Billy Bob Thornton, Dennis Quaid, Jason Patric and Patrick Wilson star in director John Lee Hancock's 2004 historical drama.
Editor's Note: Throughout March and April, we’re celebrating Great Westerns of the 21st Century — noteworthy movies and TV series with special appeal to C&I readers that have premiered since 2001. Check the Entertainment tab Monday through Friday to see a different recommendation by C&I senior writer Joe Leydon. And be on the lookout for our upcoming May/June 2020 print edition, which prominently features the legendary star who looms large in two of this century’s very best westerns.
For some movie fans, John Wayne’s 1960 version of The Alamo will always be the final word on the subject. But the 2004 version directed by Texas native John Lee Hancock (The Rookie, The Highwaymen) stands on its own merits as a respectfully revisionist take on the same historical events and characters.
To his credit, Hancock strives for a dramatically sound balance of fact and fancy, men and myth, while detailing the most significant clash of 19th-century Texas Revolution. The blood-and-thunder battle scenes are vividly rendered and viscerally exciting, while the Mexican and Texian combatants – including a ruthless but not-entirely-unsympathetic Gen. Antonio López de Santa Anna (Emilio Echevarria) -- are depicted in a surprisingly even-handed, warts-and-all manner.
Hancock’s Alamo is especially compelling whenever it focuses on Billy Bob Thornton, who more or less dominates the movie with his cunning portrayal of a ruefully self-aware Davy Crockett. As the wily frontiersman turned living legend, Thornton suggests a 19th-century version of an aging action-movie star, a celebrity who enjoys the adulation of his fans even while he wearily shoulders the burden of their unrealistic expectations. His Davy Crockett – who would really, really rather be addressed as David – winds up pushing himself to greatness during the defense of the Alamo against Mexican forces largely because he knows he can’t disappoint those who expect greatness of him. A nice touch: At the moment of his death, he appears greatly bemused by the realization that the way he dies will ensure his immortality.
But wait, there’s more: Jason Patric plays knife-fighter Jim Bowie as a larger-than-life hero who’s similarly ambivalent about his fame. Patrick Wilson is William Travis, the untested commander who demonstrates grace under pressure while leading the doomed heroes at the Alamo. And Houston-born Dennis Quaid rises to the occasion as Sam Houston, whose decisive routing of Santa Anna’s forces at the Battle of San Jacinto allows the filmmakers to end The Alamo on a relatively upbeat note.
Back in 2004, Billy Bob Thornton spoke with C&I about playing Davy Crockett in The Alamo. Here are some highlights from our conversation.
Cowboys & Indians: When you said you were playing Davy Crockett in The Alamo, how did your friends react? Did they ask when you were getting fitted for the coonskin cap?
Billy Bob Thornton: [Laughs] Definitely. Either that or, “You get to wear the hat and everything, right?” And I had to tell them, “Well, not really…”
C&I: It must be hard to overcome misconceptions about a real-life person who has become a bigger-than-life myth.
Billy Bob: It is difficult to portray a character who’s been looked at more as a guy you’d see in a cartoon book. But I had to play him as a real guy. I couldn’t come into this movie and play him like a cartoon. It’s like Jason Patric: He couldn’t come in and just play Jim Bowie as this guy who’s always tossing a knife. People have this idea of “Davy! Davy Crockett! King of the Wild Frontier!” Whereas in actuality, this guy was a congressman and he had political ambitions. A lot of the stories about him were certainly embellished. He wasn’t strictly a woodsman. He was smart guy, he had a lot going on.
C&I: True enough. But, then again, many folks prefer fanciful legends to factual accounts.
Billy Bob: Yeah, some folks look at Davy Crockett like he’s Paul Bunyan or something. As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if there are young people today who think Davy Crockett was a fictional character. That whole coonskin cap thing – that actually came from a popular play that was written about Crockett, with an actor done up in all this frontier garb. Crockett himself might have worn a coonskin cap every now and then, when he was holding court or something, to sort of live up to the legend. But it’s like John Lee Hancock said, “Crockett was kind of a rock star in his time.”
C&I: How so?
Billy Bob: He was legendary already in his own lifetime. If you met Davy Crockett someplace – or David Crockett, as he preferred – it would be like meeting Bob Dylan or somebody like that. He had that kind of stature.
C&I: When you’re portraying a real-life figure like Davy Crockett, do you feel any responsibility to the character you’re playing?
Billy Bob: I feel a huge responsibility to do him justice. In a lot of ways, I feel like I’ve channeled this character. You know, when you start playing somebody real, you start learning about them. You look at their face all the time, and you see your own face starting to look like them. It affects you. In fact, I actually did say to myself sometimes, “I’m going to do this good for you.” Because you do start to feel like there’s a ghost on your shoulder all the time, watching you.
C&I: So it wasn’t hard to get into a mid-19th century mindset?
Billy Bob: Well, for an actor, one real simple way to do that is just go on the set. When you go out there and you see the reconstruction of the Alamo, and you see everybody dressed in period costumes, and there’s nothing but horses and wagons and campfires – it kind of just puts you there. Also, you have to remember: I grew up in Arkansas. And spending time at my grandmother’s place, I felt like I was living in a period movie half the time anyway.
The Alamo is available on You Tube, Amazon Prime, iTunes and other platforms.