The screenplay is credited to Hancock, John Sayles, Stephen Gaghan, and Leslie Bohem. In contrast to the earlier 1960 film of the same name, the 2004 film attempts to depict the political points of view of both the Mexican and Texan sides; Santa Anna is a more prominent character. The film received mixed reviews by critics and was a massive box-office flop.
The film begins in March 1836 in the Mexican State of Coahuila y Tejas town of San Antonio de Bexar (now Downtown San Antonio in the U.S. state of Texas), site of the Alamo, where bodies of Texan defenders and Mexican attackers are strewn over the Alamo. The film then flashes back to a year earlier. Sam Houston (Dennis Quaid) attends a party where he tries to persuade people to migrate to Texas. He meets with David Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton), recently defeated for reelection to Congress. Houston explains to Crockett that as an immigrant to Texas, Crockett will receive 640 acres (2.6 km2) [a square mile] of his own choosing. Crockett, with a grin, pointedly asks Houston whether this new republic is going to need a president.
Meanwhile, in San Felipe, Texas, the Texas provisional government is meeting to discuss what action to take after the recent capture by the Texans of the Alamo and Bexar from Mexican forces at the first Battle of San Antonio de Bexar. Texas having rebelled against Mexico and its dictatorial president Santa Anna, who is personally leading an army to retake the Alamo, the Texan War Party calls for the Texas army to depart Bexar, cross into Mexico and confront Mexican forces at the town of Matamoros. The Opposition Party seeks to rebuild the Texan army and establish a permanent government to be recognized by other nations of the world. The provisional government votes out Sam Houston as commander of the Texas army. While having drinks with Jim Bowie later, the disgusted Houston tells Bowie to go to San Antonio and destroy the Alamo.
William Barret Travis (Patrick Wilson) is also in San Felipe, reporting for duty. His character is quickly established as a man who seeks respect as a uniformed military officer, a lieutenant colonel in the Texas Army. Interlaced scenes show him granting his wife a divorce (for his adultery, abandonment, and "barbarous treatment"), and seeking to begin a new life in Texas. The Texas provisional government orders him to take command of the Alamo. There he meets Col. James Neill (Brandon Smith), who informs him that Travis will be in command of the Texas Army regulars while Neill is away on leave. Travis is alarmed that the Alamo's small force cannot withstand the Mexican Army which is rumored to have thousands of foot soldiers, plus the formidable Mexican cavalry. Again he sends a rider to deliver his plea for reinforcements. As small groups of Texans arrive, Travis oversees defence preparations, hoping that enough reinforcements will arrive before the inevitable attack.
Crockett arrives in San Antonio, where he tells a crowd, "I told them folks you'all can go to hell, I'm going to Texas'". He is told that the other defenders are impatient for Santa Anna to arrive now that Crockett is on hand to fight alongside them to which a puzzled Crockett replies, "I understood the fighting was over... Ain't it?"
Santa Anna soon arrives in San Antonio, much to the surprise of the Texan fighters, who were not expecting the Mexican Army to arrive until late March or early April. The Texans retire to the Alamo compound despite its vulnerability, and begin fortifying it as best they can. Amid the chaos Travis writes letters asking for reinforcements. Only a couple dozen men arrive to join them.
Santa Anna's army surrounds the Alamo compound and the siege begins. Bowie leaves the Alamo to meet with Mexican General Manuel Castrillón (Castulo Guerra) to talk things over before matters get out of hand; however, an incensed Travis fires the 18-pound cannon on the south-west wall, thus cutting short Bowie's impromptu attempt at diplomacy. This virtually ends the chance to forestall the Mexican attack and Bowie returns to tell Travis that Santa Anna has offered surrender at discretion. Travis offers all within the Alamo an opportunity to leave. Almost to a man the defenders decide to stay and fight to the end. At least one woman remains, Mrs. Susanna Dickinson (Laura Clifton), whose husband, Lt. Almeron Dickinson (Stephen Bruton), has decided to stay. Bowie becomes debilitatingly ill and is bedridden in one of the buildings. For the next several nights the Mexican Army band serenades the Texans with the "Degüello" (slit throat), followed by an artillery bombardment of the surrounded compound. Convinced that the Texans will not leave the Alamo, Santa Anna orders a blood-red signal flag to be raised, the sign for "no quarter". The flag is visible also to the Alamo's defenders, who know its meaning.
Crockett, having stayed awake through the night, checks the walls and notices the approaching Mexican army. The Texans are awakened by his first shot and begin rushing to their posts. The Texans also hear the battle cry of the Mexican soldiers: "Viva Santa-Anna!" After a long, brutal battle the Mexicans, despite taking heavy casualties, breach the north wall of the mission where Travis is killed, shot in the head by a young Mexican soldier. A small group of Mexican engineers, armed with axes and crowbars, assault and break down the boarded-up doors and windows of the west wall, while another small group storms the southwest wall. The few surviving Texans fall back to the buildings, where they are all killed. Attackers discover the bedridden Bowie in his room, where he fires his pistols and attempts to fight with his knife, but is swiftly bayonetted to death. Crockett and the last 4 defenders retreat into the church where they fight their last stand. Crockett is taken prisoner. In a final act of defiance, he mockingly offers to lead Santa Anna and the Mexican Army to Sam Houston in order to ensure the formers' safety; Santa Anna thereupon angrily orders Crockett to be executed.
Days later, after hearing that the Alamo has been taken, Houston, once again in command of the remnants of the Texan army, orders a general retreat eastward. His army and the families of most of the soldiers flee. They are pursued by the victorious Mexican Army, led by the confident Santa Anna. (Historians call this near-panic flight the "Runaway Scrape".) However, against the advice of his officers, Santa Anna decides to split his army in an attempt to catch the retreating Texans, leaving only a few hundred men to defend him. A few weeks later, Houston halts his retreat near the San Jacinto River (south of the future site of the City of Houston), where he decides to face the Mexicans in a final stand. With the support of two cannons and a small group of mounted Texans ("Tejanos"), Houston's army surprises Santa Anna's army during its afternoon siesta. During the ensuing short rout (called by the victors the Battle of San Jacinto), the vengeful Texans massacre at least seven hundred Mexican soldiers and capture General Santa Anna, whose identity is given away when Mexican prisoners respond to his presence by reverently rising to their feet. Santa Anna surrenders to the wounded Houston, and in exchange for his life agrees to order all Mexican troops to withdraw from Texas and to accept Texan independence, despite the Texans wanting to hang him as revenge for the Alamo. The last scene in the movie shows the spirit of Crockett playing his fiddle on the top of the Alamo and then looking out on the horizon.
The film was originally conceived by Imagine Entertainment, with Ron Howard in the director's chair and partner Brian Grazer as producer. Russell Crowe was originally cast as Sam Houston, Ethan Hawke as William Barret Travis and Billy Bob Thornton as David Crockett. But there were financial and creative disagreements between Imagine and Disney, particularly with Howard wanting a $200 million budget. Disney rejected Imagine's proposals, and Crowe and Hawke left the project. Disney opted for director John Lee Hancock and a budget between $95–107 million. Thornton remained with the project as Crockett, while Howard and Grazer were credited as producers.
Released in April 2004, the film was previously scheduled for December 2003. The exterior scenes were shot in Texas, between January–June 2003, mostly on Reimers Ranch, near Austin. The film's art direction focused on historical accuracy and verisimilitude; for instance, the mission's chapel facade is not topped with the iconic "hump", an architectural detail added during a restoration years after the battle.Crockett's fate
The depiction of Crockett's fate came from memoirs supposedly written by former Mexican officer José Enrique de la Peña, an officer in Santa Anna's army who fought in the battle. It was the first film to show Crockett executed as a prisoner of war; all others had depicted his death as occurring during the battle. This sparked criticism from many Alamo enthusiasts and some historians given the dubious legitimacy of this account and its origins.The Alamo set
Hancock's version was purported to be the most accurate of all the Alamo films, but various interpretive liberties were taken, such as building the movie-set version of the Alamo chapel facade forward 30 to 40 feet (9.1 to 12.2 m) more than the extant (and presumably historically correct) structure. According to one of the DVD version's special features, Hancock did this to show the Alamo chapel and interior of the fort all in one shot. It is the largest and most expensive set ever built in North America. It comes in at 51 acres.Jim Bowie's knife
Bowie's knife is ornate and extremely large, qualifying as a shortsword by some standards. It has a wood handle, and the blade is further supported by a brass backing extending about two-thirds from the 4-inch-long crossguard to the tip. The blade is about 3 inches at its widest.Battle scenes
A second "cattle call" for extras was held because too few thin and gaunt Mexican soldiers were available in the first call. (In the winter of 1835–1836, when the Mexican Army was moving northward through desert areas shortly before crossing the Rio Bravo (Rio Grande) into Texas, it endured a snowstorm of uncommon intensity, and hundreds of Mexican soldiers had suffered more than their usual illness and hunger. The film's main scenes of the Mexican attack on the Alamo were done under harsh weather conditions: battle-scene extras stood for hours in cold rain, making some scenes gruelingly realistic.Houston and Crockett discuss Texas
Sam Houston and Davy Crockett knew each other from their political activities in the capital, particularly from their respective terms as members of Congress. Crockett had recently lost his bid for a fourth term in the U.S. House of Representatives. Houston took advantage of the situation by encouraging Crockett to come to Texas. A ballroom in Washington D.C. served as the location of a critical meeting between the two. More than a $1 million (US) was spent on a collection of English-made costumes representative of the period circa 1825–1835. The costumes included scores of women's and men's formal outfits: myriad formal dance gowns; women's undergarments, such as multi-skirt multi-tier petticoats and laced corsets; laced shoes and pumps for women of various ages; men's jackets, coats, capes, vests, shoes, and boots. Hairstyles and wigs for both women and men were historically accurate for the year 1835, the date of ballroom scenes. Other historically correct details for women's hairdos included tiaras of starched lace and polished bone, hairpins with elaborate decorative heads, lace and silk bows, and snoods. Men's hair styles were perhaps even more varied, ranging from closely clipped, chopped, or wavy; disheveled, long loose, or bobbed at the nape; and showing various stages of baldness with hairpieces such as horseshoe shaped to displaying gray curls at the sides and rear; and beards of many types.Miscellaneous
When Crockett first plays his fiddle to the crowd, the song is "Listen to the Mockingbird", not composed until 1855, 19 years after the fall of the Alamo. The film shows Sam Houston paying for a drink with a coin carrying Santa Anna's portrait; Mexican silver coins of that era showed a liberty cap.
The film received mixed reviews. The film holds a 29% 'rotten' rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with the main consensus being "Too conventional and uninvolving to be memorable." It holds a Metacritic score of 47 out of 100, indicating mixed or average" reviews. Variety called it "a historically credible but overly prosaic account of the most celebrated episode in the creation of an Americanized Texas."
The Houston Chronicle gave the film a grade of "B", saying Hancock, who the paper points out is a "former Houstonian", "shows respect if not reverence for his state's mythical heritage, even while viewing it from modern perspectives"; it notes the "build-up to battle is prolonged and talky, and for a classic tale of heroic defiance, this Alamo feels more restrained than rousing. Again, it's no-win. When Hancock supplies history, the action and drama bog down. And even when he's right, he's wrong, since so many historians disagree about what happened at the site in what is now Downtown San Antonio." Entertainment Weekly gave it a "C+", saying "Hancock's moderate, apolitical, war-is-hell dramatization of the famous 1836 battle that shaped the future of a free and independent American Texas isn't nearly the flop that the exceptionally harsh and unavoidable advance chatter has suggested it is. (It's not the jingoistic call to patriotism of John Wayne's 1960 version, either.) But The Alamo never harmonizes into a cinematic experience any more resonant than the average, manly, why-we-fight pic, or coalesces into a stirring cry for freedom." According to Roger Ebert, "Conventional wisdom in Hollywood is that any movie named The Alamo must be simplistic and rousing, despite the fact that we already know all the defenders got killed. (If we don't know it, we find out in the first scene.) Here is a movie that captures the loneliness and dread of men waiting for two weeks for what they expect to be certain death, and it somehow succeeds in taking those pop-culture brand names like Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie and giving them human form." He gave the film 3 and a half stars out of 4.
The film was a massive box office flop. First weekend earnings were only US$9.1 million, and its opening was overshadowed by a resurgent The Passion of the Christ. The film ended with $22.4 million in the domestic market (United States and Canada), and only $25.8 million in total on a $107 million budget. The Alamo was one of the biggest box office bombs of all time.