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Separating history from legend


Glorious defeats and lost causes endure in the imagination far longer than any great victories. The idea of Custer's Last Stand outlives the truth of the Western campaigns against the Indians; it's the South, not the North, that keeps the Civil War alive; and any visitor to Europe will notice that monuments to the fallen soldiers of two world wars abound in the vanquished nations.

            And of course, though few know about the Battle of San Jacinto, where Sam Houston and his "Texians" overcame the Mexican army under the infamous General Santa Anna, everybody remembers the gallant loss and sacrifice that preceded it. Everybody remembers the Alamo.

            Hollywood, of course, now and then jogs the national (and Texan) memory by memorializing that event in the movies, thus fulfilling one of its important functions as dreamspinner and mythmaker to the nation. The latest and allegedly the truest motion picture to chronicle the famous battle, The Alamo, suggests a number of timely and occasionally contradictory concepts in its examination of that historic and inspiring defeat. In the process, it seems to have offended certain commentators of the conservative persuasion.

            To begin with, The Alamo joins such recent films as The Missing, Open Range, and The Last Samurai in what may eventually turn out to be a minor renaissance of the Western, an encouraging possibility for any student of the great American genres.

            On the other hand, this particular Western, dealing with a heroic struggle against another nation whose language and religion distinguish its people from us, also suggests the sort of strident nationalism masquerading as patriotism that routinely corrupts contemporary discourse.

            Apparently the producers publicly acknowledge an attempt to capitalize on the alleged resurgence of patriotism in the wake of the catastrophe of 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq. What a way to express patriotism, what a way to market a movie.

            The picture also demonstrates, however, that the events leading up to the battle involved more than simple courage and sacrifice, but a good deal of internal struggle among the leaders of the Republic of Texas, including conflicts over the leadership of the troops and the division between the Texan army and the irregular militias.

            At the Alamo itself those conflicts emerge in the constant tension between William Travis (Patrick Wilson), the official commander and Jim Bowie (Jason Patric), who headed up the irregulars. In addition, as the movie shows, good old Sam Houston (Dennis Quaid), as much a politician as a soldier, initially abandoned the combatants and the fort in order to devote his energies to advancing his own ambitions. He then rallied his men with the famous exhortation to remember the Alamo, even though he had for a while conveniently forgotten the place.

            The battle itself, of course, represents something like an American Iliad, the epic story of a group of heroes whose exploits live forever in history, fiction, and legend. Wonderfully, the two most famous fighters at the Alamo, Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton), were themselves already legends, figures forever associated with the grand adventure into the wilderness that transformed the American expansion of the 19th century into the enduring basis for our national mythology.

            Like Homer's warriors, they lead their comrades into the shining immortality that only a glorious death in battle can bestow, comparable to the proud and magnificent end of a Hector or an Achilles.

            Beyond the necessarily static presentation of a fortress under siege, and fierce battles with an outcome already known, the picture concentrates on the personalities of Travis, Bowie, and especially Crockett. Since it attempts to show the reality of the legendary fighters, The Alamo has apparently suffered a number of attacks from the usual right-wing blowhards, who presumably resent the depiction of Travis's abandonment of his wife and children and Jim Bowie's drunkenness.

            The Alamo's most impressive achievement in both writing and acting, however, lies in the character of Davy Crockett. Billy Bob Thornton simply steals the whole movie away from the other actors and even from the great battle itself.

            He is alternately comical and serious and ironically conscious of his legend as a true ring-tailed roarer who whipped his weight in wildcats, jumped over the Mississippi, and rode a lightning bolt. Crockett also understands the reality of fighting, killing, and dying, as he demonstrates in a moment when he recognizes that a dead Mexican soldier is merely a boy or when he plays his fiddle in harmony with the enemy's band.

            Aside from the movie's exciting display of history and heroism, Thornton's performance enlivens what could have been a stolid, pious description of an important event inextricably entangled in the complicated strands of American mythology. He makes the legend real.

The Alamo (PG-13), starring Dennis Quaid, Billy Bob Thornton, Jason Patric, Patrick Wilson; written by Leslie Bohem, Stephen Gaghan, and John Lee Hancock; directed by John Lee Hancock. Cinemark Tinseltown; Hoyts Greece Ridge; Loews Webster; Pittsford Plaza Cinema; Regal Culver Ridge; Regal Eastview; Regal Henrietta.