ON CHRISTMAS DAY, DISNEY’S THE ALAMO, Hollywood’s latest historical hurrah, was supposed to gallop into theaters everywhere. Now the studio has postponed the movie’s opening, and what its reception will be is anybody’s guess. Back in the fall of 2001, when patriotic emotions were at a fever pitch, the Alamo seemed to have something to say to contemporary Americans. But two and a half years is a long time in the national zeitgeist, and whether audiences today will want to watch Americans under siege is an open question. Disney, of course, is hoping for another Pearl Harbor, an extravaganza of patriotic treacle that raked in the bucks.
Why did Hollywood decide to remember the Alamo again in the first place? The story begins with Leslie Bohem, the author of such high-minded scripts as A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child and Dante’s Peak. At the Austin Film Festival seven years ago, Bohem had a conversation with screenwriter Randall Wallace ( Braveheart). Wallace had driven down to San Antonio to take a look at the Alamo, and when he said he wasn’t going to do anything with the story, Bohem decided that he would and set to work on a script. In 1998 Touchstone Pictures, a subsidiary of Disney, and director Ron Howard became interested in the project and bought Bohem’s screenplay, which Howard would eventually hire John Sayles to rewrite. An auteur of some distinction, who had written and directed Lone Star, one of the more interesting of recent Texas films, Sayles came up with a lengthy script that, depending on whom you talk to, was either brilliant or unfilmable (recent press releases have dropped Sayles’s name from the list of credits). After Sayles, Stephen Gaghan (hot off a best-screenplay Oscar for Traffic) was hired to do another rewrite. Meanwhile, the project languished. What moved it onto the fast track was the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. As Disney’s chairman, Michael Eisner, explained, the film would “capture the post-September 11 surge in patriotism.”
In the beginning, Howard wanted to shoot the movie in the style of Sam Peckinpah, the Goya of westerns, whose bloody masterpiece, The Wild Bunch, set the gold standard for last-ditch heroics. But to emulate Peckinpah, Howard figured he would need an R rating and about $130 million.
Differences between Howard and Disney soon surfaced. Disney balked at the cost, the violence, and the R rating and went ahead with new plans. The studio changed the target audience to the tamer PG-13 crowd and announced that the budget would be around $75 million. In July 2002 John Lee Hancock, a native Texan, was tapped to rewrite the script and direct a cast that included Billy Bob Thornton as Davy Crockett, Dennis Quaid as Sam Houston, Jason Patric as Jim Bowie, and newcomer Patrick Wilson as William Barret Travis. Hancock, who is 46, had made his mark writing screenplays ( A Perfect World, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil ) and then, in his directorial debut, helmed The Rookie, a small, family-oriented film that became a surprise hit for Disney last year.
The idea for another Alamo movie was hardly a new one. Stephen Harrigan, whose 2000 novel, The Gates of the Alamo, enjoyed considerable acclaim, says that before September 11, half the directors in Los Angeles had unproduced Alamo scripts in their files. They had grown up on Fess Parker’s Davy Crockett and John Wayne’s World, and they reckoned that someday they just might make that Alamo film. But the fallen towers lent a special urgency to the idea of a movie about Americans taking a stand. It was a time for patriotism. It was a time to spend big money and make a big movie.
All seemed to be going according to plan until Disney’s October 28 bombshell: In its wonderfully kitschy parlance, the Hollywood trade paper Variety announced that “Mouse pushes Alamo to spring”—till April, to be precise, too late for the Academy awards, perhaps too late for everything. Although March 6, the day the Alamo entered into history, would have made sense, apparently the filmmakers needed more time. Maybe the Disney honchos will peg it for April 21—San Jacinto Day. Of course, few in modern Texas could say whether that was the day Buddy Holly died, a new Nordstrom opened, or Sam Houston whupped Santa Anna. Meanwhile, the movie’s price tag—which current estimates put at $90 million—is about to get higher if the rumors are true that some of the battle footage is going to be reshot, at a cost of $1 million. (Make that $5 million, at least.) It’s been months now since shooting stopped and everybody went home. What’s the condition of the Dripping Springs set? Have termites attacked it the way they did the real Alamo last May? Have they marched north and stormed the walls? And what about the meticulously researched Mexican uniforms? Where are they? And where are the Slim-Fast Mexican Americans needed to fill them? (During the original casting call, the first assistant director was dismayed at the bulk of the would-be Mexican soldiers.)
Right now Disney is exactly like the Alamo. A small band of brave, misunderstood defenders is holed up trying to figure out how to wage a successful publicity campaign and overcome the doubts of all those outside the walls. Early skirmishes have not, apparently, gone well. The movie was cut from five hours to three, which is an acceptable length to exhibit to the test audiences who rate these suckers. According to the Austin American-Statesman, The Alamo received “mixed to negative” responses. Viewers complained about the acting, the script, and the battle scenes. Dennis Quaid was said to be “just pathetic.” One plot detail that bothered everybody seems to derive from Giant, another big Texas movie. At the end of that film, racial harmony is symbolized in a closing shot of two babies, one brown, one white, side by side in a playpen. In