ZERO STARS/**** Image B- Sound A Extras C+
starring Dennis Quaid, Billy Bob Thornton, Jason Patric, Patrick Wilson
screenplay by Leslie Bohem and Stephen Gaghan and John Lee Hancock
directed by John Lee Hancock
by Walter Chaw There's an old joke from "Hee Haw" about crossing a potato with a sponge: "It didn't taste too good, but boy did it soak up the gravy!" In John Lee Hancock's appalling and sidesplitting The Alamo, Billy Bob Thornton as Davy Crockett tells a gruesome variation on that punchline, only as an actor's moment (and with the "grease" off of slaughtered and incinerating Indians substituted for gravy). "Now, when someone passes me the potatoes, I just pass them right on." An interesting lesson taught about genocide and cannibalism: it's not the commission of atrocity to be mourned, it's the loss for a taste for French fries that's really the tragedy. The Alamo is essentially how "Hee Haw" saved the world--every time Davy pops his head above the titular fort's ramparts, visions of Roy Clark and Buck Owens popping out of a cornfield dance in your head. There are moments when, I kid you not, I looked to see if there was a price tag dangling, Minnie Pearl-style, from Jim Bowie's (Jason Patric) hat.
The problems begin with a title card talking about how many battles had been fought at the Alamo, then a second title card talking about how it seems that there are a lot of battles fought at the Alamo, followed by a couple of lines of dialogue that reiterate that there are a lot of battles fought at--whaddya know--the Alamo. The battle we've congregated to witness happens in 1836, when a cast of redneck luminaries (Crockett, Bowie, et al) defend our fledgling nation against a hissable melodrama villain, "Napoleon of the West" General Santa Ana (Emilio Echevarría), commanding hordes of inhuman Mexicans (trying to get the "Texians" to honour their treaty). But "Hell no!" proclaims drunken General Sam Houston (Dennis Quaid), eager for Texas to be its own republic, though a closing title card informs that not nine years after the events of the film, Texas became the 28th state in the union. Oh, the irony. Even better is a line where Santa Ana proclaims a loss to the Yanks as an event that would doom their children and children's children to an eternity of "begging for crumbs" from their northern neighbours. So who's the hero of this piece? After watching Hancock direct our gaze to a poignantly crushed violin during a massacre of Mexican nationals, after marvelling that one of the two slave characters refuses to fight while the other loses his courage, your guess is as good as mine. Me, I'm siding against the hillbillies birthing a nation.
The argument-ending example of Hancock's directorial ineptness occurs during the climactic battle (well into the second hour--bring a pillow), when much is made of arming the dying Bowie with two pea-shooters while the good patriots of the Republic of Texas are getting their bacon handed to them. (It might have helped if there'd been a lookout, hayseeds.) Hancock cuts the carnage with majestic slow-motion shots of Bowie buttoning his shirt; I sure hope Bowie gets up in time. Winging two marauding Mexicans might turn the tide of battle. The cast has been instructed to walk in the epic, Olivier stage strut where every footfall is a harbinger of history, handily deflating the picture's desperate claims to authenticity. True or not, it can ever only be true to an extent--posing that Crockett's last words were "I gots ter warn you fellers, I'm a screamer" is conjecture, obviously, but also one of the stupidest, most anachronistically positioned lines in memory. If the South is going to ever rise again, here's one reason for Tennessee to be angry.
The Alamo is unspeakably bad. Wes Studi as Chief Bowl has been left completely on the cutting room floor, Patric's Jim Bowie reminds of Quaid's tubercular Doc Holliday from Wyatt Earp, and Quaid himself suggests the Teddy Roosevelt robot from the old Hall of Presidents' ride. So much is made of Sam Houston's desire for Texas to be a sovereign nation that it's unlikely the picture will inspire much patriotism outside the Lone Star state. Likewise, a protracted epilogue (shades of Pearl Harbor) featuring the battle cry of "Remember the Alamo" inspires fits of helpless giggling. Motives are unclear, dialogue is hilarious in the Bartlett's school of cornpone epitaph tradition, performances are uniformly ludicrous, and Hancock betrays an unclean obsession with constantly shooting the sky. A bit where Houston justifies fleeing across Texas from Santa Ana in a fantasy sequence reminds of Hancock and Quaid's previous collaboration, The Rookie (call it battlefield of dreams, maybe), while the introductions of Crockett and Bowie (the latter brandishing his namesake pig-sticker in the first thirty-seconds of screentime) are things they teach you not to do in first-year drama class. Carter Burwell's insulting score, comprised inexplicably of Peruvian woodwinds, stands as the nadir of the usually reliable composer's career--and a cannonball's eye view establishes The Alamo as, again, this year's Pearl Harbor: almost as expensive, just about as offensive, not quite as funny.
By the tenth time or so that Hancock gifts us with an establishing shot of a graveyard, The Alamo has gone beyond hilarity into the realm of cautionary tale. An unmitigated disaster from start to finish, the picture dives for grit (Bowie owned a slave!) and comes up with a handful of pandering (Bowie married a doomed Mexican princess!). It goes for historical detail and winds up juxtaposing a herd of cattle stampeding with the forced evacuation of the good citizens of El Paso. The list of casualties extends beyond the bloodbath, in other words, as The Alamo positions Mexicans as shiftless or feckless (and cattle) and African-Americans as the same, and, as has been the trend of American film lately, Native Americans as corpse shorthand for tortured Caucasian hero character development. No one here gets out alive, not the director, not the screenwriters (a phone book's worth), not the cast, and not the audience, who, a few dollars lighter and a few hours closer to death, get a chance to glimpse their own mortality reflected in the dead, shark-eyed glare of the bankruptcy of another big-budget prestige picture. Originally published: April 9, 2004.
by Bill Chambers Touchstone issues The Alamo on DVD in competing THX-certified widescreen and fullscreen editions, of which we received the former for review. (The film is a wash, of course, but it would be especially not worth watching in pan-and-scan.) The two main problems with this disc are that it's not the fleshier version director John Lee Hancock was rumoured to have prepared for the format, and that the studio cut their losses by making this a single-disc release whilst including enough supplementary material to compromise video quality during the feature proper. It's not that the 2.35:1 anamorphic image is riddled with compression artifacts (unlike Columbia Tri-Star's recent release of Roman Polanski's Tess), but that a significant amount of filtering has obviously been applied to save on the need for compression, smearing fine detail in the process. Murky is the word--this is what my LaserDiscs look like to me now that I'm accustomed to the clarity of DVD. Happily, neither saturation nor contrast is adversely affected by the digital diffusion. And aside from some reluctance on the part of the LFE channel, the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundmix is downright awesome, employing a Saving Private Ryan-like attention to battlefield ambience and wringing as much brio as possible from Carter Burwell's mystifyingly pathetic score.
On another track, Alan Huffines (author of Blood of Noble Men: The Alamo Siege and Battle) and Stephen Hardin (author of Texian Iliad: A Military History of the Texas Revolution, 1835-1836) touch on their respective though seemingly reversible roles as the film's military and historical advisors; if, like me, you could fit everything you know about the Alamo on the head of a pin, this commentary proves far more tutorial than the movie itself does, although it has a glaring ulterior motive, which is to gird The Alamo from criticism by validating the authenticity of every prop, every costume, and every combat manoeuvre. The remaining extras betray a similar purpose, certainly "Return of the Legend: The Making of The Alamo" (18 mins.), in which someone from each unit of the production speaks of honouring documented proof. In "Deep in the Heart of Texas" (6 mins.), Hancock, with a practised mixture of humility and hubris, sums up how wars begin when he says that he signed onto the project because he feared it would go to a non-Texan, regardless of whether he himself was up to the challenge. Meanwhile, "Walking in the Footsteps of Heroes" (12 mins.) spices up brief biographical sketches of the Alamo's iconic figures with clips from rarities like 1915's Martyrs of the Alamo. Finally, Hancock provides optional commentary for five deleted scenes that mostly centre around Santa Ana's flat romance with a Tejana woman. Trailers for Raising Helen and Around the World in 80 Days precede the main menu and join "Alias" (I guess Jennifer Garner is dressed as a cowgirl in her accompanying mugshot to tie in with The Alamo) and Hero previews under a section of sneak peeks. Originally published: October 22, 2004.