When John Ford praised his old pal John Wayne’s 1960 movie, “The Alamo,” he predicted that it would run “forever.” After enduring all 192 minutes of the original roadshow version, Time magazine’s critic declared that “forever” was nearly achieved in a single viewing.
Touchstone Pictures’ $100 million remake, starring Billy Bob Thornton in Wayne’s role, Davy Crockett, is about an hour shorter than Wayne’s production, yet it still threatens to achieve “forever” during its running time. It never really establishes what was at stake in the American defense of San Antonio’s ancient Spanish mission-turned-fort in 1836. Maybe there’s something about this conflict between the Mexican and American armies that resists dramatization.
The movie is lethargic when it should be thrilling and expansive. The director and co-writer, John Lee Hancock, seems resistant to the idea of generating narrative momentum. The battle scenes, despite all their painful detail and panoramic spectacle, pale beside the brilliantly edited battles in the “Lord of the Rings” movies. Carter Burwell’s score starts off like an anemic variation on James Horner’s “Titanic” music, then gradually fades into irrelevance.
Thornton does get the best lines and scenes, and he gives a much more nuanced and interesting performance than Wayne did. Whether he’s registering regret at killing a Mexican soldier, or shuddering at the gory details of his own treatment of Indians, or trying to comprehend the fact that he’s become a legend (he even adopts the costume of an actor who plays Crockett on stage), Thornton’s Davy Crockett comes off as a complex, thoughtful, self-doubting warrior.
Less persuasive, but not without their moments, are Jason Patric as the alcoholic Jim Bowie, and Patrick Wilson as the repressed, by-the-book William Travis. Their battle for authority over the troops sometimes seems like a duel between two men over who has the larger knife (you might guess that Bowie has the upper blade here), but it carries plenty of entertainment value.
Also effective is Emilio Echevarria as the vicious Mexican general, Santa Ana, who consciously uses brutality to establish a name for himself. But what happened to Dennis Quaid, whose role as another Alamo hero, Sam Houston, appears to have been left on the cutting-room floor?
Hancock previously directed Quaid in “The Rookie,” which was a breakthrough for both of them, but this time Quaid, after a strong setup scene in which Houston is established as a wily politician and an embittered drinker, gets lost in the landscape. Perhaps the DVD will provide Quaid’s missing epiphanies.
Wayne’s “Alamo” was the most expensive movie to be produced entirely in the United States when it was released, and it lost a fortune. But the story had proven quite lucrative for Disney in the mid-1950s, when the marketing of coonskin caps and a catchy title tune made an unexpected smash of “Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier.”
Although some critics favor Frank Lloyd’s low-budget 1955 Alamo epic, “The Last Command,” Disney’s version remains the most successful, perhaps because it focuses on one character and never gets mired in Tex-Mex politics. It also runs for a spare 93 minutes.