The Alamo (2004) Deserves to be Better Remembered

We consider why The Alamo (2004) with Billy Bob Thornton as Davy Crockett is the best movie on its subject... and has gone overlooked.

Billy Bob Thornton in The Alamo
Photo: Disney

They have been playing the same ominous song every night. For nearly two weeks, the army of Antonio López de Santa Anna has serenaded the Alamo defenders with “El Degüello,” a bugle cavalry call that’s been retrofitted with drums as an opening salvo into psychological warfare. Each evening, the cheerful beat blasts at dusk, and each evening it is then promptly followed by a nightlong bombardment of cannon fire. Yet on this particular evening, as depicted in John Lee Hancock’s sorely overlooked The Alamo, Billy Bob Thornton as Davy Crockett stands atop to the parapets of the Alamo to greet the melodic menace with a little ditty of his own. With violin in hand, Crockett offers a soulful rejoinder, fiddling an on-the-spot duet between army band and defending soloist. Between Mexico and Texas. And for a brief moment, everything finds harmony: the Mexicans and Texians’ music, the soldiers on both sides who share awe for the legendary bear hunter doing something legendary, and even the film.

It’s the scene in which Hancock achieves the elusive effect he’d striven for the whole film. He’s deconstructed the “Alamo Heroes” as something approaching human beings, yet he still can somehow celebrate their larger than life status. Earlier in the film, Thornton’s Crockett admits he only saw one battle during the Indian Creek War, which played out more like a massacre, and while a genuinely charismatic man, it is clear his surrounding myth is spun more from townhall glad-handing than coonskin cap heroics. He even points out he prefers being called David. Nevertheless, in an apocryphal moment, David Crockett reveals why he became Davy Crocket, King of the Wild Frontier, in the popular 19th century imagination—and by extension, the film discovers an aching grace greater than any visions of mass-killing.

If a movie contains a sequence this refined, how can it be the misfire it’s remembered as? That is when it’s remembered at all.

Upon a recent trip to San Antonio, I was reminded to revisit The Alamo (2004), a film that’s largely been forgotten in the 15 or so years since its release. Not that that should be a surprise given it was received so coolly by many of my colleagues upon its 2004 release. And it is easy to see why. Arriving nearly five months late following a delay from its previous Christmas Day release, the picture had the air of a flop around it, as well as the intimation of weakness.

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Once a prestige project for Ron Howard, who was revving up for a likely even more expensive take on the myth (he wanted to make in his own words “a new Wild Bunch”), the picture was ultimately given to the man who continues to be Disney’s guy for soft-pedaling the demythologization of Baby Boomer idols. Albeit the deconstructions still seem pretty mythical. (Prior to The Alamo, Hancock helmed the Dennis Quaid baseball vehicle, The Rookie, and went on to direct Sandra Bullock to an Oscar in The Blind Side while finding sympathy for Walt Disney and Roy Croc in Saving Mr. Banks and The Founder.)

Further The Alamo’s delay and reedits took the movie over-budget, decimating any industry buzz beyond it likely being the last stand of Michael Eisner, the unloved Disney CEO who was one flop away from seeing his own private Alamo fall. So when all that is coupled with a political environment that was, at least to film critics, toxic for anything romanticizing Texas and its then-good ol’ boy President of the United States (who hailed from the oh, so Texan town of New Haven, Connecticut), it becomes easy to see how the knives came out for The Alamo.

Still this is a shame, because upon returning to the 2004 version of this yarn, one finds more than just a competently made film about Brave White Men Dying Bravely. Oh, to be sure, it’s that too, but it is also an earnestly thoughtful and occasionally soulful consideration of myth and history, which attempts to find some middle ground between John Ford’s seemingly final word on the subject from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” In the process, it also just so happens to be the best Alamo film ever made.

While stating this bit of truth might be sacrilege in certain parts of Texas, Hancock’s ’04 film is the sole Alamo movie (on the big screen or television) that tried to trace the history of San Antonio de Bexar circa 1836 as events that actually happened. Mythmaking also has its place in American storytelling, and it can sometimes be done with amiable simplicity, such as Walt Disney and Fess Parker’s beloved Davy Crockett television series from 1955. But in general, part of the reception of the ’04 film is colored by the crassness that transformed the Alamo from an event in the American or Texan history book into a political talking point, as seen with John Wayne’s enormous and ungainly 1960 mess of the same name.

Prior to Wayne realizing his decade-long passion project into a hokey 202 minutes during its “roadshow” release, the Alamo was a general cultural touchstone that saw “Davy Crockett Fever” sweep across 1950s America like a modern day Avengers marketing campaign. But just five years later, Wayne’s unwieldy opus turned a historical event into a punchline about a big, over-the-hill American icon who never met a woman he couldn’t speechify to about the need for American intervention… Or his drinking buddies who saw their personal slaves happily jump in front of bayonets for them.

By comparison, Hancock’s The Alamo is a handsome production that shrewdly cuts past the type of grandstanding that ends with Wayne’s Crockett running into the same Alamo mission that hundreds of thousands of tourists visit every year and blowing it straight to hell like he’s a kamikaze with a bloodlust for Mexicans. And in ignoring that sordid Hollywood history with the location, Hancock finds real men and real performances in the three heroes of the Alamo.

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In this vein, Thornton’s Crockett is beautifully played as a good-natured Southerner whose love for tall tales and self-aggrandizement encourages the men around him—and also implies an undeniable ambition. For the real-life Crockett was also a politician who had impressive morality, standing up against his state’s adopted son, President Andrew Jackson, and the disgraceful “Indian Removal Act,” which cost Crockett’s political career dearly. But like Sam Houston, another ward of Tennessee and direct protégé of Jackson, Crockett did not come to Texas for liberty and war; he came to reinvent his American life, just as Houston (who had the fortune of not being at the Alamo) did following the war for Texan Independence by becoming the Lone Star Republic’s first president.

The other protagonists of the film are likewise re-contextualized while still walking the line between skepticism and adulation. In his first Hollywood movie, Patrick Wilson showcases the charisma he’d already displayed on the Broadway stage and in Angels in America, hinting at the leading man talent that took a string of superb horror films for the industry to eventually appreciate. His Lt. Col. William Travis is aristocratic but also a deeply flawed individual who is introduced in the film by admitting he abandoned his pregnant wife in Alabama to reinvent himself, “unencumbered,” in Texas. And Jason Patric might enjoy the best role of his career as Jim Bowie, the one figure that Hancock leaned into the myth on, because the actual stories about Bowie, the knife-fighter and killer, are so much more fascinating than the smiling adventurer Disney and Wayne whitewashed him into being.

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There is a cool tension between Bowie and Crockett in the film, where one’s sordid and bloody legends of murder and anguish are truer than the one of a politician who many believed had actually “grinned a grizzly” to death. Instead of making them fast friends (or rivals), the film’s quiet intelligence of contrasting two figures, whose legends helped build the romance of the Alamo’s fall, is the type of flourish that gives depth to a well-worn story. As does the movie’s non-apology for the three leads’ failings. From his deathbed, Patric’s Bowie scornfully reprimands his slave Sam (Afemo Omilami) for thinking Bowie would even consider freeing him. It feels like a direct rebuke of how Richard Widmark’s Bowie in the John Wayne Alamo sees a subjugated black man eagerly throw himself in front of a bayonet so that his master can kill just one more Mexican. Also, Hancock’s version is close to what really happened.

This “warts and all” approach to the Alamo’s leaders certainly takes them off the golden hued rampart they’re often envisioned as standing upon, but in doing so it makes moments like Crockett’s duet with the Mexican cavalry all the more poignant. It is the ability to find its balance between very troubled men, who at death’s door can ponder their mistakes and whether if in five years they might’ve been “great men,” and scenes of them actually becoming legends that reclaims this as more than a piece of creationist myth for a specific political vantage point. It becomes a story for everyone.

This is more than likely why Hancock includes Juan Seguin (Jordi Mollà) and the Tejanos inside the Spanish mission. While pop culture usually envisions the Alamo as white men fighting for Texan land, it was as much a fight for independence for actual Mexican residents too, who knew Santa Anna for the brutal dictator he was. Mexican-Texans, or Tejanos, were at the Alamo, they were at San Jacinto, and they were in the 2004 film.

These touches allow the film’s more poetic licenses to succeed past previous movies, not to mention the the contemporary noise during its release. The value of history also provides the movie with a secondary conflict between myth and truth, which is as potent as the film’s eponymous battle. Told with an elegiac quality, The Alamo movie embraces the doomed quality of the narrative by opening on the aftermath of the battle where Mexican soldiers grieve over their own dead and Tejano Alamo defenders alike. And in the lead-up to the final battle, the skirmishes and cannon fire are not proclamations of adventure; they’re the desperate attempts of men who know oblivion is probably around the corner.

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When the moment finally comes, the actual Battle of the Alamo is filmed at night, like the real pre-dawn reckoning, which is a canny concession as it in turn gives cover to lyrical embellishments. For just as Carter Burwell’s mournful score blends the European influences of the multicultural Alamo defenders with Spanish touches of transcendence during Crockett’s “El Degüello” smash-up, it finds sympathy and solace in a battle, as opposed to rousing revelry.

In the conflict’s final moments, which somberly depicted exactly what happened to Travis (an unceremonious bullet to the head) and Bowie (in bed and too weak to lift his famous knife), it can still bend the truth to earn its crescendo of emotion. The film also allowed Crockett to give Bowie two pistols on his deathbed, which offers him a more defiant finish than the actual reports from Mexican soldiers of butchering a man under his covers.

As for Crockett himself, he’s repositioned as among the final half-dozen or so Alamo defenders who were found inside the chapel. There is no boisterous breaking of a sword across his knee, or planning to magically blow the whole thing up. These men are tired, scared, and resigned to a grisly fate. But Crockett looks over and sees a small boy who’s already lost his father. He’s watching, begging really: Crockett, do something. This look of a boy yearning for David Crockett to become the Davy Crockett is what gives the man the ability to be the legend.

And in the movie’s greatest controversy, this carries over to one more scene. While I personally believe historian Dr. James E. Crisp definitively sleuthed out that Crockett was likely executed in the early morning hours of March 6 after the battle by Santa Anna’s forces, many Texans to this day refuse to accept Crockett didn’t go down swinging. No matter what though, the scene lets the movie underline its point one final time: Crockett is not a god among men. But he is a man we secretly wish manifested godlike powers.

Again, when asked to beg for his life after being captured, Crockett, in his dying breath, must be the myth we wish were real. Coupled with the scene on the parapet, it gives the movie its true symmetry that transcends any scenes of ladders falling and dozens of muskets trading powdered smoke. Davy Crockett was most likely executed by the Mexican Army, yet even if the film depicts that, it doesn’t mean he can’t die triumphantly in his chains, saying the kind of things we’d want a superhero to say. But that isn’t David Crockett; it’s Davy Crockett. The Alamo (2004) finds a way to be both. Legend and truth. As such, it’s ripe for rediscovery, if only for its own legend to grow.