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A different take on 'The Alamo'

New film overcomes rumors, legends

By Andy Culpepper

"One historian even told me, you can not use the word 'definite' and 'Alamo' in the same sentence," says writer and director John Lee Hancock.

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Dennis Quaid
Billy Bob Thornton

SAN ANTONIO, Texas (CNN) -- Remember the Alamo -- and forget the negative stories you've probably read or heard about this latest film chronicling the famous Texas battle.

That's what writer and director John Lee Hancock suggests is the proper way to handle the rumors that have swirled around his new "Alamo" since the project was first announced two years ago.

Sitting in a San Antonio hotel room fielding questions throughout a long publicity-filled day, the telegenic Hancock doesn't shy away from discussing why his film -- originally supposed to be directed by Ron Howard, and later slated for release in time for Christmas 2003 (and Oscar consideration) -- was hitting theaters only now, in early spring 2004.

"I knew the reasons I was doing it," he explains. "I knew that everybody else was going to say, 'Oh, movie in trouble.' I mean, I understand that, and you just deal with it.

"I essentially was faced with the dilemma of, 'Am I making a schedule -- or am I making a movie?' "

"The Alamo" is, without question, Hancock's most ambitious undertaking to date.

The film stars Billy Bob Thornton as frontiersman Davy Crockett and Dennis Quaid as the controversial politician and general, Sam Houston.

Cast member Patrick Wilson, who plays Lt. Col. William Travis, offers his take on the delay.

"We shot almost a million and a half feet of film, right? That's just the reality of it. So, of course, it took time."

'Kind of exhilarating'

Billy Bob Thornton plays frontiersman and politician Davy Crockett.

To put that number in perspective, Hancock compares the footage totals -- and scope -- to that of his last film, "The Rookie" (2002).

"I had less production time on this than I did on 'The Rookie,' which is a much smaller film," he recalls. "[That was] about one person. This is an ensemble movie. You know, we shot three or four times more film on it."

At times, adds the director, he used 12 cameras at once and employed more than 500 extras in addition to the 40 actors with speaking parts. "I sometimes felt like I was directing 'Monday Night Football' from the truck," Hancock remembers. "But it was kind of exhilarating. It was the thing that scared me the most going into it, but once I got into it, it was like, 'Wow! I can do this.' "

The new "Alamo" is one of many films that have been made about the 1836 battle. At the Alamo, at a former mission in San Antonio, the Mexican army lay siege to and eventually defeated a Texas force of about 200 men, led by Travis. Soon after, the Texans got their revenge at the Battle of San Jacinto and founded the Republic of Texas.

Some have suggested this may be the most character-driven of all the movies made on the subject -- but please don't call it a history lesson, says Hancock.

"That makes it sound dry as a bone or something," he says. "But if this raises some questions that make people think a little more or enlightens them even a little bit, I'm happy for that."

Hancock did strive to make the film as accurate as possible, reading several books on the subject and consulting with a team of historians. However, he says, there are some things that remain unknown.

"I'm not sitting here telling you that absolutely everything is absolutely historically accurate," Hancock says. "When it comes to the Alamo, historians don't agree, and one historian even told me, you can not use the word 'definite' and 'Alamo' in the same sentence. Nobody really knows."

Claiming the future

Dennis Quaid plays Sam Houston, who led the Texans to victory in the Battle of San Jacinto and was later president of the Texas Republic, as well as (after annexation) a U.S. senator.

Hancock's treatment of the saga is divided among four main characters: Crockett, Houston, Travis and Jason Patric's James Bowie.

Quaid, like Hancock, hails from Texas -- Houston itself, the city named for his character, as a matter of fact. "You grow up in Texas," Quaid points out, "you learn Texas history before American history, and going to the Alamo as a kid or the San Jacinto battleground is a pilgrimage."

The men of the Alamo have been glorified in history books and scripts for decades. As Hancock reveals them in his version of the tale, they occupy much less exalted ground.

Houston was an alcoholic and a disgraced former politician. Crockett, a former Tennessee congressman, suffered an embarrassing election loss. Travis abandoned his pregnant wife. But each man believed in the future of Texas -- and a shot at a second chance.

Though adhering to history, Hancock sprinkled his script with personal touches -- some based on fact, others on ... well, some pretty interesting stories. For example, there was the matter of the knife brawl involving Bowie, the man who eventually shared his name with the blade.

"It was famous," says Patric. "He was in a thing called the Sandbar Fight, and there was a duel. He was shot several times, and as he was shot, he went to the guy and he literally cut his heart out with the knife."

Then there was the fame of Davy Crockett, well known to TV and movie audiences over the years for wearing a coonskin hat. In reality, Crockett rarely wore the hat, and preferred to be called "David." Hancock's film suggests Crockett may have survived the initial Alamo battle only to be executed some time later.

"There was a diary found from a Mexican lieutenant in 1955," says Thornton. "He said that he died with dignity and courage and was well-behaved, but exactly how it came about, we don't really know, so we just do the best we can."

The Alamo is invoked in so many patriotic discussions that trying to be realistic can lead to criticism -- as, indeed, this new version of "The Alamo" has gotten. But Hancock says knowing the truth makes for a better story.

"You think of these guys as the defenders, and they're almost superheroes, Hancock says. "When they're warts and all and flesh and bone, in some ways, it makes them even more interesting and heroic."

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