by Ray Pride

The Alamo is a battleground, but I don't know if it's bloodier in front of or behind the camera. The current incarnation began as a dream project for Ron Howard: an epic three-hour awards grab, pushing the R rating for a war movie further than Saving Private Ryan. If it bleeds, such logic seems to go, it's authentic. Splatter and slaughter can be "meaningful." But Howard reportedly had cold feet at a $135 million price tag for a movie populated almost entirely by male characters with the less profitable, more prohibitive R rating, and he passed on the movie. Instead, he made the bitter, R-rated The Missing, while Disney picked up The Alamo and set a Christmas 2003 release date -- and a PG-13 rating. They hired director John Lee Hancock, a screenwriter whose The Rookie was a surprise $100-million-plus success for the studio.

Christmas passed. So many storylines, the official explanation went, tough for a new director to keep them coherent: Hancock needs more time to edit. Several versions were tested, and the one opening this weekend probably cost Disney as much (if not more) than the original version would have, and even at only a little more than two hours running time (minus the end credits), it's a creepy, creaky, erratic, weirdly dull movie. The anger and stained pride that came after 1836 siege of the Alamo made it a turning point in the U.S. annexation of Texas.

Patrick Wilson's Colonel Travis shadows his eyelash-fluttering role in Angels in America, and there's similar cartoonish casting with Billy Bob Thornton's Davey Crockett, who, at least, has mastered a kind of bashful narcissism that can be an awful lot of fun to watch. His pained, understated drawl can channel some of the ghost of history.

Within five minutes, however, despite the efforts of talent like cinematographer Dean Semler (Dances with Wolves) and composer Carter Burwell (Fargo), whose ragtag score hardly registers, the movie feels doomed. For me, the fear of this second-rate costume pageant set in with the first glimpse of Dennis Quaid's General Sam Houston, in a tri-corner hat with muttonchops and a little Detroit love patch on his lower lip.

Action great Sam Fuller described a film as "like a battleground." In a cocktail party scene in Jean-Luc Godard's Pierrot le Fou (1965), the veteran director waves his cigar, declaring that cinema has "love, hate, action, violence, death -- in one word, emotions."

So where are the emotions? The fiduciary responsibility to stockholders, to maximize the return on a flawed product, that's what I saw up on the screen. Sentimental flummery, too, with much chat about the freedom-loving "Texians." The territorial instinct is strong, we all know, even before watching a story like this one. We bring that into the darkness with us. Land and blood drive men to mayhem and madness. The Alamo means something to both Texans and Mexicans, that's a given. For others, the mind may wander.

Hancock and his collaborators don't bring any consistently coherent perspective to the historical record. And the dialogue veers from the Bond-villain stuff given to Emilio Echevarria's Mexican General Santa Ana to Houston's drunkenly rasped, "I called you a Scottish catamite! One step down from an associate pederast!" Characters mutter under their breath at each other: "Drunken Hottentot!" "Two-bit dandy!" It's painful stuff. Exposition is often doled on with a spade: "The Alamo was built by yak-yak-yak, 10 years later, yak-yak-yak..." The Alamo is such a listless diorama, it might even peeve the battle re-enactors down San Antonio way.

However loud and contradictory Jerry Bruckheimer's productions may be, there's emotion and passion in his overpriced entertainments. The battle scenes here have a few spatially pleasing establishing shots from a distance, but once the fray begins, the editing is frazzled, never dazzling.

Still, metaphorical weight comes from outside the movie, from today's large-type headlines. Is there something in the zeitgeist that compels a portrait of being surrounded and going down to bloody, proud defeat in defense of homeland and principle? To inspire the next rank of soldiers to things greater than their own lives?

It's not an attractive metaphor in this historical instant, but it's hard to avoid all the same. The Alamo? How about Fallujah?

Jason Patric's Jim Bowie drove home the parallel for me in one of the film's few rich moments: "Dying for nothing means shit to me."

Publication date: 04/08/04

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