Making films based on historical events poses a remarkable challenge: audiences are already aware of the film’s outcome. How can filmmakers expect us to care about characters when we know that every last one of them will die?For the few uneducated viewers whose entire understanding of the Alamo comes from “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure”, the battle’s grisly outcome is told by an anonymous extra within the first three minutes. The character development will have to be extraordinary to compensate for our knee-jerk reaction to emotionally divorce ourselves from the doomed characters.
Unfortunately, the development of the main characters is rather limited, and the film contains such an abundance of ancillary extras that even keeping them straight poses a significant challenge.
The only exception lies in the outstanding performance of Billy Bob Thornton. Thornton is one of the most talented and versatile men in Hollywood today. He fully metamorphoses into every character he portrays, and his performance as American legend Davy Crockett in “The Alamo” is perhaps his best since “Sling Blade”.
To the film’s credit, “The Alamo” does not make the fatal mistake of so many earlier films. The only two potential love interests either divorce their husbands or die before any of our heroes even reach the Alamo.
Without a love story or gratuitous sex scene irritatingly overshadowing the film’s shining moments, the plot can focus on the battle and the dynamics of the relationships between the film’s main characters. Jason Patrick, who plays Jim Bowie, may not offer as much to the film as Thornton, but the scenes they share provide the most brilliant character exposition as well as the most heartfelt and interesting moments in the film.
Nevertheless, “The Alamo” proceeds rather inconsistently. Very moving scenes follow ones of boring exposition, and without a solid foundation of extraordinary characters and emotional interest, the Mexican army’s overtaking of the Alamo unfolds as a brilliant cinematic battle sequence but leaves audiences as detached from the events as if they had read an account in a history book. The history of the Alamo may come to life, but it lacks the passion and verve of films like “Glory” or “The Patriot.”
Much like “Master and Commander” before it, “The Alamo” squanders its own potential to be a truly great movie, and must settle for merely being a good one. B+