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Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2004
Death or glory? Not another jingoistic story
The battle of the Alamo, like Bunker Hill or the Battle of the Bulge, remains one of America's most sacred martial myths, which is why it keeps finding its way to the big screen. There's something inherently romantic, inspiring even, about being the outnumbered underdog, valiantly resisting to the last man . . . as opposed to a global superpower that goes around picking weak targets it can bomb with impunity.
This is what Noam Chomsky has so accurately described as "necessary illusions": Far better to recall those "freedom-loving" Texans in 1836 who fought for liberty (and their right to own slaves) against the hordes of Mexican dictator Santa Anna, than to critically examine America's history of toppling democracies and supporting dictatorships throughout Central America in the more recent past.
So as preppie-turned-Texan George W. Bush leads America into a hard-right policy of "pre-emptive" attacks against people for spurious reasons, it's only natural that the Disney corporation -- the same people who refused to distribute Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" -- brings us "The Alamo" one more time. What better to cultivate the national mood of patriotic self-sacrifice, to re-acclimate the country to the idea of deaths in a noble cause, to reinforce the paranoid belief that America is outnumbered and beset upon by enemies? (Yes, "The Alamo" was green-lighted for production after "9/11.")
Unfortunately for Disney, what they got was not the chest-thumping jingoism of John Wayne's 1960 "Alamo," which was explicitly made to rally Cold War audiences. Instead, director John Lee Hancock has attempted to give us a historically accurate telling of the battle. But judging by the film's underwhelming performance at the box office (a major factor leading to the recent resignation of CEO Michael Eisner), it just goes to show that you can't please all the people all the time.
"The Alamo" is a lavish, $100-million-plus re-creation of the 1836 siege in which Jim Bowie, Davy Crockett and other famous frontiersmen led a force of 183 men against a Mexican army over 10 times that size. The defenders of the fortresslike mission in San Antonio all perished, but inflicted horrendous losses against Santa Anna's troops. The time bought by their defense of the Alamo allowed the leader of the Texan rebels, Sam Houston, to assemble a force that would eventually defeat the Mexicans at the battle of San Jacinto. (Thus providing a feel-good final chapter to what would have otherwise been quite a depressing film, a feat also achieved by Disney's "Pearl Harbor.")
Hancock constructed a full-size replica of the battle-scarred mission and depicts the assault on it in almost real-time. It's a frantic battle, staged with an eye for realism and not action-movie heroics. And here, it seems, is where U.S. audiences had "issues" with the film.
Davy Crockett, as played by Billy Bob Thornton, does not go down swinging his rifle "Old Betsy" as in the 1954 Disney film "Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier." Nor does he valiantly perish, as Wayne's Crockett did, impaled by a lance and still managing to blow the fort's powder magazine. Instead, he's taken alive by the Mexicans and executed in front of Santa Anna (a story found in early tales of the battle and corroborated by a Mexican officer's diary). Somehow, this seemed to be the final affront after a film that seemed full of politically correct revisionism. Much is made of the fact that Alamo commanders William Travis (Patrick Wilson) and Jim Bowie (Jason Patric) owned slaves, and the fact that there were non-Anglo Mexican defenders as well is also highlighted.
But a Davy Crockett who's sick of fighting, who recalls his experiences massacring a village of Indians in nightmarish terms, seems a bit too Kevin Costner when the national mood is decidedly John Wayne. That's a shame because Thornton's performance is the best thing here. He plays Crockett as a guy who knows how to work a room, a backslapping good ol' boy who knows that his alligator-wrasslin', river-leapin' image is slightly exaggerated, but isn't above making the most of it. He ends up a tragic figure, a rascal who's forced to live up to his heroic image when trapped in the Alamo. Having a heart-to-heart with Bowie, himself dying from TB, Crockett rues how "people expect things. If it was just me, Davy from Tennessee, I'd jump over these walls some dark night and take my chances. But that Davy Crockett feller, everybody's watching him." One can almost hear the howls of rage in Dallas multiplexes.
For all the cries of political correctness, though, Santa Anna (Emilio Echevarria, "Amores Perros") doesn't come off looking much better here than in any other Alamo flick. Soldiers carrying his dinner-table crystal are warned "each piece broken, a broken bone." And when the dictator is asked why he doesn't wait for heavier artillery to arrive instead of sacrificing his soldiers by storming the walls, Santa Anna replies contemptuously, "Soldiers are like chickens." He may seem like a caricature of a pompous Latin generalissimo, but then again, it's pretty hard to find the redeeming qualities in a guy who, historically, decided to save money by doing away with his army's field hospital.
For all the apocalyptic fury of the final battle, "The Alamo" (which had a PG rating in the States) seems far tamer than such recent battle films as "Musa" or "We Were Soldiers," or even "Cold Mountain." In the end, this may have lost it more of its target demographic than any of the revisionism. In the age of "Doom 3," splatter-free battles are a hard sell.