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April 2004

By Julian Roman

The Girl Next Door
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Director: Luke Greenfield
Producers: Harry Gittes, Charles Gordon, Marc Sternberg
Screenwriters: Stuart Blumberg and David T. Wagner & Brent Goldberg
Cinematography: Jamie Anderson
Composer: Paul Haslinger
Cast: Emile Hirsch, Elisha Cuthbert, Nicholas Downs, Timothy Olyphant, Chris Marquette, Paul Dano, James Remar, Jacob Young
   

   

The Alamo is not nearly the disaster it has been made out to be. For almost a year the film has been plagued by production rumors and early negative reviews. The film does not deserve such bad publicity. It's not a masterpiece by any sense of the word, but it is entertaining and well crafted. Having read quite a bit about the story of The Alamo, the latest Hollywood version is the most accurate to date. There are no John Wayne heroics or theatrics. John Lee Hancock, the director, tries to deliver an honest historical drama with all the eye-candy of Hollywood's best special FX. He falls short in the drama department, but really nails the battle scenes. There will definitely be a reaction from Mexicans about how they're portrayed. Hancock tries to be fair, but still has an Anglo-American view on history. That being said, you can't please everyone and it's just a movie.

The year is 1836 and Texas is a part of Mexico. American settlers are flocking there by the lure of free land and riches. The Texians, as they call themselves, are divided. Some want to remain a part of Mexico and continue with good relations. Others want to break away from Mexico and declare a free state. The Mexican dictator is General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna (Emilio Echevarria), a ruthless megalomaniac. He is marching his troops to the heart of the Texian settlers in an attempt wipe out resistance to Mexican power. The settlers are under the command of Sam Houston (Dennis Quaid). The film begins with Houston in Washington DC, extolling the opportunity in Texas. He convinces Davy Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton), then a member of Congress, to try his luck as a settler. As Santa Anna marches toward them, the settler militia decides to make a stand at the Alamo, an old Spanish fort and missionary. They wait there in hopes that Sam Houston will gather the army to rescue them.

The Alamo's two commanders have a brief power struggle. Lt. Colonel William Travis (Patrick Wilson) and Colonel Jim Bowie (Jason Patric) are two different men stuck in a dire situation. Travis is an arrogant, self-righteous man who is despised by the soldiers in his command. Bowie, a hard-drinking roughneck, is respected by all and wins the leadership mantle. The problem is that Bowie is dying from consumption (tuberculosis). He's bedridden, so Travis ends up in command after all. Davy Crockett and a few companions arrive at the fort unaware of Santa Anna's imminent arrival. They are forced to hole up with the other men and face the siege from the Mexican army.

The film grasps for drama by focusing on the interpersonal conflicts and relations between the men. It gets a bit stale as the running time drags on for over two hours. Billy Bob Thornton's Davy Crockett is the only character that ends up being memorable. He's got a wry sense of humor and uses it to tone down the legend of his name. At that point in time, Davy Crockett had become mythical by the stories and plays that were written about him. The Mexicans and the soldiers in the fort are awed by his presence. Thornton plays Crockett perfectly. He humanizes the character, but still maintains an aura of greatness in front of the men. The most disappointing character is Dennis Quaid's Sam Houston. He's an integral part of the story, but doesn't get any screen time and is never developed. Quaid is an excellent actor and should have been given a chance to flesh out the Houston character.

The race topic will be an issue in the film because of the way blacks and Mexicans are portrayed. Joe (Edwin Hodge) and Sam (Afemo Omilami) are the slaves of Travis and Bowie. Travis never treats Joe with respect and both men are forced to do the grunt work in the fort. Sam is an older man, loyal to Bowie, but will never die for him or the cause. There's a poignant scene where Sam teaches Joe how to say, žI am a slaveÓ in Spanish. He knows the fort will be taken. Slavery is illegal in Mexico and they will be released if caught. The men are portrayed fairly, but their characters are never explored. It would have been interesting to see their point of view. The Mexicans in the film are never insulted, but their actions and dialogue will make some uneasy. Santa Anna and his men have some choice words about the importance of the battle and what it represents. There is a scene in particular where Santa Anna delivers a monologue that will probably arouse the ire of Mexican people. Also, the way the Mexican army capitulates won't be taken well either. This is tricky business that the film is dealing with. Race issues are pretty sensitive and the film doesn't truly offend. The problem is that it is a pro-American viewpoint. The Americans are heroes and the Mexicans marauders. Maybe we'll get to see a Mexican version of The Alamo someday.

The Alamo is a film worth watching. It doesn't achieve a Saving Private Ryan status, but is certainly not as bad as Pearl Harbor. The film falls between the two and ends up being better than average. Audiences will find it entertaining. The battle scenes alone will keep them in their seats. It won't generate the box office revenue needed for its $100 million dollar price tag. That will unfortunately be the standard of success it will be judged by in the industry.