The Passion of the Alamo

Davy Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton, left) at battle in The Alamo (courtesy photo)
The Passion of the Alamo

By Gregg Barrios

Filmmakers bite off a larger hunk of Texas history than they can chew

"This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." - The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Passions still run high when people discuss the Alamo.

I remember one dark day when Davy Crockett mania swept our land that my brother came crying home to mother. "They said we killed Davy Crockett." Up until that morning, he had been proud of his 'coonskin cap and his Daisy toy rifle. Now, he was shattered in the realization that his Spanish surname and Mexican features had marked him for life as the son of the men who killed his hero. Later, serving in the military as a medic in Da Nang during the Vietnam War, I figured he had buried that shameful moment. Or maybe like so many young Tejanos, he hadn't.

Forget the Alamo? Damn, I wish we could. For that albatross continues to weigh heavily on many Texans. Recently, when Presidents Vicente Fox of Mexico and George Bush met to discuss immigration policy, that front-page story was buried under the fold of the San Antonio Express-News. Instead, an article on the visit of Fess Parker, the old Disney TV Crockett, who started a craze on faux 'coonskin caps, was the top news story that day.

Billy Bob Thornton in San Antonio for the premiere of The Alamo. (Photo by Alicia Wagner Calzada)
Like medieval passion plays that were often bloody recreations intensified to create furor and outrage, so too the ritual of the Alamo has come down over a century later as a recreated event often full of bluster and misplaced patriotism. Even one of the first films on the Alamo was entitled The Martyrs of the Alamo. Each year in the Alamo City, the heroes die once again. Roll over, Mel Gibson, and give Frank Rich the news.

There is a scene in the new film version of The Alamo that you won't see when it opens April 9. In the deleted scene, two boys Mathew and Jesus lay dying after the Mexican victory at the Alamo.

"Where you come from, friend?" Mathew asks.

"From here. I am a Tejano. From Texas," Jesus answers.

"Yeah ... me, too," the other boy says. The script then adds: "They stare at one another until the light leaves their eyes."

Such a scene might have made a poignant commentary on the futility of war - any war that divides a household or a nation. It might have also provided a bit of closure to the great divide that continues to exist between Anglo and Latino over the Alamo.

Much ado has been made of the warts and blemishes that have been added in this version of the Alamo saga. Some say that it is the first accurate portrayal of flawed men who later rose to greatness. Yet mere window dressing does little to convince the audience that it is watching greatness on the screen. Instead, after knocking these heroes off their pedestal, they are carefully replaced to their "rightful" place by the film's end. One local columnist recently noted that the heroes of the Alamo were "flawed people like you and me." And just how long out of the loop has that savant been?

Patrick Wilson on the yellow carpet. (Photo by Alicia Wagner Calzada)
Actually, films feed on one another. That deleted scene that I just described is a "lift" from All Quiet on the Western Front. The debunking and demystification of heroes is better observed in films like John Ford's My Darling Clementine, in which the legendary Wyatt Earp is portrayed as a peaceful man trying to escape his former violent life.

Despite the millions Touchstone spent to recreate the physical Alamo, it is all for naught if the story is not believable. Take another John Ford Western, The Searchers, which begins with a title card stating we are in Texas in the 1800s, but what we see on screen is a fantastic shot of Monument Valley - in Utah. Yet viewers willingly suspend their disbelief because of the film's superb storytelling and characterization.

The Alamo suffers from too many cooks in the kitchen. In its rush to be every thing to every one, it fails to bring forth anything other than a paint-by-the-numbers rendering of that historical event that provided the rallying cry for those who would forge the then Mexican state of Tejas into a republic. But trying to focus on six major characters in two hours, as well as sundry minor characters, battles, and military strategy, is beyond the abilities of these filmmakers who bite off a larger hunk of Texas history than they can chew.

And unless you have a degree in Texas history, you are unlikely even then to know the difference between Texans, Texians, Tejanos, Mexicans, and Texicans that the film bandies about without actually explaining.

Additionally, the screenplay, which was "doctored" by more writers than the Marx Brothers, never rises above the cardboard characterizations of Bowie, Travis, and Houston. Only Emilio Echevarría's over the top portrayal of the Mexican general Santa Anna and Billy Bob Thornton's larger than life David Crockett manage to hold our attention - part of the time.

The Alamo

Dir. John Lee Hancock; writ. Leslie Bohem, Stephen Gaghan, Hancock; feat. Dennis Quaid, Billy Bob Thornton, Jason Patric, Patrick Wilson, Emilio Echevarría, Jordi Mollá (PG-13)
The inclusion of Juan Seguin to the film's pantheon has been heralded as a first for an Alamo film. (Actually, Seguin was the subject of a 1982 American Playhouse production directed by Chicano filmmaker Jesus Treviño. That film still resonates and is long overdue on DVD.) However, Seguin is given short shrift in contrast to the other characters. He isn't given any back-story, nor do we learn what happened to him as a survivor. No wonder he is not remembered in the same breathe as the Alamo's Anglo heroes. Spanish actor Jordi Mollá is miscast as Seguin. His Spanish and English belie the Tejano character he portrays. These Disney folks aren't too savvy when it comes to understanding the young Mexican-American movie-going audience, nor does their new sensitivity to Latinos extend to the hiring of Mexican-American actors. Why wasn't a San Antonio born actor like Jesse Borrego (24) or Nicholas Gonzales (Resurrection Blvd) hired for the Seguin role?

In regard to the character of William B. Travis, several historians (not hired consultants), including Harvard's Stephen Jay Gould, observe that without Travis' petulance, the Alamo battle wouldn't have been necessary and all those men - both Mexican and Anglo - would have been spared death. He points to Jim Bowie's last letter that is kept practically out of sight in the Alamo as proof that Travis did more harm than good to the Texas movement.

OK, so Travis doesn't draw a line in the sand, big deal. Does that mean your Texas history book fed you lies all these years?

Not to worry, your kids will have Touchstone's guide to the film to study in school. One lesson plan explains it all: "Following the fall of the Alamo, Texians and other Americans felt shame for not having helped rescue the defenders. Is the current philosophy of 'no man left behind' possibly descended from the outcome of Alamo? Have students cite the recent Iraq war in their discussion, for example, the rescue of Private Jessica Lynch and other American POWs." Apparently the lesson plans reference to the Iraq war as "recent" instead of "current" assumes we won.

Peter Ustinov, who starred in the 1970 comedy Viva Max as a Mexican general who recaptures the Alamo died last week. Lucky man! He was spared the torture of sitting through this film. •

By Gregg Barrios

Director John Lee Hancock at the premiere of The Alamo at the Majestic Theatre on March 27. (Photo by Alicia Wagner Calzada)
The Selling of the Alamo

By Gregg Barrios

"One smart-aleck remark from a newspaperman on opening day could cost us plenty."

No, that wasn't some Disney suit last week talking "candidly" about their "troubled" film production, The Alamo. Instead, it was John Wayne, who in 1960 set the publicity wheels in motion by spending $1 million to dispel rumors that his version of Alamo wasn't a stinker.

Nothing succeeds in Hollywood like excess.

When a film's release date is pulled back, industry scribes smell trouble. Hollywood in turn is quick on the defense and begins to throw more money at the media in hope that they will believe their well-rehearsed spiel. After all, these are actors. In the case of Touchstone's The Alamo, it didn't help that the day before the junket began in San Antonio, The New York Times published an article by its new film reporter Sharon Waxman criticizing the film and how it augers for its corporate parent Disney.

In a round-table setting of marathon interviews, the film's principals showed their faces to the media days before the film premiere. The director, David Lee Hancock, came late in the game to the film. A hired hand, he is a Texas City native and used to play Alamo as a kid. He always wanted to be Davy Crockett, and after his brother complained, he would let him be Daniel Boone. Watching his cut of the film, one can see where his focus on Crockett from start to finish comes from.

I ask if the film was originally three hours long, as noted in the Times article. Instead of an answer, I get lectured on the movie biz: "Any movie in the history of cinema gets edited. There are only about four directors that have contractive final cut. This movie is my cut. Is the NYT stories filled with lies? Yes." He glared at the rest of us as if we were plants for Waxman and the Times.

An El Paso reporter asks him to discuss Juan Seguin's role in the film. Hancock seems enthused. "There has never been mention made before of the Tejano defenders. This revolution in so many ways was started by Seguin. There is a whole other movie you could make about him and the terrible things that happened to him after the Alamo. Seguin is one of the moral bellwethers in the movie. He has love for his country and hate for a dictator who's taking his country away from him.

Dennis Quaid signs autographs and talks to the media before the premiere of The Alamo. Quaid plays General Sam Houston in the film. (Photo by Alicia Wagner Calzada)
"I've been accused by the right of making a politically correct leftist movie, and by the left of making a jingoistic, patriotic movie." He adds his take on the film. "I never set out to make it fair. I wanted to make it an interesting movie. I didn't every worry about it being PC, but historically correct."

How much of dismissed screenwriter John Sayles script remains in the movie and how much did he contribute?

"When you have as many writers, I think you wind up with a tapestry. A lot of John `Sayles` script is still in the movie. He wrote a lot of the Davy versus David personal mythology in the film. I wrote the deguello and the fiddler on the roof, and Houston's Waterloo speech.

"Ron Howard wanted to make the film like Traffic with stories being told all over the place. And I like to see that movie too. I see it as a more traditional movie. Too much violence is cartoonish - most of these violent films are shot in fast motion. We shot it at 24 fps."

Another reporter asks if the slo-mo shot of the cannon ball was shot at 72 frames, but, then almost in faster motion, one of the gofers/handlers appears and whisks him away.

Waxman had pointed out that up until a few days earlier, 15 minutes had been taken out and then put in again. She relates how director Hancock had called a cast member to tell him that his performance had been cut out of the film. I ask if the actor is Marc Blucas. who is seen in a few shots in the finished film. Producer Mark Johnson gives me a quiet nod. If one checks the cast sheet, Blucas plays James Bonham, one of the most beloved defenders who died at the Alamo. Bonham today is held in higher esteem than Seguin and it may offend Alamo purists to note that his sacrifice is now on the cutting room floor.

Although it isn't discussed, the fact that Dennis Quaid has only about seven minutes of screen time in the film, yet he is still listed as the lead actor with his name above Thornton, who effectively is the film's star. Johnson however like any producer takes the high road. "We'll have a pretty interesting DVD an hour and a half if we put everything in it."

His next project is an adaptation of a C.S. Lewis novel to be shot in New Zealand, while Hancock's screen writing skills will be evident in Touchstone's King Arthur. If you've seen the trailer, it might strike you odd that some of the dialog ("On this day, if this be our destiny, so be it!") seems to be lifted from Alamo outtakes. Oh well, recycling can be a good thing. •

Scroll to read more Movie Reviews & News articles
Join the San Antonio Current Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.


Join SA Current Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.