If you want to remember the Alamo, the latest feature film version of the Texas fort's famous last stand may not be much help.
A beautifully produced but relatively bloodless (literally and figuratively) Hollywood rendering of the 1836 siege on San Antonio by tyrannical General Santa Anna, who was determined to recapture the territory for Mexico, it's a movie more concerned with details like Jim Bowie's terminal case of consumption than it is with the historical context of its story and its legendary characters.
In this movie, Bowie (Jason Patric) the frontier adventurer and volunteer army colonel is presented as little more than an infamous "knife fighter" haunted by his wife's death. Newspaper publisher, lawyer and militiaman Lt. Col. William B. Travis (Patrick Wilson) is just a determined dandy with questioned military skills (questioned mostly by Bowie) who rises to the occasion as temporary commander of these now-fortified grounds surrounding an unfinished mission. David "Davey" Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton) is a fiddle-playing former senator made famous by a stage play written about something he once did while wearing a coonskin hat -- and why he's even at the Alamo isn't entirely clear.
Portrayed as "The Napoleon of the West" -- with all the shiny brass buttons, tea-sipping and despotic, take-no-prisoners behavior that implies -- Santa Anna (Emilio Echevarría) is a far more complete and colorful character as he lays siege to the Alamo over two weeks with nightly rounds of cannon fire while the 189 Texan hold-outs await reinforcements that will never arrive.
During those two weeks, director John Lee Hancock ("The Rookie") concentrates on personalities, drinking problems, obligatory stories of Indian-killing regret told around campfires and Bowie's rivalry with Travis, which leads to tension between the former's all-volunteer band of brutes and the latter's regular army battalion.
But once Santa Anna's thousands of troops begin their full-scale attack -- in which 10 Mexican soldiers died for every tenacious Texan -- "The Alamo" does hit some kind of stride. Creative cinematic parallels are drawn between battle strategy maps and their actual locations. The insurmountable weaknesses of the Alamo itself are made unmistakably tangible. The resolve of its defenders becomes poignantly heroic. In the heat of battle, Hancock brings together all the elements of character, circumstance, cinematography, patriotism and politics, building to a stirring crescendo.
And yet, the movie's best scenes and its best performance don't take place in San Antonio at all. They come at the hands of Dennis Quaid as Gen. Sam Houston, who hoped to ride to the Alamo's defense -- once he had seen to the declaration of the Republic of Texas -- but couldn't muster enough men. It is mutton-chopped Quaid's steadfast passion, especially in the film's last act as he strategically feigns retreat from an encroaching Santa Anna in order to ambush the Mexican general after the central battle, that embodies everything Hancock intended for "The Alamo."
Had the rest of the film been as absorbing, there might have been some truth to the picture's marketing catch phrase "You will never forget." But as it is, I had to run home and write this review immediately because I knew the picture wouldn't stay fresh in my mind for more than a few hours.