Granted, it is no easy task to survey a situation as complex, solemn and knowingly fatal as the battle for the Alamo and convert it into compelling drama. Over a dozen cinematic attempts have been made, the most famous of which is John Wayne's patriotic salvo. Most argue the burden was too much for Wayne to haul back in 1960, even with John Ford's on-set tutelage, and the shoulders of director John Lee Hancock ("The Rookie") are a lot slimmer than the Duke's. Hancock's ballyhooed team of historians and writers have only muddled "The Alamo's" narrative and drained it of a thematic point. The casual moviegoer won't understand or appreciate either the sacrifice of the defenders or the motivations of the attackers with any clarity. Worse, they probably won't care.
This is a squandered shame. Seldom has a historical saga looked so authentic. Sets, costumes and weaponry are displayed with an almost flawless execution. "The Alamo" is an antiquity buff's realized dream, animated with glorious veracity. But historical details do not a movie make, though fine acting sometimes does. Here "The Alamo" triumphs, with exceptional performances from nearly all the players. Billy Bob Thornton's portrait of Davy Crockett--already a legend at the time of his demise--is unforgettable, and he towers over "The Alamo," carving out a homespun character who meditates on the nature of myth and celebrity, cowardice and courage. Patrick Wilson and Jason Patric complete the heroic triumvirate as Travis and Bowie, holding their own with the colorful Thornton. As General Sam Houston, Dennis Quaid, whose talented presence alone has redeemed several lackluster pictures, appears oddly lost here, seemingly channeling his own Doc Holliday from "Wyatt Earp." It was good the first time.
Even stranger is the film's sanitized finale. "The Alamo" screams for an unflinching climax. The accounts of survivors and participants tell of unimaginable violence, gore so thick that the floor of the famous church was "shoe-mouth deep in blood." Yelling combatants tumbling into scrappy piles only suggest the chaos involved, not the mortal terror the story requires. It is frustrating and contradictory that after going to such great lengths to get the handmade buttons on every soldier's jacket correct that "The Alamo" cowers from depicting the authentic struggle. What the movie needs is "The Passion of Crockett," not a squib full of ketchup poured on the Fess Parker version and a family-friendly rating. Combined with an overlong introduction and a truncated denouement, "The Alamo" feels fraught with compromise, both artistic and historical. Aphoristic taglines "Stand Your Ground" and "You Will Never Forget" have been wasted on "The Alamo." "No Guts, No Glory" rings truer. Starring Dennis Quaid, Billy Bob Thornton, Jason Patric and Patrick Wilson. Directed by John Lee Hancock. Written by Leslie Bohem, Stephen Gaghan and John Lee Hancock. Produced by Mark Johnson and Ron Howard. A Buena Vista release. Historical drama. Rated PG-13 for sustained intense battle sequences. Running time: 136 min