The Alamo
directed by John Lee Hancock
(Touchstone/Bueno Vista, 2004)

Remember the Alamo? For a lot of people, the Alamo is a brick in the Great Wall of John Wayne, but his version of the story, for many reasons, does not stand the test of time. In 2004, a new version hit the big screens but, believing the flood of negative reviews, I decided not to see it.

Big mistake. After all, reviews are just opinions, and everyone has one. They're not always right. In this case, the groundswell of opposition was unjustified.

The story of the Alamo -- a last-ditch defense of a small Spanish mission by fewer than 200 men against an army of more than 6,000 -- is an epic of legendary proportions. But the men who fought and died there were just men -- they were not titans who strode across the landscape in a quest for Great Events, nor did they set out to become martyrs to the cause of freedom. They were ordinary folk, many in need of a second chance after a variety of misfortunes in the still-young United States, and the Texas territory, struggling for its freedom, seemed like a fine place to start again.

Take Davy Crockett, the best-known defender of the Alamo. A legend in his own time, he was a victim of his own notoriety -- people expect great things from a man who could ride lightning, leap rivers and wrestle bears, but the real Davy Crockett never did those things. Billy Bob Thornton scales his Crockett back to reality, giving us a man who overcame his own fears to live up to his image and inspire those around him -- a real hero, after all. Where Wayne's Crockett pontificates, Thornton's speaks from the heart. As he says one quiet night on watch:

If it was just me, simple old David from Tennessee, I might drop over that wall some night, take my chances. But that Davy Crockett feller ... they're all watchin' him.

Similarly, Jim Bowie (Jason Patric), William Travis (Patrick Wilson) and the rest of the Alamo defenders give us something tangible to hold on to as they fight and fall. Neither Bowie nor Travis was a great man before the Alamo, but they were resolute and achieved greatness once the crisis was upon them.

On the other side of the battlefield, Emilio Echevarria is perfectly despicable as the ruthless Santa Ana, a preening, self-styled Napoleon with an inflated self-image and a barbaric philosophy towards conquest.

The movie takes great pains to let us get to know these men long before the final assault on the fortress begins. Once the attack is underway, we're left to watch helplessly as events unfold as history dictates. And it's here the movie becomes epic.

If you've avoided this one because of those other critics, ignore them. Trust me instead. Next time you're looking for a video to watch, remember The Alamo.

by Tom Knapp
30 December 2006

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