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Defending the Faith

What really happened at the Alamo?

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The rallying cry of Manifest Destiny has been on the screen almost enough times to be a genre. Yet the story, say producers Ron Howard and Mark Johnson, and director John Lee Hancock, was still waiting to be told right, without the anachronistic affectation that has marred previous outings — without characters dressed like Grizzly Adams and combatants singing “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” In this, “The Alamo,” released by Disney subsidiary Touchstone, mostly succeeds. The defenders in “The Alamo” are depicted as they probably were: a dirty rabble of squatters on the run from the law and abandoned wives. They drink too much and their fort looks hastily hewn from the knotty remains of unworthy trees. This dilapidated former Catholic mission might not be a pile of mud, as Gen. Sam Houston (Dennis Quaid) complains, but that’s only because it hasn’t rained in a while. As the first version for the CGI generation, “The Alamo” is notably restrained.

When we get close to the battle, things begin to fall apart. The filmmakers avoid an essential issue, namely the legitimacy of the settler’s claims to the fort and the rest of the enormous territory of Texas. Technically, Mexico owned it. Manifest thinking may have captured it, but times have changed and now we have uncomfortable questions about the authority of the people involved. Alas, “The Alamo” is another white wash. General Houston, a man who marvels at his own ability to drink himself sober, becomes a stoic military genius after the fall of the Alamo, quoting the Duke of Wellington and scouting fields of battle like a 19th-century Patton. His friend Jim Bowie (Jason Patric), a mean ball of nerves at the end of a knife big enough to scare Crocodile Dundee, spends two-thirds of the movie making trouble and inciting rebellion. Then he retires to a candle-lit sickbed worthy of Mother Theresa. Their opposition, the leering Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, is totally one-dimensional, a cartoon, with every mannerism of evil incarnate save twisting his mustache in maniacal glee.

Billy Bob Thornton lucked out with the role of David Crockett. More myth than man, the wrestler of bears and mountain lions is presented as a sincere, if not regular, guy, a charmer with a public air of showmanship and private side of quiet wisdom and modesty. He parties with the Washington elite and tells yarns over the campfire. The men look up to him as the rough-and-tough frontiersman of legend, but Thornton reveals a real person with unembarrassed ambitions and fears. Thinking the fighting is over, he arrives at the Alamo hoping to become the future president of Texas. When the shooting starts, he confides he’d prefer to hop over the wall and skedaddle, if only all eyes weren’t on him.

Crockett gives the most memorable speech in the film, not about a lost cause but the perils of expansionism. And yet at the end, when he is the last to fall before the Mexican army, he’s all bluster and patriotic preening. The camera lurches back into a bush of thorns at the moment he is silenced. It’s perfectly fine to see the King of Kings whipped to a frazzle over two hours, but we must avert our eyes when it’s the King of the Wild Frontier.

A more predictable speech on the eve of battle by Col. William Travis perfectly captures the equivocation that ultimately undermines most re-creations of this saga. “We may have come here for land and riches,” he admits, but fighting an unwinnable fight to the last makes us better men. That’s right children, the Alamo died for all our sins.

What is the real significance of the battle of the Alamo? That question is certainly a big part of this movie’s appeal. “The Alamo” aims in various directions toward an answer, but never takes a stand. ** S

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