What was Disney thinking? That it was time to make another film about the heroic defense of the Alamo? Wasn't John Wayne's gung-ho rewriting of history back in his 1960 version enough for them? Were they thinking that Texas-style patriotism was back in fashion because a xenophobic Texas macho-man happens to be in the White House? The classic line is even repeated here: "As goes the Alamo, so goes Texas!"
Whatever the thinking, Disney's Touchstone division has given us a new version, and in some unexpected places they've even added a bit of ironic distancing to keep us from barfing in our seats. Moreover, there are two very good performances that almost make the film worth the two and a quarter hours it takes from us.
One of them is Billy Bob Thornton's work as Davy Crockett. He underplays his role, in fact plays against Crockett's fame and jokes about his reputation. It's as lovely a performance, and as compelling, as the one he gave in "Monster's Ball," because he lets us in on the underlying life of the character. We believe that there's a real human being inside. The other expert work is by Patrick Wilson as Lt. Col. William Travis, the nominal commander of troops at the Alamo. Wilson has few previous credits, but you may remember him as Joe Pitt, Roy Cohn's acolyte, in last year's "Angels in America." There's a sobriety and growing self-knowledge to his character here that together with Thornton's work helps keep the film from flying apart at the seams. Every time director John Lee Hancock lines up his armies for another battle, one or the other of these actors brings the film back to earth.
One dreadful casting and directing mistake, though, is Emilio Echevarria as Santa Anna, the commander of the Mexican army. Santa Anna, as Hancock makes Echevarria play him, is such a caricature of the evil enemy that if only he had handlebar mustaches he could twirl them as the villainous landlord in a bad 19th-century melodrama, evicting some poor mother and her child on a snowy night.
What is never explained, and the film misses any chance of communicating it, is the question of why so many adventurous men, otherwise knowledgeable about life and death, would choose to stay and die in an obviously indefensible place - something that might give resonance to their actions. Their predicament is mentioned a few times in the film, and mumblings are heard about reinforcements that Sam Houston is supposed to send to them, but since it's obvious that no army could stop Santa Anna at the Alamo, which sits out in the middle of a sunbaked plain, it would have been apparent to anyone with a brain that nothing good could come of it.
Another, unexpected problem with the film is that Hancock's direction of the battle scenes is right out of the action-director's handbook, or would be if there were such a thing. His shots are predictable - we see far in advance exactly what will happen - and his editing is monotonous. There should be palpable tension communicated to us in the theatre, but instead there's just a weary, almost languorous pacing that for a film like this is the kiss of death. As is pointed out in the film, "Texas is wasted on the Texians." How true.