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
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
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,
is not necessarily fatal to the strong, silent type, but Bowie
spent the siege deathly sick in bed, not appropriate to a man
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,
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
stand of embattled Disney head Michael Eisner, currently under
siege by Disney stockholders.