Monday, April 12, 2004


I tend to have a bias in favor of historical war epics. My father is a naval historian. I grew up on hi-stories, and I never get tired of seeing them played out on screen. Unfortunately, almost every war epic has the same Waterloo. Because a battle is the story of so many players, most war movies end up getting blitzed by too many actors, not enough characters.

The new $100 million dollar Alamo gets flanked early on by the crowd of personalities who made the battle such high drama, but who can't possibly all be developed in a two hour and sixteen minute drama. Every character can only get a few minutes of screen time to be established, so the film resorts to easy, obvious attempts to gain sympathy or notoriety. This is particularly unfortunate in the case of Gen. Santa Anna, as he is reduced to such a stereotype, that the studio executives must have balked at what they ended up having on their hands. So, they had Hancock inject an anti-war/anti-American kind of PC moment in the end of the film, just so we know that nobody at Disney or Imagine is, you know, anti-Latino or anything. There is also a completely grautitous anti-racism against slaves moment, just so we can all remember that, hell, Americans are just as bad as the bad Mexican guys.

(I don't object to these sentiments. I object to them being inserted in a half-hearted attempt to cover the filmmakers' creative butts...)

From a directoral standpoint, there aren't enough establishing shots in the film. This was weird and disconcerting in a war film. I kept wanting to see things from the air to get a broad sense of the opposing armies, but the most director John Lee Hancock gives is a wide shot from either sides lines.

The script was clearly problematic and episodic, so they ended up getting a film that is choppy and hard to follow. There is no attempt to use any imagery, which might have made the film work emotionally. Instead, all the director ended up using is the strong cast at his disposal. Billy Bob Thornton does a great job - as usual - this time fleshing out David Crockett. Thornton is the best thing in the film.

While I was sitting out the last hour of the piece, I started a revery about which epic war films have worked. I only came up with two. The Great Escape and The Battle of the Bulge have huge ensemble casts, but they manage to hold together the main story, clearly communicate the lynchpins of the real history, and establish all of the myriad characters. Of course, The Great Escape takes almost four hours to do this, and The Bulge runs long too. Gettysburg would be on the next tier down. It was a solid and fascinating film with a huge cast - but I would be remiss to count anything with beards that fake looking alongside The Great Escape....Anybody have any other epic war films with huge ensemble casts that worked? (Don't say Lawrence of Arabia or Bridge Over the River Qwai. They are both one or two guy's stories, not ensemble pieces.)

Anyway, this Alamo won't be remembered...except by the studio that lost a wad of cash on it.

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