The Alamo seemed to lack strategic consequence, nearly 200 people were willing to give their lives because of their convictions. What did Texas represent to them? What are you willing to die for?
- Because The Alamo was once a mission, the backdrop is filled with crosses and Catholic icons. Is there any confession or redemption to be found in the soul–searching of the characters over the course of their 13–day stand?
- Bowie, Travis, and Crockett are three very different representations of leadership. Contrast their strengths and weaknesses. Which one is the most effective? The most honorable?
- Though his role is small, Juan Seguin (Jordi Mollà) is very important to the events of the film. Discuss how obedience and loyalty are reflected in his character and the results of it.
A ready-to–download, Bible–based discussion guide is available for this movie at ChristianBibleStudies.com. Use this guide after the movie to help you and your small group better connect your faith to pop culture.
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
As a violent war movie, it is appropriately rated PG–13 for "sustained intense battle sequences." Nevertheless, the action is virtually bloodless—if you can handle Lord of the Rings, this is easier. There are a few minor uses of profanity; if your child is ready for the violence of the battle, they're probably capable of hearing some colorful "Texan talk" too. Expect this film to someday be shown in junior high and high school history classes.
Photos © Copyright Touchstone Pictures
What Other Critics Are Sayingcompiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 04/15/04
John Lee Hancock, the Texas storyteller who brought us The Rookie, took over the troubled production of Ron Howard's The Alamo after the director bailed on the project. For many months, the Internet was abuzz with reports that the film was falling apart. Now that it's here, critics are calling it flawed, but hardly a failure.
The Alamo has lasted as one of American history's most riveting stories. While it seems that it would be hard to mess up a story about 200 men making their last stand to declare Texas independent from Mexico, most Alamo movies have fallen short. Hancock's version is earning lackluster reviews in the mainstream press, but religious press critics seem impressed by the character development and historical accuracy of the film.
Russ Breimeier (Christianity Today Movies) finds plenty to praise: "Davy Crockett is the heart and soul of this movie, and it is surprisingly one of [Billy Bob] Thornton's most enjoyable and affecting performances. [The film] succeeds in retelling the tragic, patriotic tale to a new generation without relying on graphic violence or overtly modernizing it." But he adds, "This movie absolutely fails at framing the expository events in historical and political context."
Tom Neven (Plugged In) says, "If parents of older teens are willing to navigate some of the violence, The Alamo can serve as a fine discussion–starter about flawed humanity, bravery in battle, the courage of one's convictions, and the fruits of arrogance and folly."
Similarly, Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) says, "The film took a difficult event—weeks of waiting followed by a short massacre—and brought the characters to life. Although it does not rise to epic status and will leave viewers confused about why the battle was actually fought … it's an entertaining movie with little objectionable content for families of older children."
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) raves, "The Alamo is a stunning piece of muscular moviemaking with its sweeping scope, panoramic big–sky cinematography, painstaking attention to historical detail, stirring score, and uniformly top–notch acting—highlighted by Thornton's show–stealing performance."
Jimmy Akin (Decent Films) says, "Dramas about hallowed historical events often come off stiff at best and campy at worst. This film manages to succeed in spite of these dangers. It does romanticize the events associated with the Alamo, but it strives for historical accuracy and manages to humanize the historical figures on which it focuses."
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) writes, "The film itself runs in spurts. At times it is an engrossing drama of tragic proportions, and at other times it is droning rhetoric."
Kevin Miller (Hollywood Jesus) deals with it a bit more harshly: "Despite … engaging character studies, this film ultimately fails from a structural point of view. By presenting the fall of the Alamo as one long flashback book–ended by General Sam Houston's response, the pacing just doesn't work. It's anti–climactic, slow to get going, and far longer than it needs to be."
Script guru Barbara Nicolosi (Church of the Masses) is similarly disgruntled. She says The Alamo "gets flanked early on by the crowd of personalities who made the battle such high drama, but who can't possibly all be developed in a two hour and sixteen minute drama. Every character can only get a few minutes of screen time to be established, so the film resorts to easy, obvious attempts to gain sympathy or notoriety." She also faults the lack of establishing shots and a script that is "clearly problematic and episodic, so they ended up getting a film that is choppy and hard to follow."from Film Forum, 04/29/04
John Lee Hancock's film The Alamo continues to disappoint at the box office. This week, Nicole LeBlanc (Christian Spotlight) says, "I was pleasantly surprised to find that The Alamo contains military violence without resorting to gross brutality that is all too commonly found in films these days." But she adds, "A few of the speeches were weak, and some pieces of the musical score were lacking. The film would have been stronger and more captivating if both had been more powerful."from Film Forum, 05/06/04
Reviewing The Alamo, Susan Olasky (World) says, "The two–hour, 17–minute film feels longer than it is because it moves sluggishly until the last half hour and fails to find a compelling narrative focus. Nonetheless, it's a movie worth seeing because it portrays a group of flawed men who come to Texas for a second chance, and find in the battle for Texas independence a cause bigger than themselves and their own vices."
Susan Olasky (World)also reviewed The Alamo, which she says is "worth seeing because it portrays a group of flawed men who come to Texas for a second chance, and find in the battle for Texas independence a cause bigger than themselves and their own vices. In that sense The Alamo offers more of a biblical understanding of how flawed men can change than earlier versions that offered up William Travis, Jim Bowie, and Davy Crockett as plaster saints."
Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
A ready–to–download Movie Discussion Guide related to this movie is available at ChristianityTodayMoviesStore.com.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more
Read These Next
- TrendingJunia, the Female Apostle Imprisoned for the GospelWhat Scripture tells us about the story of this “outstanding” Jewish woman in chains.Português
- From the MagazineJohn 3:16: So Loved, So FamiliarWe need fresh eyes for our faith’s basic teachings, no matter how long we’ve studied the Bible.简体中文繁體中文
- Editor's PickResisting the Impulse of Self-OptimizationIn Lent, we realign our identity in Christ and recover our sense of being loved into existence by our Creator.