Saturday, April 10, 2004

Reel To Reel:
The Alamo

How It Rates: ***
Starring: Dennis Quaid, Jason Patric, Billy Bob Thornton
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: War Violence

Preconceived Notions: Delayed from last year's Christmas-season release. That's not a good sign.
The Bottom Line: Unromantic, just the facts, ma'am treatment of one of history's most famous battles.

You will not forget The Alamo. Now that we've gotten past the predictable cliche, let's talk about what this film is not.

It's not a history film with a tacked-on romantic subplot, like Pearl Harbor.

It's not a gritty, gut-wrenching war picture, like Saving Private Ryan.

It's not a Disney-fied portrayal of an American legend, like Davy Crockett.

I have to wonder if that's by design or result. The making of this film was a battle in itself. Ron Howard moved from directing to producing when studio brass mucked with his vision. Two A-list stars bowed out. The release date was pushed back to accommodate studio demands.

Touchstone ended up with a dazzling yet unglorified picture. The Alamo subtracts from the legend, painting its heroes not as heroes but as a bunch of guys standing up to unbeatable odds. Even Davy Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton) would rather be known as David, or maybe even Dave. Most of what people have heard about him is hype. And that coonskin cap? He's only wearing it for the fans. Col. Jim Bowie (Jason Patric) has his own problems. He's in a struggle to command his ragtag bunch. And he's got TB. The Alamo itself looks like it has already lost the battle from the start.

General Santa Ana, as portrayed here in his fancy bicorn, is a Spanish-speaking Napoleon. His character is not drawn for us any more than absolutely required, and the same goes for his Mexican troops. They at times seemed like they belonged in Attack Of The Clones.

The climatic battle sequence is one of the few I've seen recently where I have not had to wonder at times who is winning and losing, meaning there are no shaky camera shots in the heat of battle. Or maybe I just found a better seat further away from the screen this time. It's worth mentioning, too, that all the battle sequences are relatively bloodless, making this a film that's probably all right for kids under 13 who have some appreciation for history (and know that the Alamo didn't always have the word "dome" after it). And watch for the scene with the cannonball that reminded me of a particular shot from Pearl Harbor.

If a textbook company wanted to make a big-budget historical film, this may be the one they would have made. And no doubt this film, or excerpts, may make its way into a few history classes. No it's not boring. Not by a long shot. But it is also curiously restrained, and for Hollywood, that's a wonder.

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