About midway through The Alamo, a well-intended but fumbled effort at epic moviemaking, Davy Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton) is sitting around a campfire swapping stories with other defenders of the besieged fort. Crockett, as he himself wryly appreciates, is already an American folk hero with a legend far more imposing than the man who inspired it. The lore boasts that he fought his way out of many tight scrapes. Crockett, though, says he remembers only one really nasty scrape.
He was with a party of men who attacked an Indian village. "We shot them down like dogs," he recalls grimly. Some of the remaining Indians retreated into a house and seemed like they wanted to surrender. But a squaw shot an arrow that hit one of the white men, who retaliated by setting fire to the house. Crockett heard the dying Indians "screaming to their gods," and smelled their flesh roasting in the conflagration.
As it happened, the doomed house had a cellar full of potatoes. The next day, Crockett and his compatriots found the spuds fully cooked in the grease of the Indians' bodies. "We ate till we burst," he relates, and looks darkly at the silent faces around him before concluding his story: "Since then ... you pass me the taters, I pass them right back."
You can imagine that line and the tale it embellishes being played for grisly satiric laughs by, say, Robert Altman or John Milius. Here, though, director John Lee Hancock delivers the moment with a terse solemnity, and the scene's impact couldn't be more sobering. Forget all the romantic nonsense about the glory of war, it says. Killing, in real life, is brutal and horrific enough to sicken any sane man in his gut.
This chilly monologue is, for me, the most trenchant and memorable passage in a handsomely mounted movie that entered U.S. theaters disadvantaged not only by its status as a western--a genre so famously moribund that you have to wonder about Disney's decision to open the picture on Good Friday--but also by the publicity given its troubled production history. The movie was originally slated to be directed, at a cost of $125 million, by Ron Howard with a cast led by Russell Crowe and Ethan Hawke. But Howard reportedly refused to scale back his very lucrative pay package or to forego his intent to make an R-rated film. Thus Disney elected instead to make a $95-million, PG-rated Alamo directed by the far less experienced Hancock (The Rookie) and starring Thornton, Dennis Quaid as Sam Houston and Jason Patric as Jim Bowie.
Disney is famously cheap--sorry, I mean "economy-minded"--a stance that in many instances has served as a commendable corrective to Hollywood's recent penchant for staggering budgetary excesses. For smaller and mid-range genre movies, the studio's penny pinching makes perfect sense. But with a would-be Oscar-grabbing epic like The Alamo, it has produced this year's textbook case of "penny wise, pound foolish."
Think of it: A Ron Howard-Russell Crowe Alamo would almost surely have ended up nominated for best picture and raking in a couple of hundred mil. Big directors and stars earn their stupendous salaries by providing that kind of insurance for risky projects, which, by definition, a huge period piece is. In saving $35 million, the studio effectively decided to sacrifice an almost-surely profitable film for an all-but-certainly unprofitable one, and to forget about any serious Oscar contention.
In a case like this, a reviewer can hardly ignore the studio's role. If Ron Howard had taken the helm of The Alamo, it could sensibly be reviewed as a Ron Howard movie in the line of Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind. As is, it begs to be considered a Disney film from the torturous waning days of the Michael Eisner regime.
That's not to say that John Lee Hancock and his collaborators deserve neither credit nor blame for the uneven film. But, in a situation where a relatively untested director helms a $100-million project for a notoriously hands-on studio, the studio inevitably bears primary responsibility for items like the following:
1) No one got the script in shape before it went in front of the cameras. As many press accounts have noted, The Alamo was supposed to have been finished in time to be Disney's big Oscar contender last fall. But come October, Hancock requested and Disney allowed a delay of several months for additional editing. Why was this needed? Because Hancock admitted the film didn't work due to having six main characters, and thus needed some creative paring-down (which reduced its eventual length from three hours to two and a quarter). What kind of studio doesn't spot this kind of trouble before letting a mega-budget movie start shooting?
2) The casting. They jettison Russell Crowe in favor of ... Jason Patric? Is there any more boring actor in American movies than Patric? Seriously, this guy's a long yawn in human form, arguably the biggest dud to earn star billing since Rod Taylor. Disney might as well have placed ads saying, "Stay home, folks; Jason's on board."
3) The PG rating. See The Alamo and see why Ron Howard insisted on an R. Since Saving Private Ryan, we've become accustomed to a new level of realism in combat violence. This film misses it entirely. When the big battle begins, we see plenty of explosions and men charging, but no bullets hitting, bayonets entering or blood spurting. It's the kiddie-friendly version, a theme-park Alamo.
4) The cheesy villains. We can allow Hancock and company credit, I think, for crafting characters like Crockett and Sam Houston with a certain degree of complexity and humanity. But when it comes to Santa Anna (Emilio Echevarria) and his minions, all of them foppish, gold-braided baddies of the most cartoonish sort, it's hard not to suspect studio interference. You can practically hear the 30-year-old development executives in their expensive suits demanding, "Can't we have the Mexican do something truly loathsome here? Like rape a virgin? Or maybe twirl his moustache?"
Given assets including Billy Bob Thornton's engaging performance as Crockett, Dean Semler's cinematography, Michael Corenblith's production design and Carter Burwell's score, The Alamo still has enough going for it to interest fans of the genre. But true success would mean delivering either a dramatic knockout or a stunning contemporary resonance, and Hancock's film ends up short on both counts, especially the latter.
The Ron Howard Alamo was set in motion in the wake of Sept. 11, and if the intent was not as bluntly polemical or right-wing as John Wayne's three-hour Alamo of 1960, it was obviously meant to plug into the mood of national solidarity after an assault from without. But a year after America invaded a country that didn't threaten us, the symbolic tables have taken a clear and very uncomfortable turn in the opposite direction.
When we were the attacked, the siege of the Alamo meant one thing. Now that we are the aggressors, using overwhelming firepower against a ragtag resistance, it means something dismayingly different. When I came home from seeing Hancock's film I clicked on the news and heard of U.S. forces dropping two 500-pound bombs on a Fallujah mosque, incinerating 40 people inside. I couldn't help thinking of Davy Crockett's account of slaughtering Indians, a tale in which there are no good guys, only pale-faced killers and the indigenous people they decimate.
On the other hand, if you want a truly noble embodiment of the American fighting spirit, look no further than Neil Young's Greendale. Young, after all, is as close as we have to a real live Davy Crockett, and his latest mini-budget musical offers about a hundred times more raw integrity and real vision than The Alamo or any other current Hollywood spectacle.
Greendale could be described as belonging to the genre also occupied by The Who's Tommy--a topnotch song-cycle given dramatic form--except that Young understandably resists the term "rock opera." He prefers "musical novel," which is fair enough: In this tuneful account of a small town's discontents, you can catch whiffs of everyone from Sherwood Anderson and John Steinbeck to Ken Kesey and Tom McGuane. (You can learn more about the fictional setting at www.neilyoung.com)
The tale's characters--residents of the title's eponymous Northwestern burg--are played by actors who lip-synch to songs sung and played by Neil Young and Crazy Horse. Young directed the film under his nom de film Bernard Shakey and photographed it under his own name. For my money the film's blown-up Super-8 imagery qualifies as its coolest asset. With its supersaturated colors, handheld verismo and grain the size of golf balls, the photography offers a bracing visual correlative for the glorious analogue distortion-squalls of Young's legendary guitar sound.
To be sure, Young has a political agenda here. He's known as something of a right-winger, but if that's true, he's obviously of the populist, get-out-of-my-backyard variety. Here he celebrates the bonds of family while also blasting environmental despoilment and the collusion of government and the mass media. Like the unrepentant hippie he is, he wants to "save the planet for another day," the kind of sentiment that's not uniformly popular even among his fans in the era of shock-and-awe.
When I saw Young perform Greendale live at New York's Radio City recently, elements of the show that pricked targets including the current regime and the Clear Channel media behemoth drew audible discomfort and even heckling from some quarters. These were people, obviously, for whom rock "n' roll has come to mean football half-times rather than "Tin soldiers and Nixon coming." Young was having none of it. When one heckler let forth, he stepped up to the mic and snarled, "Shut the f--- up."
I wish I could hear him say the same to Don Rumsfeld.