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The Alamo: tall ideals, no entertainment

Arthur J Pais | April 09, 2004 14:55 IST

A still from The AlamoThe war saga The Alamo may win the box-office battle over the weekend, but once word of mouth is out, it could soon be joining the big Hollywood junkyard of doomed historical films.  

One does not expect complex historical movies from Hollywood, but from time to time, Hollywood has produced some gritty films such as the 1970s Soldier Blue that viewed American wars against the native Indians from the latter's perspective. At times, Hollywood has also offered spectacular pop history as in the more recent Pearl Harbor. So breathtaking were the scenes in Pearl Harbor that it became a big hit in Japan where it was expected to have a small run because of its heavy American sentiments and one-dimensional history.

But The Alamo, which celebrates the sacrifice of about 200 Americans who died in 1836 defending a small enclave near San Antonio as Texas was seeking freedom from Mexico, is a big disappoint.

The men held fort for 13 days under siege by over 2,000 men under General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna (Emilio Echevarria), ruler of Mexico and commander of its forces. The resistance was led by three men -- the young and colourful Colonel William Travis (Patric Wilson), who is also a lawyer; the passionate James Bowie (Jason Patric), who had great love for violence and whose dubious past could pose him problems and flamboyant Davy Crockett, who followed General Sam Houston's (Dennis Quaid) rallying cry for Texas independence.

Hancock manages to build some excitement as a group of colourful and maverick men come together to defend the enclave.

Helped by a larger-than-life performance by Billy Bob Thornton, Hancock pulls in the viewers into the world of this showman who slowly realises, much to his amusement, that his death could perpetuate his self-created image. We also get a glimpse into the darker part of Bowie and watch the rivalry between him and Travis.

A still from The AlamoJason Patric, who effectively played the cuckolded husband in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof on Broadway recently, conveys the waste of his soul well through his smouldering eyes. Wilson as the young defender, who has to understand the horror and beauty of the war as yet, is also commanding.

But they are let down in the final run by a weak script and less than inspired direction.

Hancock also takes a good care of some of the battle scenes, but as the film prods, its emotional content begins disappearing fast, and he seems helpless.

If anyone expected the film to offer a non-traditional view of the battle by incorporating the Mexican viewpoint, unlike over a dozen theatrical and television films on Alamo, they should not be surprised by this new Alamo. This is, after all, a mainstream Hollywood film. But there is some consolation: some of the heroes of the battle have been humanised a bit by showing their warts and foibles.

For instance, Davy Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton) reveals he is not experienced in war and even owns up his disgust at an Indian massacre he was involved in. And Sam Houston's love for alcohol is seldom hidden. But on the whole, despite a few departures from conventional portrayals of American heroes, decent performances from the cast, and a few stunningly choreographed battle scenes, the movie fails. It is not provocative or a rousing conventional war movie.

One should not be surprised that the film has touched off a nasty feeling in Mexico.   

The film, in the tradition of previous Aalmo movies, treats the Mexican governor  Santa Ana as a ruthless, vainglorious dictator without any redeeming values. Though the film does have a sympathetic Mexican character, it is too afraid to face the politically correct critics and ends up on the American jingoistic side.

Though Mexicans won the 1836 battle of the Alamo, a few weeks later, Mexico was soundly defeated and the humiliation became worse when it lost nearly half of its territory to America. Apart from Texas, Mexico also lost Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona and its clout over southern California.

Jason Patrick in The AlamoThe movie was initially to be directed by Oscar-winner Ron Howard and star Russell Crowe, but Disney was not happy at Howard's $130 million estimated budget and sought out a comparatively less known John Lee Hancock (The Rookie) and made the film for about $98 million with a cast of lesser known stars. Howard stayed on as a producer, though.

Interestingly, he directed a Western called Missing recently which was a commercial and artistic bomb, losing some $40 million. Since The Alamo is no danger of following the instant demise of Missing and could lose far less, the honchos at Disney may be forgiven for letting out a sigh of relief.

Cast: Billy Bob Thornton, Dennis Quaid, Jason Patric, Patrick Wilson, Emilio Echevarria, Jordi Molla
Director: John L Hancock
Writers: Leslie Bohem, Stephen Gaghan and John L Hancock
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for violence
Distributor: Touchstone Pictures

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