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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars I think I will probably have to settle for what I am now., 11 Aug 2011
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This review is from: The Alamo [DVD] (DVD)
The Alamo is directed by John Lee Hancock, who co-writes with Leslie Bohem and Stephen Gaghan. It stars Billy Bob Thornton, Jason Patric, Patrick Wilson, Dennis Quaid, Emilio Echevarria and Jordi Molla. Music is scored by Carter Burwell and Dean Semler is the cinematographer. Story is a recreation of The Battle of the Alamo that ran for 13 days during the Texas Revolution of 1836.

On release it was met with disdain at worst, indifference at best, and now historically it stands as the second biggest box office failure behind Cutthroat Island. The pre release word of mouth wasn't good, and with "difficulties" of the financial and creative kind leading to Ron Howard leaving the directors chair-and Russell Crowe and Ethan Hawke bowing out of roles for two of the main characters, the film has never had an equal footing from which to try and sell itself as a worthy epic. Yet if there is a western styled war film most likely to improve with age, then Hancock's Alamo is it. You see, in time it's hoped that people can embrace that this take on the Alamo legend thrives on humanistic depth, telling it not as a "hooray" hero piece, but as it was, men doomed to die. And more pertinent, men who "knew" that in all probability, they were waiting for death to come.

Now that's a hard sell. It's highly unlikely that we will ever get an Alamo film to please everyone, because ultimately the story is a sombre one, an unforgiving 13 days of sadness and bitter disappointments. No matter how it gets dressed up, with Duke Wayne bravado or otherwise, this was a futile engagement. There's no chest beating stirring of the emotions for the outcome of this battle, for example such as the British being allowed to withdraw gracefully from Rorke's Drift, this is bleak history. It was a bold approach by Hancock and his team, to strip away the glitter and paint it in falible humanistic greys. Heroic pop culture characaters like Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie are not defined by glory rah rah rah, but by being men dealing with the harsh realities of war as best they can. It's telling that when Crockett turns up at the Alamo, he is genuinely stunned to learn that the fighting is not over, his plans for a comfortable life in politics vanquished the moment he sets foot upon Alamo turf.

Hancock should be roundly applauded for having the courage to craft such an honest depiction of the siege, and it's not as if we aren't warned about it, either in history as fact, or during the downbeat opening five minutes of film! So a film rich with indepth charcaterisations, then, but also a picture layered over with considerable technical skill. Hancock himself only really misfires by having a tacked on coda that shows Houston defeating Santa Anna and gaining his surrender. Who made the decision for this "uplift" I'm not sure, but it feels forced and doesn't have the impact intended. It would have been more telling and poignant to just have a title card flash up to tell us that Houston defeated Santa Ann in 18 minutes. We don't need to see a hurried recreation, the sombre mood needed to be kept up right to the last end credit rolled. For that's the true pain of The Battle of the Alamo.

However, Hancock gets mostly great performances from his leading cast members (Thornton hugely impressive as Crockett) and shoots his battle scenes with brutal distinction. His overhead shots are superb, especially as the Mexican army attacks for the final and telling time. The 100s of soldiers swarming over The Alamo looks like ants converging on a desert oasis, the hopelessness of the defenders of Mission San Antonio de Valero is never more evident than it is here. Semler and Burwell aid the mood considerably. The former is inpired by much of the film being set at night, utilising fires and candle lights to enforce the shadows (of death) hanging around the characters, while the textured brown, red and yellow hues used for the landscape gives off a parched beauty that lends one to understand why these men fight for the land they occupy. Burwell scores it evocatively, where tender swirls of emotion sit neatly along side the more broad action strains of the brass variety.

The lavish sets and costuming, including some tremendous hats, are all good on production value, to round out a tip top production. It cries out for revisits by those who dismissed it so casually back on its release. Certainly I myself found it helped considerably knowing now that this was not some rousing spectacle, but that it's a detailed character story leading up to a sad and inevitable conclusion. That coda and some under nourished support characters stop it from being a fully formed classic from the genre, but that aside, it's still one terrific and thoughtful piece of film making. 9/10
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