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The hard road to ‘The Alamo’

The delayed release and recut has everyone worried but director John Lee Hancock.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The shooting was relatively painless on “The Alamo.” The cutting was where things started to hurt.

Production was finished and the Christmas release date loomed, but director John Lee Hancock wanted more time and money to edit his film of that memorable Texas battle.

Disney’s studio bosses gave him an extra $3 million and three more months — during which Hancock felt like he was performing the old vaudeville act of balancing dishes on sticks.

“Most epic films have one character. You follow his or her journey and everything feeds their journey. This was an epic film with at least six main characters. That’s difficult because you realize you can add a little bit of this, and what does that do to the whole story? It’s a little like the guy on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ spinning plates. You can spin one really, really fast and then look and you’re about to drop another one.”

A few of the story lines he had to juggle: Dennis Quaid as Gen. Sam Houston, Jason Patric as Jim Bowie, Patrick Wilson as Col. William Travis, Billy Bob Thornton as Davy Crockett, Jordi Molla as Tejano hero Juan Seguin and Marc Blucas as garrison officer James Bonham.

In October, Disney screened an early print that ran more than three hours. Studio boss Dick Cook acknowledged the movie was being groomed for Oscar contention, but decided it wasn’t close enough to being finished for the planned Christmas release.

Cook said in December: “There were deadlines ... and we just honestly felt, the filmmakers and all, we’re not going to get this movie done in two weeks ... We said, ‘You know what? Looking at the landscape let’s not kill ourselves.’”

Hancock took over “The Alamo” after “A Beautiful Mind” filmmaker Ron Howard dropped out of directing, taking Russell Crowe with him.

Primarily a screenwriter who wrote the Clint Eastwood film “A Perfect World,” Hancock directed Quaid in the true-life baseball story “The Rookie” and had done some script work on “The Alamo” when it was still Howard’s project.

Howard had planned to start filming in November 2002, but the studio and Howard clashed over how bloody and expensive the film would be, with Howard seeking a reported $125 million budget plus his standard sizable percentage of the movie’s box office.

Disney wanted a PG-13 movie, a less expensive production budget, and a smaller part of the profit pie for Howard and would-be star Crowe.

But Cook couldn’t persuade them to lower their asking prices. Cook wanted “The Alamo” to be an example of a cost-saving epic in an era of out-of-control movie budgets.

So Howard and Disney parted ways — which left an opening for Hancock.

“We sort of have a mantra around here that we like to make the right movie at the right price,” Cook said. “Some people have misinterpreted it that we’re not going to make big movies. Clearly we’re going to make big movies, but hopefully those big movies will be the right big movies to make for the right price.”

Hancock said he received Howard’s blessing to move into the director’s chair, and had no problem with the budget Disney was offering: $95 million.

“Honestly there’s not a penny that’s spared on the screen,” Hancock said. “It’s just that Ron and Russell Crowe are a far more expensive than Dennis Quaid and I are.”

Missing their Christmas deadlineHancock’s cameras didn’t get rolling until January 2003, and the Texas-born filmmaker’s ambition in chronicling the many Alamo heroes placed that Dec. 25 release date in jeopardy almost from the get-go.

“Billy Bob told me during production, ‘There is no way in hell you’re coming out at Christmas,”’ Hancock said.

Then the postponement of the movie’s release surrounded Hancock and Disney with bad buzz. Numerous stories questioned what was wrong with the film. Sometimes, delays mean a troubled movie.

“The Alamo” director expected negative press but was glad to have more time to craft what he considered to be a better movie.

“I knew that with the press reaction we’d take a hit,” Hancock said. “But ask the most pertinent question: ‘What are you reshooting?’ We didn’t reshoot one frame of film, we didn’t shoot any additional footage. It was me playing with well over a million feet of film we shot.”

In the editing room, Quaid’s role as Houston became more of a bookend for the story, the character of Bonham was practically eliminated and the character of Seguin was reduced to a smaller supporting role.

Meanwhile, the conflict between Travis and the dying Bowie became prominent, while Thornton’s supporting role as Crockett became the film’s “heart and soul,” Hancock said.

Now the fate of “The Alamo” lies in the hands of ticket buyers. But the film already has one high-profile admirer — Richard Bruce Winders, curator of the Alamo museum and author of the new book “Sacrificed at the Alamo: Tragedy and Triumph in the Texas Revolution.”

“Given that this had such pre-release negative expectation because it was delayed and all the talk about what was wrong with the film, I think most people came out thinking it was better than they thought it was going to be,” he said after seeing the final print.

He doesn’t feel that way about all Alamo movies, especially the 1960 version with John Wayne as Crockett, which he described as “real bad history.”

“It’s hard to believe that Hollywood would do a movie where there was so much historical information in it,” he added. “If you’re expecting a remake of John Wayne’s movie, you’re going to be pretty much surprised by what you’ll see.”