Each epoch gets its Alamo. In the beginning was the white supremacist Martyrs of the Alamo (1915), supervised by D.W. Griffith. Four decades later came Disney’s Cold War kiddie version, and five years after that, John Wayne’s epic Missile Gap Alamo. The Vietnam War might be defined as Lyndon Johnson’s Alamo, and before that ended there was even a Communist version, the 1970 Viva Max!, in which the Texas shrine was re-liberated by Peter Ustinov’s Mexican general.
Disney’s new Alamo is the 9-11 Alamo, albeit released in time for Moktada al-Sadr’s last stand at the Kufa grand mosque. Not a full-scale debacle, despite many promising rumors, this mega-million production posits the siege in which 183 Texas rebels held off the Mexican army for 13 days as the atrocity used by General Sam Houston to wipe out the Mexicans in the 18-minute Battle of San Jacinto and cakewalk to independence. As directed by John Lee Hancock, it’s dull, talky, and sometimes maudlin (as in a Ken Burns documentary, the letters home and Celtic panpipes are never far way).
Jason Patric’s sullen Jim Bowie, Patrick Wilson’s dour Colonel Travis, Jordi Mollà’s hangdog Juan Seguin, and Dennis Quaid’s scowling Sam Houston are all eclipsed by Billy Bob Thornton’s interpretation of Davy Crockett as a glad-handing, grinning good ol’ boy—not to mention a buckskin Paganini whose fiddlin’ wows even the Mexicans. (Their doomsday corrida music is disappointingly mediocre.) “I understood the fightin’ was over,” Crockett remarks upon arriving at the besieged mission, dropping his voice and adding a scene-stealing hint of a quaver, “ain’t it?”
Notably short on glory and no match for Wayne on the self-importance scale, this Alamo is most appealing in showcasing Crockett’s transformation from affable entertainer into existential hero. Denying his men their expected cheerful little earful, Crockett recalls his experience of the Indian Wars in terms that suggest an acid flashback to the Nam. The Alamo does have its revisionist points. There’s no fake letter from the Mexican general Santa Anna, Travis doesn’t draw a line in the sand, and nobody torches the powder magazine. Gestures toward political correctness include an almost-acknowledgement that, among other things, the Texans were fighting for the right to keep their slaves. And, as with Pearl Harbor, the enemy point of view is briefly aired. “”Santa Anna only wants Mexico,” one malcontent informs another. “These lowlifes [in the Alamo] want the whole world.” Ain’t it the truth?
This Santa Anna is not the dope-fiend orgy-master found in Martyrs of the Alamo (a movie that played the race card by maintaining that Santa Anna’s Mexico was a place where “the honor and life of American womanhood was held in contempt”). But played with wild theatricality by Emilio Echevarría, he’s still a degenerate, sadistic, megalomaniacal bon vivant surrounded by foppishly epicene officers. Despite the copious subtitled Spanish, the latest Alamo is unlikely to make history as the first to be released in Mexico.