As I watched "The Alamo," John Lee Hancock's ambitious but unsteady epic, my thoughts wandered to our beleaguered soldiers in Iraq. This may not be what the filmmakers intended, but a war movie in wartime reverberates in ways beyond the control of its makers. And an elegiac war movie in which almost all of the major characters are slaughtered in a losing battle (though Texas's war for independence was won soon after) sits queasily at this moment.
The mind wanders for other reasons as well. Long stretches of "The Alamo" are simply dull. You can see that the screenwriters--Les Bohem, Stephen Gaghan and Hancock--were trying for something more complex and historically accurate than John Wayne's bloated, flag-waving 1960 version. The historical figures are never drawn in simple black and white. There's the alcoholic but tactically brilliant Sam Houston (Dennis Quaid); Davy Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton), portrayed as a man who stands at an ambivalent remove from his own legend; the debauched, charismatic James Bowie (Jason Patric), and his rival for command of the fort, William Travis (Patrick Wilson). Each has a flawed humanity.
But the movie bites off far more than it can artfully chew. At two hours and 15 minutes, "The Alamo" feels both interminable and attenuated. There are powerful moments--striking images of the pathos and horror of war--scattered amid the mundane TV-movie dramaturgy, but it's no secret this was a plagued production, subject to severe recutting and major re-shoots. Along the way, not just the storytelling but the original intention has gotten muddled. You leave "The Alamo" uncertain of what you're meant to feel: is this a celebration of patriotic sacrifice or an illustration of war's futility? Like the debate on our Mideast morass, there will be no agreement on the answer.