[Beliefnet, April 20, 2004]
It’s a noble, inspiring thing when patriots fight for liberty. It’s noble if they win, that is. Bostonians tossing tea in 1774 is one thing; Charlestonians defying Lincoln in 1861 is another. Turns out that rebellion, by itself, is not enough to gain history’s nod. You also have to win. History is written by the victors.
And curiously, one of the things winners love most is remembering the time they lost. One example of that, dominating screens coast to coast, is ‘The Passion of the Christ.’ As the fledgling Christian movement was being crushed, as Judas betrayed and Peter denied and a lone figure staggered Calvary hill, the faith appeared close to annihilation. This weekend, theater seats were crowded again with folks eager to be moved, dismayed, and awed by the catastrophe that hid a cosmic victory.
In the next theater, empty seats provided that wide-open-spaces feeling as the story of one of America’s favorite defeats unreeled. You can’t really blame the story, which is a corker; you can’t really blame the movie, either, since what arrived on the screen is not what anyone intended. ‘The Alamo’ is something of a catastrophe in itself, having changed its director, leading man, budget, release date, length, and rating in a long, bumptious journey. Parts of it are excellent; Billy Bob Thornton, as David (‘Don’t call me Davy’) Crockett, is completely appealing, and it’s hard to imagine that the original Davy, Russell Crowe, would have done as well. The hammy elements of the film are also pleasing—satisfyingly hammy, fork-tender, the way we like our story done. When a Texian and a lovely senorita pause to kiss at a dance, we see their tentative approach in the form of sharp black shadows cast on the courtyard wall. You just don’t get that kind of obvious, sincere sentiment in moviemaking any more, and it was refreshing.
The film does have its share of thumb-twiddling and bluster. An opening title card explains that the Alamo became a significant battleground because of “Location, proximity to settlements, and maybe even fate.” You may puzzle over the distinction between ‘location’ and ‘proximity to settlements,’ but you won’ t get far. Remember that this was back in the 19th century, when the realtors’ formula, ‘Location, location, location,’ was still undergoing tests.
The scene that won gasps was a sequence that followed a cannonball into and then powerfully out of a cannon, sailing over a wall and plopping onto the dirt of the defenders’ courtyard. There the prissy commander, Lt. Col. William Travis, gained newfound admiration from his men by picking it up and yanking out the explosive fuse. (He then dropped the iron sphere yelling ‘Hot! Hot! Hot!’ Not really.) Patrick Wilson renders Travis as an uptight dandy, but we are told that he gambles, visits whores, and abandoned his pregnant wife and two children, as if this should raise him in our esteem. That’s the problem with movie heroes; a perfect hero is unbelievable, so he must be given bad habits, and the bad habits are supposed to be what make him likeable. No wonder we’re confused; we admire people for being jerks.
Thornton’s Davy Crockett wins us in a different way. It’s interesting to compare his rendition with that of John Wayne, who starred in and directed his own ‘Alamo’ in 1960. Wayne was 53 and lumbered around like a middle-aged man, while the lovely actress Linda Cristal, then 26, pretended to pine for his love. He cheerfully declared that he was an incurable liar, a heavy drinker, and couldn’t find time to pray—a loveable rascal of the old school. Thornton gives us a Crockett less rascally and more endearing: he’s clever, modest, thoughtful, and scorches a fiddle string. In one of the less believable, but more charming, moments in the film, Crockett climbs onto the fort’s battlement and weaves a lively melody around the Mexican army’s foreboding drum tattoo. For once, the enemy bombardment is stilled. ‘It’s amazing what a little harmony will do,’ Crockett muses, a sagebrush Mr. Rogers.
Wayne’s Crockett was an ornery cuss; Thornton’s is a softy. He asks a young, dying Mexican soldier, “What’s your name, son?”’ and looks cloudy when the boy cannot reply. Later, when a friend exclaims, “They’ve killed me, David!,” he replies sincerely, “I’m real sorry about all this.” He tells a repentant tale of massacring Indians, something you probably thought Crockett would be proud of, and in general is gentle, amused, and self-deprecating. He’s everything some Americans loved about Ronald Reagan, and other Americans loved about Bill Clinton. This is what a hero looks like in 2004, and it’s a fur piece, podner, from the John Wayne version.
But, in both cases, what were they fighting for? Mexico owned Texas, and offered citizenship to Anglos who settled there. Those Anglos decided they wanted the land for themselves, and fought to throw off Mexican control. Obviously, you could see that story from two perspective—‘is it noble rebellion, or a ruthless land-grab? In either case, it’s a battle fought over earthly wealth and power. This story differs from that in the next theater, in which the hero said, ‘My kingdom is not of this world.’ Characters in both stories prove that it takes courage to die for a cause. But the Alamo soldiers fought and killed till their last moments; in the other movie, the hero didn’t fight back at all.