The Alamo

It’s no wonder “Remember the Alamo!” is spoken so often as a rallying cry. If the new film depicting the battle fought there is any indication, it’s a pretty easy place to forget. Because apparently, NOTHING HAPPENED.

Could this be the dullest war film ever made? Perhaps so. It occupies 137 minutes, the first 90 of which are spent not doing anything. The Mexican forces line up outside the Alamo at around the 30-minute mark, and then the Texans and Mexicans occasionally shoot at each other. But only for two or three rounds. Then they quit for the night, and repeat the process the next day. It’s the laziest war I’ve ever seen.

OK, I’m being unfair. In real life, the siege really did last about 10 days, ending, as it does in the film, with hand-to-hand combat within the walls of the Alamo itself. My point is that, real or not, it makes for a dull film. Since the actual fighting was relatively short-lived and depressingly one-sided, perhaps other elements ought to have been bolstered to give the film dramatic weight. Three-dimensional characters would have been nice, for example, rather than the Hall of Fame busts presented by the script (written by Leslie Bohem, Stephen Gaghan and John Lee Hancock, the latter of whom also directed).

It all begins in 1835 in what I consider a promising manner. It establishes a few historical figures — Col. William Travis (Patrick Wilson), Davy Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton), Gen. Sam Houston (Dennis Quaid) and James Bowie (Jason Patric), to name a few — and further establishes that many of them don’t like each other. Bowie calls Travis a “two-bit dandy”; Travis calls Bowie a “drunken hottentot.” (Additionally, Houston calls someone else a “Scottish catamite,” a catamite being, according to Webster’s, “a boy kept for unnatural purposes.” Any film that can dish up epithets like these deserves a fighting chance.)

For reasons I do not grasp, the largely inexperienced Travis is left in charge of the Alamo, a Spanish mission that has often been the focal point for skirmishes with Mexico, and which appears destined to be one again. Crockett, who you will recall kilt him a b’ar when he was only 3, and who is now a congressman, is passing through but offers to help fortify the mission. Bowie, dying of consumption, continues to command his troops, vying with Travis for control of the whole operation. And Houston is off fighting somewhere else, ignoring the Alamo’s plea for reinforcements.

Santa Anna (Emilio Echevarrí­a), the Mexican dictator who commands his men into battle against the Alamo, is depicted as a mustache-twirling villain with no regard for his own men’s lives and who orders them to take no prisoners among the Texans. From what I gather, this is relatively accurate, at least as far as American-penned history is concerned. But again, we must accept that just because something really happened doesn’t necessarily mean it makes for good filmmaking. Santa Anna seems like a caricature here, reminiscent more of an animated Disney evil-doer than an actual historical figure.

The film also fails to convey why, exactly, we should be so concerned about the outcome of this battle. “As the Alamo goes, so goes Texas,” someone says, but that’s a platitude, not an explanation. What happens if Santa Anna takes the Alamo? Will he take all of Texas? And so what if he does? Texas isn’t part of the U.S. at this point. Various people seem to be fighting for various things — the liberty of Texas as an independent republic, the liberty of the United States, and so on — and the idealism never coalesces into a unified front for a viewing audience to get behind. We’re supposed to root for the Alamo just because, well, it’s the Alamo. You know, THE ALAMO!

I like Thornton’s performance as Davy Crockett, largely because I don’t think he realizes how silly he is. Watch for his unintentionally funny tale that explains his aversion to potatoes; then watch later for his rooftop fiddle performance that soothes the savage Mexicans. (I couldn’t make this up, folks.) Except for him, the film is as dry and flat as Texas itself.

C- (2 hrs., 17 min.; PG-13, a little profanity, some strong violence and blood.)