The Alamo

The Alamo


Today, I’m going to delve into a historical war drama from 2004, which also has the distinction of being a major financial flop: The Alamo.

The plot of The Alamo is summarized on IMDb as follows:

Based on the 1836 standoff between a group of Texan and Tejano men, led by Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie, and Mexican dictator Santa Anna’s forces at the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas.

The Alamo was directed and co-written by John Lee Hancock, who has since helmed the films The Blind Side, Saving Mr. Banks, and The Founder. The other co-writers for the film’s screenplay were Stephen Gaghan (Traffic, Syriana) and Leslie Bohem (Dante’s Peak, A Nightmare On Elm Street 5).

The cast of The Alamo includes Billy Bob Thornton (Sling Blade, Bad Santa, The Man Who Wasn’t There), Jason Patric (Speed 2: Cruise Control, The Lost Boys, Sleepers), Patrick Wilson (Hard Candy, Watchmen, The Conjuring), Dennis Quaid (Jaws 3-D, The Right Stuff, Innerspace), and Jordi Mollà (Bad Boys II, Blow).

The editor for the film was Eric L. Beason, whose other credits include the recent horror hit Don’t Breathe, A Simple Plan, and Joy Ride. The Alamo was shot by veteran cinematographer Dean Semler, who also provided cinematography for 2012, Stealth, Click, xXx, Waterworld, Last Action Hero, Dances With Wolves, The Road Warrior, Young Guns, and Super Mario Bros., among many others.

The film’s musical score was composed by Carter Burwell, who has provided work on films like Seven Psychopaths, Anomalisa, Howl, A Serious Man, The Founder, Fargo, In Bruges, Three Kings, Blood Simple, and The Big Lebowski, among many others.

The story of the resistance and fall of The Alamo was famously brought to the screen in 1960, in a film that both starred and was directed by film icon John Wayne. However, that wasn’t the first time that the tale had been adapted: the first feature-length film that depicted the legendary story was 1915’s Martyrs of the Alamo by Chrsity Cabanne, which was itself predated by a 1911 short called The Immortal Alamo.

At one point early on during the production, Ron Howard had expressed great interest in directing the film, with Russell Crowe on board as his lead. However, as often happens, the plans fell apart, and the production ultimately wound up with the final team of Thornton in the lead and Hancock directing.

The Alamo had a production budget of $107 million, on which it only managed to take in $25.8 million in its lifetime theatrical run. This made it one of the biggest financial flops in movie history.

Critically, the movie didn’t do much better. It currently holds an IMDb user rating of 6.0/10, alongside Rotten Tomatoes scores of 29% from critics and 45% from audiences. However, one of its key proponents was Roger Ebert, who gave it a positive review, saying:

Here is a movie that captures the loneliness and dread of men waiting for two weeks for what they expect to be certain death, and it somehow succeeds in taking those pop-culture brand names like Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie and giving them human form.

As Ebert mentioned in the blurb above, one of the strengths of The Alamo is how well it builds the central characters: many of whom are quasi-legendary icons, whose enormous reputations in the cultural mindset outshine their truthful tangibility. The best scenes in the movie have either David Crockett or James Bowie staring down their bloated reputations. Ultimately, the result of the way the movie handles these figures might be less romantic than what people wanted or expected, but I think it is quite a bit deeper, and probably more faithful to the real men.

That said, there more than a few issues with the film. One of the biggest problems with this film is the pacing: it is just a bit weird structurally, and movie feels longer than it actually is because of it. This is at least partially because of the lengthy quasi-epilogue, which shows the victory of Sam Houston that followed the events at The Alamo. While there is some catharsis to showing this, it doesn’t merit the amount of time it wound up eating on screen. Some sort of stitched together montage could have gotten the idea across without so dramatically back-loading the film with a sequel built into the third act.

This brings me to something that I couldn’t help but think about on this re-watch: the key similarities and differences between The Alamo and a similar historical underdog war drama that hit theaters just two years later: 300. While 300 certainly has its fair share of issues, it succeeds on a couple of levels where The Alamo fails. First off, 300 has a very brief and effective epilogue that leaves the audience with a sense of fulfilled justice. Just like in The Alamo, the “good guys” won in the end. However, 300 didn’t require a whole extra plot to deliver that feeling to the audience (for the time being, let’s just ignore the sequel).

More importantly, however, is that 300 managed to get people to buy tickets, despite having a cast with very little star power. I think that this is mostly due to the way the battle sequences were done in the two films: The Alamo is very traditional, with frenetic energy and grime making up most of the war action. 300, on the other hand, is very stylistic and unique with its action, almost like a vicious dance. The movie (and, more accurately, the graphic novel) manages to use the claustrophobia of the setting as a way to place the audience/reader right in the thick of the action, right along the warriors. In The Alamo, the point-of-view of the audience is particularly detached, and I think that this affected the tension quite a bit. I don’t think that The Alamo did anything wrong, necessarily: it just didn’t take any big risks that would have gotten audiences talking about it afterwards.

As far as other positives go, I think that the key performances are generally pretty good in The Alamo, particularly from Billy Bob Thornton and Patrick Wilson (in one of his earliest film roles), but the movie definitely suffers from the lack of A-list marquee talent. Had this movie had a couple of more bankable names at the top of the cast, I dare say that it wouldn’t have bombed so hard, despite the quality of the performances.

Overall, I think that The Alamo was only one or two tweaks from being a really good movie, or at least a decent popcorn flick. The material, at the very least, could be elevated a lot by a visionary director with financial means. This adaptation of the story, while having good elements, plays it a little too safe stylistically, and is also a bit unpolished structurally. I still think it is worth checking out for people who are interested in the story, but for film fans, I think that it has been rightly pushed to the margins. However, the movie is by no means as bad as its financial reputation might lead you to believe.

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