This is the story of a civil war. Not the one you’re familiar with, but one that occurred a quarter century earlier. In this civil war, the North seceded from the South, and since the secessionists won, it’s not called a civil war but a revolution: the Texas Revolution.
The battle of the Alamo — a San Antonio mission converted into a strategic fort — is a key moment in the Texas Revolution, not because the revolutionaries holed up there won, but because they lost.
Their sacrifice and defiance of the overwhelming forces surrounding them inspired revolutionaries across Texas, and the cry "Remember the Alamo!" has been heard in battle (and on screen) ever since.
In taking on such a lionized subject, the film is running a risk. Dramas about hallowed historical events often come off stiff at best and campy at worst. This film manages to succeed in spite of these dangers. It does romanticize the events associated with the Alamo, but it strives for historical accuracy and manages to humanize the historical figures on which it focuses.
As depicted in the film, the man tasked with defending the Alamo — Lt. Col. William Travis (Patrick Wilson) of Alabama — is a textbook commander. And that’s the problem. He’s risen too rapidly in the ranks and is in over his head. As a former school teacher, he has lots of book learning, but little experience of combat and command, and the men of the Alamo know it. He doesn’t have their respect, and he’s got to try to earn it if he’s going to make good.
The man who does have the men’s respect is Col. Jim Bowie (Jason Patric) of Louisiana, a legendary knife fighter who is remembered even today for his popularization of the large and deadly "Bowie knife." He’s a natural commander. The problem is, he isn’t the man in charge of the Alamo regulars, only the Texican volunteers there. Conflict between the two groups, as well as differences in command ability, bring him into regular conflict with Travis.
The third member of the historical triumvirate leading the Alamo defenders is former congressman Davy Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton) of Tennessee. One of the most famous men of his day, Crockett is a man living in the shadow of his own legend. He knows that he’s not the larger-than-life character people think he is, and he’s struggling to live up to what others suppose him to be. Crockett is embarrassed by their adulation but willing to use the advantages it offers. A seasoned politician, he may bring the elements idealism and pragmatism needed to help Travis and Bowie lead their men.
Thornton’s Crockett is a particular delight. Apart from his character’s serious side, Thornton ends up stealing the show. He regularly cracks the audience up and gets the best lines of the movie, right up to the end.
Arrayed against the men of the Alamo are the forces of Mexican general and dictator Antonio López de Santa Ana Pérez de Lebrón (Emilio Echevarria). He comes off in the film as arrogant and brutal, but then he was a dictator who referred to himself as "the Napoleon of the West" and who ordered the wholesale massacre of his opponents.
His forces badly outnumber the men in the Alamo, and there is no way the latter can win without reinforcements. They are hoping for reinforcements being brought by Texian Gen. Sam Houston (Dennis Quaid), but they don’t arrive, and the inevitable massacre comes.
How does the film fare as a historical recreation? Well. Most such films are populated with painfully stiff actors struggling to portray the historical figures they have been assigned, but this one manages to convey the humanity of its central figures.
One of the reasons for that may be the ambiguity surrounding what actually happened at the Alamo. In Texas folklore, Travis, Bowie, and Crockett were sainted and depicted as struggling to their last defiant breaths. More recently historians have begun to consider evidence that portrays the three in a much more human light. According to the new portrait, one of them may have been too sick during the battle to even rise from his bed and another — far from going down swinging — may have survived the battle (however briefly).
Though these ideas are controversial, the film ends up ends up depicting them in a way that humanizes the main characters without depriving them of their heroism.
The film portrays also the complexity of the historical situation by exploring the perspectives of individuals and groups other than the main characters. Both Travis and Bowie were slaveholders, and the film explores their slaves’ varied reactions to the situation into which they have been thrust.
It also depicts the division among the Latinos involved in the conflict. Though the Anglo characters in the film are the most famous, many Tejanos were determined to secede from Mexico and participated in the Texas Revolution. In fact, the first stirrings of rebellion in the area had been initiated a quarter of a century earlier, before the influx of Anglos from the United States. Many Tejanos appear in the film, and their viewpoint is depicted particularly through Capt. Juan Seguin (Jordi Mollà ), who later fought with Gen. Houston at the battle of San Jacinto, where Texas won its independence.
This effort to depict the complexity of the time largely succeeds and does not come off as the heavy-handed political correctness for which Disney is known. In fact, I was taken aback at one moment in the film that was particularly politically incorrect.
Early on, one character is challenging Sam Houston’s leadership, and the future president of Texas shoots back by calling the man "a Scottish catamite." He then explains that he meant that the man was one step below a pederast. I don’t know how many in a contemporary audience would know what a catamite or a pederast are, but it was a remarkably harsh insult to the character’s manhood, particularly for the 1830s, and it came as no surprise when the man lunged for Houston to do him violence. Courtly vocabulary aside, them’s fightin’ words!
Though the film strives admirably to represent the historical reality of the events it depicts, it does fail in a few ways. The Texicans’ reasons for secession aren’t brought out clearly enough for a modern audience. Neither is the fact that they weren’t fighting to join the United States but to create the independent Republic of Texas, which existed for almost a decade before statehood.
On the Mexican side, Santa Ana’s conviction that the Texas Revolution was a plot engineered by the United States is not brought out clearly enough, though the film does allude to it. In a moment that will particularly resonate for many in the audience, Santa Ana declares that if the Texicans aren’t stopped then "our children and our grandchildren will be begging for crumbs from the United States."
How does the film stand up as a film? Though it is a better as a work of cinema than many similar films, its effort to be historically accurate does take a toll on its pacing. In real life, Santa Ana "prepared the field" by having his men blockade the Alamo and conduct psychological warfare on its defenders for almost two weeks before the major assault came. The film depicts this by an extended sequence that may leave the audience wondering when the battle will finally come. That was the effect that the blockade was meant to have on the men inside the Alamo, but it would have been shrewder filmmaking to shorten this sequence.
It also would have been better for the filmmakers to lengthen the battle that finally takes place and to make it not appear quite so one-sided. Since we don’t know the precise dynamics of the real-world battle, the filmmakers could have showed the Texicans having a last-minute rally before their inevitable defeat.
Despite these flaws, the film works far better than most period pieces, particularly in the way it humanizes the historical figures at the center of the story. You feel for Travis struggling to fill boots that are too big for him. You sympathize with Bowie, who knows he’s a better leader but has struggles of his own and can’t risk fracturing the forces defending the mission. And you empathize with Crockett, trying to guide the two young commanders while he would like nothing more than to walk off into the sunset and let his legend live on without him.
There is also ambiguity about the character of Sam Houston. Late in the film we are left wondering why the general keeps retreating in the face of Santa Ana. Is he simply a coward or is there a method to his madness?
There is, and Texas wins its independence.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.