Like all historic dramas that money can buy, director John Lee Hancock's The Alamo brims with authentic-looking 1830s period costumes and hair-dos on several actors never meant to wear them. It also has some miiiiiiighty fine fiddlin', some of it from the former Tennessee congressman Davy Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton), who prefers to be called "David." But don't expect to see his famous coonskin hat: He no longer wears it, thanks to a hammy actor who turned Crockett's attire into shtick.
Hancock opens The Alamo with a somber remembrance scored with a wailing woodwind: It's a battlefield, strewn with the bodies of all who tried to defend the long-ago church, which now has become the last stand of Texas' independence from Mexico. Then the story flashes back a year. Under orders from Gen. Sam Houston (Dennis Quaid), the dashing young officer William Travis (Patrick Wilson) commands the regular forces sent to protect the place, while the legendary knifeman Jim Bowie (Jason Patric), armed with his eponymous weapon, commands the fortress militia. Their testosterone kicks in, and they struggle for control. Then they kiss and make up. Meanwhile, Crockett hangs out with Bowie and handles his knife like he's handling -- but no! These are ancient Americans, not ancient Greeks!
The Alamo battle happened because the newly independent Mexico, which owned Texas, didn't want those upstart Texans gaining freedom and taking their land with them. Mexico's leader, the Napoleonic popinjay Antonio López de Santa Anna, had declared himself emperor, and he was willing to risk every drop of his soldiers' blood to keep Texas.
The losing battle to defend the Alamo lasted only 90 minutes and came after a 10-day battle of wills as Santa Anna's army surrounded the fortress, waiting for someone to make a move (a "Mexican standoff," you could say). Forty-six days later, the winning battle to avenge the death of the Alamo defenders lasted less than half an hour. And yet, Hancock turns this drama into a sincere, stilted clunker of a movie: It's the reason people don't read history, and while it wants to be ponderous and humane, like Gettysburg, it's just one dead-weight cliché after another. The only hint of an interesting contemporary point of view comes when a Mexican character observes: "Santa Anna only wants to rule Mexico. These [Texans] want to rule the whole world."
The actors are either comically miscast (Quaid), given little to do (Patric is corpselike, even for him) or given characters too thin to appreciate (Thornton). Only the neophyte Wilson comes off reasonably, although in this and Angels in America, he exhibits a penchant for playing eager, worrisome over-achievers. Uttering "Remember the Alamo!" in the telling of this story is the American pop-history equivalent of the "to be or not to be" speech: It's sacred (in its small way), and how you say it can define a work. Quaid croaks the words here atop a whinnying white stallion that rears up at his battle cry. It's thoroughly unspectacular and, like all of The Alamo, loses the name of action.