Revisited: The Alamo

PLOT (spoiler alert!!!):

The film begins in March 1836 in the Texas town of San Antonio de Bexar (now Downtown San Antonio in the U.S. state of Texas), site of the Alamo, where bodies of Texan defenders and Mexican attackers are strewn over the Alamo. The film then flashes back to a year earlier. Sam Houston (Dennis Quaid) attends a party where he tries to persuade people to migrate to Texas. He meets with Davy Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton), recently defeated for reelection to Congress. Houston explains to Crockett that as an immigrant to Texas, Crockett will receive 640 acres (2.6 km2) [a square mile] of his own choosing. Crockett, with a grin, pointedly asks Houston whether this new republic is going to need a president.

Meanwhile, in San Felipe, Texas, the Texas provisional government is meeting to discuss what action to take after the recent capture by the Texans of the Alamo and Bexar from Mexican forces at the first Battle of San Antonio de Bexar. Texas having rebelled against Mexico and its dictatorial president Santa Anna, who is personally leading an army to retake the Alamo, the Texan War Party calls for the Texas army to depart Bexar, cross into Mexico and confront Mexican forces at the town of Matamoros. The Opposition Party seeks to rebuild the Texan army and establish a permanent government to be recognized by other nations of the world. The provisional government votes out Sam Houston as commander of the Texas army. While having drinks with Jim Bowie later, the disgusted Houston tells Bowie to go to San Antonio and destroy the Alamo.

William Barret Travis (Patrick Wilson) is also in San Felipe, reporting for duty. His character is quickly established as a man who seeks respect as a uniformed military officer, a lieutenant colonel in the Texas Army. Interlaced scenes show him granting his wife a divorce (for his adultery, abandonment, and “barbarous treatment”), and seeking to begin a new life in Texas. The Texas provisional government orders him to take command of the Alamo. There he meets Col. James Neill (Brandon Smith), who informs him that Travis will be in command of the Texas Army regulars while Neil is away on leave. Travis, alarmed that the Alamo’s small force cannot withstand the Mexican Army, which is rumored to have thousands of foot soldiers, plus the formidable Mexican cavalry. Again he sends a rider to deliver his plea for reinforcements. More small groups of Texan men arrive, but not enough for the impending battle. Travis oversees preparations for defense against inevitable attack, in hopes that enough reinforcements will arrive.

Crockett arrives in San Antonio, where he tells a crowd, “I told them folks they can go to hell, I’m going to Texas”. He is told that the other defenders are impatient for Santa Anna to arrive now that Crockett is on hand, and Crockett replies, “I understood the fighting was over… Ain’t it?” For the first time in any film about the Alamo or Davy Crockett, the viewer is shown the political aspirations of Crockett and possibly his real intentions for traveling to Texas: not so much to fight for freedom, but to seek new opportunities. The movie implies that he’s caught in the middle and cannot escape. Santa Anna soon arrives in San Antonio, much to the surprise of the Texan fighters, who were not expecting the Mexican Army to arrive until late March or early April. The Texans retire to the Alamo compound despite its vulnerability, and begin fortifying it as best they can. Amid the chaos Travis writes letters asking for reinforcements. Only a couple dozen men arrive to join them.

Santa Ana’s army surrounds the Alamo compound and the siege begins. Bowie leaves the Alamo to meet with Mexican General Manuel Castrillón (Castulo Guerra) to talk things out before they get out of hand. However, an incensed Travis fires the 18-pound cannon on the south-west wall, thus cutting short Bowie’s impromptu attempt at diplomacy; this virtually ends the chance to the forestall the Mexican attack. Bowie returns to tell Travis that Santa Anna has offered surrender at discretion. Travis offers all within the Alamo an opportunity to leave. Almost to a man the defenders decide to stay and fight to the end. At least one woman remains, Mrs. Susanna Dickinson (Laura Clifton), whose husband, Lt. Almeron Dickinson (Stephen Bruton), has decided to stay. Bowie becomes debilitatingly ill and lies in a cot in one of the buildings. For the next several nights the Mexican Army band serenades the Texans with the “Degüello” (slit throat), followed by an artillery bombardment of the surrounded compound. Convinced that the Texans will not leave the Alamo, Santa Ana orders a blood-red signal flag to be raised, the sign for “no quarter”. The flag is visible also to the Alamo’s defenders, who know its meaning.

Bugle calls along the Mexican front line in the predawn darkness awaken the Texans, who rush to their posts. The Texans also hear the battle cry of the Mexican soldiers: “Viva Santa-Ana!” After a long brutal battle the Mexicans, despite taking heavy casualties, breach the north wall of the mission. Travis is killed, shot in the head by a young Mexican soldier storming the north wall. A small group of Mexican engineers, armed with axes and crowbars, assault and break down the boarded-up doors and windows of the west wall, while another small group storms the southwest wall. The few surviving Texans fall back to the buildings; they are all killed. Attackers discover the bedridden Bowie in his room, where he fires his pistols and attempting to fight with his knife. Crockett is taken prisoner. He promises Santa Ana to lead him to Sam Houston for the Mexican Army to surrender and maybe survive; Santa Ana refuses the mocking offer and orders Crockett to be executed.

Days later, after hearing that the Alamo has been taken, Houston, once again in command of the remnants of the Texan army, orders a general retreat eastward. His army and the families of most of the soldiers flee. They are pursued by the victorious Mexican Army, led by the confident Santa Ana. (Historians call this near-panic flight the “Runaway Scrape”.) A few weeks later, Houston halts his retreat near the San Jacinto River (north of the future site of the City of Houston), where he decides to face the Mexicans in a final stand. With the support of two cannons and a small group of mounted Texans (“Tejanos”), Houston’s army surprises Santa Ana’s army during its afternoon siesta. During the ensuing short rout (called by the victors the Battle of San Jacinto), the vengeful Texans massacre at least two hundred Mexican soldiers and capture General Santa Ana—whose identity is given away when Mexican prisoners respond to his presence by whispering “El Presidente”. Santa Anna surrenders to the wounded Houston, and in exchange for his life agrees to order all Mexican troops to withdraw from Texas and to accept Texan independence. The last scene in the movie shows the spirit of Crockett playing his violin on the top of the Alamo and then looking out on the horizon

REVIEW:

Being a native Texan, I have a soft spot for the history of my home state, specifically the story of the great battle that took place at The Alamo. Everytime I’m in the city of San Antonio, there are two things I make sure to do, buy a Spurs shirt and visit the Alamo, complete with historical tour. Does this film inform and entertain the masses about that bloody battle, though, is the question.

What is this about?

Based on actual events, this period drama tells the story of a small Texas mission where, in 1836, nearly 200 men stood their ground for two weeks as they were attacked by Mexican forces led by President Santa Anna.

What did I like?

Story. If you’re watching this film, then chances are you are more than likely doing so because you have at least a fleeting interest in the Alamo and the history surrounding it. This film manages to gives us an interesting take on the bloody battle the spurred and sparked the Texas Revolution. I think some of the facts and whatnot were obviously changed for movie purposes, but this isn’t a documentary, so it can be forgiven to a point.

Sam Houston. Dennis Quaid gives one of the best performances that I’ve seen from him as General Sam Houston. Being a native Texan, it would appear that this was a bit of a passion project for him. He may not have been on screen much, but when he is, you pay attention, especially when it comes to his speech before leading his troops off to the Battle of San Jacinto.

Battle. While it may not have been the best battle scene on the big screen, you cannot deny that when we finally get to the battle for the Alamo, it is intense and powerful. Whether you care or not for these characters, is irrelevant, partially because you know they all die, but it is like a car or train wreck, you can’t help but look in awe. I think the bloody nature of this battle was captured masterfully.

What didn’t I like?

Crockett. I have no problem with Billy Bob Thornton as Davy Crockett. The guy is a native of Tennessee playing a folk hero from that state. Like Quaid with Sam Houston, I believe it was a dream role for him. However, I felt that the film focused too much on him, when it should have been focused on the battalion as a whole. Sure, Crockett and  Thornton are big names, which means they are going to get some major time on screen, which I accept, but there are limits. I don’t think Davy Crockett was conveniently the last survivor, for instance.

Exposition. As a fan of old westerns, I appreciate how this film seemed to be taking that approach used by those films, which is to save everything for the big climax. However, it seemed like this was nothing but senseless exposition. Yes, it developed our major characters and explained the ins and outs of why this battle is important, but it just didn’t seem to resonate with me that way it should. Mayhaps I was just ready for the big battle to happen.

Slaves. This is a minor complaint, but the slaves, actually I think they were servants. It was mentioned that at least one of them wasn’t a slave, but wasn’t free, either. At any rate, the scenes with them seemed to be a bit odd. It felt like the director was trying to go with some comic relief, but it didn’t really work out the way he thought it would.

When all the dust clears, bodies counted, and the armies have moved on, it is clear that The Alamo is not a film that will go down as the greatest ever. Having said that, had a few things been tweaked here and there, it very well could have been. Personally, I love this film, but I love all stories involving the Alamo and Texas history, so there is a bit of a bias there. I implore you to check this out sometime as it is definitely a film you should see before you die!

4 1/2 out of 5 stars

One Response to “Revisited: The Alamo”

  1. […] take the time to show the tactics being laid out in the war room? I can think of a couple, such as The Alamo (which also starred Patrick Wilson and Dennis Quaid), but even in that film, the strategy scenes […]

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