"From the studio that brought you Pearl Harbor!" the back of the packaging for 2004's The Alamo proudly exclaims. Not exactly something I'd be throwing in people's
faces if I were trying to market a film that performed below expectations at the box office but hey, I'll trust that the fine folks at Touchstone know what they're doing in that department and move on.
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away (well, actually Texas in 1836) roughly two hundred colonialists stood their ground against an entire army and did so for almost two straight weeks. William Travis (Patrick Wilson), Davy Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton) and James Bowie (Jason Patric)) were the three men who orchestrated their defense against the ensuing onslaught of Santa Anna and his men and since then The Alamo has been a nationally revered moment of American bravery for the entire country, especially Texas.
Directed by John Lee Hancock (The Rookie), The Alamo does a great job of creating an authentic feeling film with realistic scenery, costumes and sets. Considering the scope and scale of the project, Hancock and company did a pretty impressive job nailing down the visual aspect of the film, painting it in various organic looking Earth tones to give it a dirty, slightly old fashioned feel. They've also done an exceptional job choreographing and orchestrating the final battle (which is, obviously, the highlight of the film) with its impressive barrage of cannons, rifles, and hand to hand combat as well as some visually splendid moments of cavalry action thrown in for good measure. Everything from the look, feel and sound of the film is very well handled and quite impressive from pretty much all angles. The film is also able to boast of having the largest set ever built for an American film – at fifty one acres it was truly massive undertaking to even get pre-production completed on time and on budget (the film actually came in just below budget, amazingly enough).
Too bad it's so hard to give a rat's ass about the key characters whose story we're supposed to be investing a bit of ourselves in while watching the film.
It isn't that the performances are bad (they're reasonably good, to be honest – if a tad unremarkable though Dennis Quaid is quite good as Sam Houston and Thornton is great as always) or that the dialogue is riddled with more clichés than the left over husk of The Alamo was with bullet holes (though the dialogue isn't all that impressive either – it simply 'is'). The main flaw in the film lies in the fact that pretty much all of the characters are essentially cardboard cutouts. Granted, it's hard to really nail down the hows and whys of historical figures who died long before mass media existed to document their every nuance and gesture, but in order for the movie to work we really should at least feel something for these poor men about to die for their country.
Considering how truly brave those involved in the battle were it's almost sad how little attention appears to have been paid to establishing people for us to really root behind, making it hard to suspend your disbelief for the film's two hour and seventeen minute running time. The most interesting aspect of the movie, character wise at least, is Santa Anna (Emilio Echevarria ) who is rightfully portrayed as not wanting to give up the land to the Americans rather than as a megalomaniacal dictator bent on destroying the white devils crashing in his backyard.
At any rate, if you don't mind sitting through over an hour of set up consisting of much talking of little relevance to get to an excellent battle sequence, then hey, get down on it and check out The Alamo because it's the movie for you. Otherwise, rent it and fast forward to about an hour and twenty minutes into it and then crank up the surround sound to bug your neighbors.
The anamorphic 2.35.1 widescreen image is stable with nice colors and lifelike flesh tones but sadly suffers from some nasty edge enhancement throughout the entire movie, as well as some mild shimmering effects here and there. Aside from that the image looks clean (maybe a little too soft here and there – this was more evident on my larger set than on my smaller one so bigscreen owners may notice it more than others) and the black levels are strong and deep without showing compression or pixelation. The color palette consists of a lot of browns and grays and natural colors and this DVD does a nice job of separating the different hues used throughout without over saturating anything and thankfully there is no color bleeding noticeable at all.
The English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix on this DVD is absolutely great. Everything is mixed and balanced just wonderfully and the soundscape comes through with an insane amount of detail, sucking you into the movie with ease. The battle scenes in particular benefit from this as gunshots and artillery fire barrel past you in all directions making you feel like your living room has become the battlefield. The background music is rich with detail (you can almost hear the strings bending on the fiddle) and swells up almost overtop of you as the film progresses. There is also a French Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix included on the disc, with optional subtitles available over either track in English, French or Spanish.
Touchstone has made up for the less than perfect video quality by supplying some nice extra features that enhance the experience of viewing the film and provide a crash course in Texas history along the way.
Although the back of the keepcase doesn't make any mention of it, there is an interesting and very informative running commentary track from historians Steven Hardin and Allan Huffines. The pair do an excellent job of discussing the differences between what we know of the real life events that inspired the film and what is portrayed in the film itself (which is, according to the two experts, surprisingly accurate for a Hollywood presentation). They don't really go into any detail on the making of the film or the cast and crew, they stick to what they know and do a great job of offering viewers an alternate way of learning about the real life history of The Alamo.
Next up on the disc are three short documentaries…
Walking In The Footsteps Of Heroes: (11:45 Minutes) – This segment gives us background information on all of the key players in the saga through commentary and insight from various cast and crewmembers, historians and experts on the events. It gives us some very welcome background information on Bowie, Crockett, Houston and Travis.
Return Of The Legend – The Making Of The Alamo: (18 Minutes) – The cast and crew sit down and spill their guts about all the effort that went into making the film, from the sets and costumes to the special effects to the hardships endured on set to the burning desire to capture as much authenticity in front of the camera as humanly possible.
Deep In The Heart Of Texas: (6:15 Minutes) – More on the burning desire to shoot the film in Texas and why from various cast and crew members. While I'm all for authenticity, particularly for historical films like this one, there's not really much in the way of useful information in this segment.
Five deleted scenes add up to about six and a half minutes in length. These are all minor characterization bits that don't add up to a whole lot but more information is given on Santa Anna in particular and we find out about the wedding. Director John Lee Hancock supplies optional commentary over these scenes and explains why they were shot and in turn why they weren't used. The deleted scenes are:
The Retreat From Bexar (1:30)
Batres Meets Tejana (0:49)
A Wedding Plan (0:52)
Santa Anna Marries (1:06)
A Mexican Candle Dance (2:06)
Finally, trailers are included for Around The World In 80 Days and Raising Helen, as are promotional spots for Hero and Alias as well as a THX Optimizer.
While it's a mediocre movie, the battle scenes are exceptional and the sound mix on this DVD is so good that it's hard not to at least enjoy those scenes. While the movie isn't bad, it's far from the classic many hoped it would be. This single disc release from Touchstone could have looked better but the audio is near perfect and the extra features are interesting. History buffs might want to purchase it, everyone else should probably rent it first.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.