Battle for the past

A hackneyed retelling of the Alamo myth fails to entertain or inform.

Greg Corradini

As if the world needed more U.S. patriotism, director John Lee Hancock now offers up his epic cinematic failure, “The Alamo.”

Covered with a thin veneer of history lesson, “The Alamo” depicts three heroes’ psychological unraveling while staying the course against the Mexican army in the fight for Texas’ independence in 1836.

Among the lily-white legends in this sordid outpost are Davy Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton), Col. William Travis (Patrick Wilson) and Jim Bowie (Jason Patric), inspiration for the phallic Bowie knife.

Hancock uses shades of cinematic psychology to allow viewers to identify with these men while warming up to the predestined battle scene.

We watch them engage in bitter and heated political discussions on whether to make Texas its own nation.

There are chintzy insights into the characters’ mental states. Travis values his career over his marriage. Bowie is a bumbling drunk nursing a broken heart. Crockett is a wise-cracking fiddler prone to mocking his own legendary persona.

Strategically, Hancock aligns the historical motivations for the Alamo battle while baring the illusion surrounding these men.

Caught between the war-mongering Sam Houston (Dennis Quaid), commander of Texas’ army and Mexican President Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna (Emilio Echevarría), the three white heroes display an irreverent sense of duty.

Without notice or preparation, they are caught in the middle of a war they really don’t want to fight.

But duty and the thematic reverberations it would have in today’s Iraq war never take off or even gain speed in the film.

Nothing seems to work.

Quaid’s portrayal of Houston leads Hancock’s brigade of psychologically devoid characters. A grumble and scrubby chops don’t add any depth to a character who is as convoluted as his director’s intentions.

And since an elaborately confused perspective is necessary for a dominant society’s retelling of history, “The Alamo” openly betrays its bias toward the people on which it chooses not to focus.

Santa Anna and his henchmen don’t get a stitch of in-depth study.

They scowl savagely and shoot people. They wear gold epaulets and prefer crystal glasses and china to the water jugs and tin pans the Americans use. The most perspective viewers get on Santa Anna is that he likes young girls and is a monster devoid of compassion – even for his own troops.

Instead of this plodding, typically nativist polemic, Hancock could have offered viewers a different spin on a ritualized history.

How about a look at the heroic struggle of the Mexican army, hell-bent on getting back the territory that was stolen from it?

Alas, Hancock’s intentions to align the viewers’ empathy with the Texan heroes’ tragedy and sense of duty fails. But it is a failure bathed in bathos.

Frustrated with the unearned glorification of Hancock’s heroes, the thinking viewer can feel a certain joy when witnessing these plaster saints die at the hands of the overwhelming Mexican forces.