out of Five
Running time: 131
In this country the Alamo is perhaps best remembered as being the monument that Ozzy Osbourne drunkenly peed on thus earning himself a night in county jail, or confused with a popular American hire car company.
Not so in the States – where the story of this tumbledown wreck of a fort is compulsory history in school and the site itself is revered as a symbol of American freedom and a cipher for the identity of the country. In other words, the legend is not to be messed with.
Somewhat Over The Top
This may explain the mess of casting and production problems that surrounded the start of this slick history lesson and account for the over-egging of the mawkish pudding as brave American heroes fight in slow-mo to the lilting sound of a bugle. Russell Crowe was supposed to rattling his sabre with Ron Howard directing but was dropped when the budget soared, the script suffered numerous rewrites and there were problems with hundreds of extras being too porky to get into their authentic costumes.
But we’re skipping ahead – a quick history recap for those who missed out on their American frontier history class 101.
In 1836 the state of Texas was Mexican territory coveted by the ever-expanding US. Skirmishes between the two armies, plus those pesky Indians, made it a dangerous and ever-shifting place to be. Never more so when Mexican army mogul Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana launched a big-guns attack on the poorly prepared US fort in San Antonio, the Alamo.
The resulting siege and battle was significant because of the combatants involved and due to the US fighters’ bravery and resourcefulness in the face of overwhelming defeat. Legendary frontiersman Davy Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton in loquacious mode), Jim-as in the knife-Bowie (Jason Patric) and Sam Houston (Dennis Quaid) led less than 200 men in a two-week crusade that ended in tragedy and fable.
Too Much Background Knowledge Required
Unfortunately director/writer Hancock assumes a hefty amount of background knowledge on the part of the audience and opens with talky forays into early US politics and the demystification of Crockett as mere slick self-promoter, Bowie is a bad-tempered stirrer and Houston as a boozer. All well and good for those in the know. This earnest scene-setting and characterisation means we don’t actually get down to the messy business of battle until over half way through – but when the gunpowder starts smoking this stirring, visually splendid film really comes into its own.
Superbly staged with minute attention to detail, the waiting, pain and fear of such an insurmountable battle is pulse-quickening, teeth-gritting stuff. A massive set and a slew of extras enable soaring, horrifying shots of the bloody clash that shows up Troy’s CGI battles for the sterile, unmoving tricks that they are. Though the brutality is dependably tempered by Ron Howard’s maudlin touch (as producer) in a scene where Crockett plays his violin on the fort ramparts at sunset, promoting misty-eyed looks from his men.
Though uniformly well acted, handsome to look at and attentive to detail, The Alamo caters to Western fans and American history graduates alone, leaving everyone else with bum-ache and no clearer understanding of an American legend.