A Fitting Memorial

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Planned by Disney as a blockbuster epic, The Alamo is instead arriving in theaters with a whiff of stale cheese about it. Doleful stories of the project — directors and writers hired and dropped, the budget cut and restored, the story rearranged during editing — could land the film on the junk heap of historical movies. (Remember Al Pacino in his 1776 saga, Revolution? Neither does anyone else.) But, in fact, The Alamo deserves a fate better than oblivion.

The film begins with the end of the 1836 battle: a visual requiem for the dead Americans. Flash back, and then sketch in a trio of heroes: General Sam Houston (Dennis Quaid, his voice dropped an octave into martial mode); rebel warrior Jim Bowie (Jason Patric); and Davy Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton), bar-rasslin' legend, Indian fighter and, in this film, world-class country fiddler. Against them is the Mexican general Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna (Emilio Echevarria), who snipes at what he sees as the Americans' ambition: "We want to rule Mexico. They want to rule the whole world."

That line gives a clue to the approach of director John Lee Hancock (The Rookie) and the platoon of writers: they want simultaneously to criticize and celebrate U.S. imperialism. The good intentions and lousy planning of the Alamo's defense make it seem like a 19th century dress rehearsal for Vietnam. A shot of American corpses dangling from a tree has an eerie resemblance to images this month of a bridge in Fallujah, Iraq. But the Alamo massacre is only Act II. Houston's quick victory at the subsequent Battle of San Jacinto seized Texas from Mexican control and allows Hancock to make this analogy: that the Alamo was Pearl Harbor, San Jacinto was World War II, and Houston was an early Eisenhower.

Politics aside, this is a handsome film with orange skies to die for, or under, and a lovely score by Carter Burwell. The picture has some ponderous and snooze-worthy stretches, but it attains a certain melancholic grandeur, with the actors and crew fighting as desperately as Crockett and Bowie to make the best of a fated adventure. Disney's accountants may not want to remember The Alamo, but moviegoers may find it doesn't fade away so fast.