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Another Mickey Mouse history lesson

Special to Kalamalama by Dr. John hart, CoC

Myths are stories people live by. One of the most enduring myths is the Last Stand: the few standing against the many. It teaches honor and sacrifice. We know the places: Thermopylae, Masada, Little Bighorn; and the names: Leonidas, Custer, Crazy Horse.

Every culture has its archetypal last stand. Texans, who are Texans first and Americans second, have the Alamo. In 1836, 200-odd Texans held out for 13 days against a Mexican army of thousands. In the end they were killed to the man.

Most movies in Hollywood today are based on best-selling books, so when Gates of the Alamo and Blood of Noble Men did well, several film projects were developed. Disney picked up a Ron Howard/ John Sayles “R” rated project with Russell Crowe and possibly Shawn Penn. But Disney wanted a “PG”- rated movie, so what ended up in theaters, Howardless, Croweless, Pennless, stars Dennis Quaid and Billy Bob Thornton.

The first question about a historical film is always, is it historically correct? If not, do the filmmaker’s have a right of dramatic license, and do people learn their history from film? Since the answer to these is “yes,” the operative question is, is the story accurate? The answer here is also yes, although like Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, it is devoid of context.

The second question is, does it work as a movie? Alas, no. A last stand needs a hero. Santa Ana is the easily identifiable and broadly brushed Disney villain, and there are three easy possibilities for the hero: William Travis, Jim Bowie, and David Crockett.

The film does show how Travis matures into a man, although unfortunately many of the “events” in that subplot are fictionalized. Unfortunately it is not enough to justify the deaths of 200 men. Travis also dies early in the battle, not a plus.

The film’s most interesting moments focus on the demythologizing of David Crockett, a man trapped inside the Alamo by his own heroic persona as much as by the Mexican army. Thornton handles the character well, and while Crockett’s ending may unsettle an older generation brought up on Disney’s 1950s Fess Parker version, the film handles the issue with much more sensitivity than in the hatchet job Hollywood used to pull George Custer off his pedestal.

That leaves the traditional role of the hero to James Bowie (Jason Patric). The film gives him little character development, which is not necessarily fatal to the strong, silent type, but Bowie spent the siege deathly sick in bed, not appropriate to a man of action.

Dennis Quaid’s Sam Houston could be the hero, but the film does way too good a job setting him up to be an opportunist and an alcoholic to allow that.

Does the film show any depth in examining the issue of racial relations between Hispanics and Anglos? Be real. This is Disney.

The score is serviceable, smacking of the Celtic sound that was made popular by Titanic. The battle scenes are okay, within the confines of a bloodless PG-13 rating, but in the end we just don’t care about them, as we should.

We learn lessons from history. Disney should have learned from its production of Pearl Harbor. Perhaps this is more the last stand of embattled Disney head Michael Eisner, currently under siege by Disney stockholders.


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