Tag Archives: Billy Bob Thornton

The Alamo (2004)

Nicholas Chennault ~ May 2, 2014

The Alamo—Billy Bob Thornton, Jason Patric, Dennis Quaid, Patrick Wilson, Emilio Echevarria (2004; Dir:  John Lee Hancock)


This is both the best and the most historically accurate cinematic depiction of the siege of the Alamo in San Antonio in 1836 in what is now the state of Texas, and its immediate aftermath.  That is, we know that the siege ended in the deaths of all the defenders, but those deaths are not the real end of the story.  The full story includes the battle of San Jacinto, which was as overwhelming a victory for the Texans as the Alamo had been for the Mexicans.  It was also the occasion for the battle cry “Remember the Alamo,” and it is the reason the Alamo holds its exalted place in the memory of Texans.  For the historically minded, this is still not entirely accurate, but it’s better in that regard than most, and much better than John Wayne’s 1960 version of the story.

It is well known that the Alamo was defended by about 200 Texans, holding out against the Mexican army of Santa Anna for almost two weeks.  Finally the Texans were overrun by Santa Anna’s army of more than 2000 Mexican soldiers, and all the defenders were killed.  From the side of the Texans, the story revolves around three personalities:  Col. Jim Bowie, former knife fighter and land speculator from Louisiana and commander of a small volunteer militia force; William Barrett Travis, a lawyer, regular army officer and overall commander during the siege; and David Crockett, well-known Tennessee frontiersman and former Congressman.


Patrick Wilson as William Barrett Travis, Billy Bob Thornton as Davy Crockett and Jason Patric as Jim Bowie.  “We’re gonna need some more men.”

The film does a good job of showing the volatile relationship between Travis and Bowie.  The priggish, authoritarian Travis is the hardest to make likeable, and Patrick Wilson does a good job with him, although he doesn’t have the same dramatic weight as the actors playing the other two principals.  Jason Patric is also excellent as the hot-tempered knife-fighting Bowie, becoming incapacitated with typhoid during the siege.  But best of all is Billy Bob Thornton, the most human Crockett ever portrayed on film.  This is the most carefully written of the film’s roles, with Crockett always aware of the difference between himself as an actual person and his larger-than-life image.   “If it were just me, simple David from Tennessee, I might go over that wall one night and take my chances.  But this Davy Crockett feller—people are watching him.”  He notes that he only wears a fur cap when it’s really cold.

Alamo2004Crockett Crockett on the walls.

As the film opens, Crockett in Washington attends a performance of The Lion of the West, a highly fictionalized stage depiction of Crockett’s supposed life and accomplishments.  Out of office, he heads for Texas for a new start, to find himself at the Alamo as Texas’ struggle for independence develops.  As the most publicly prominent defender, he has no authority but what his personality brings.  He mediates quietly between Travis and Bowie and is sensitive to the effects of leadership on the men’s morale.  As the Mexican band plays the threatening Deguello bugle call at twilight, Crockett takes up his fiddle and from a post on the walls provides a string counterpoint to the the musical and military threat.  As the end looms and it is clear that no more reinforcements or supplies will be coming, he urges Travis to be straight with his men, providing the occasion for Travis’ finest moment.  As Bowie lies helpless with typhoid, it is Crockett who wordlessly slips two cocked pistols into his hands on the eve of the attack.  There is a scene at the end in which a captured Crockett is invited to plead for his life and instead gives Santa Anna the opportunity to surrender to him.  That is invented, since the historical authorities differ on exactly how Crockett died at the Alamo.  But it makes for a good story.  There is a brutality to the way the Mexicans overrun the Alamo, as there inevitably would have been to such matters in real life.

Other performances that stand out include actual Texan Dennis Quaid as Sam Houston.  Under the stress of events as they develop, Houston almost always appears harsh and ill-tempered in such depictions (see Richard Boone’s performance in the 1960 version of the story, for example), and that is true with Quaid as well.  Emilio Echevarria is good as the vainglorious Santa Anna, and so is Jordi Moliá in a very limited role as Juan Seguin.


Dennis Quaid as Sam Houston, riding to the Battle of San Jacinto.

The production design is excellent, with an attempt to depict with the clothes and weapons men would actually have used in 1836.  I’m not fond of Sam Houston’s tricorn hat, but it might be authentic.  There is a painting by Seymour Thomas of Houston at the battle of San Jacinto wearing a tricorn, but it was painted in 1892.  Good music is by Carter Burwell, who also did the score for True Grit (the Remake)The film’s pacing can be a problem, especially when the film is focusing on the ailing Jim Bowie, but it works if you have an eye for the actual historical events.  At 137 minutes, there was a lot that was cut to arrive at the theatrical release version, including most of the role of Laura Clifton as Susanna Dickinson, wife of an officer and one of the few surviving witnesses to the events at the end.  If you enjoyed this, you could wish for an extended cut.  If you didn’t, it’s too long already.

Disney didn’t do a good job of promoting this film, and it was not a success at the box office.  It cost $145 million and made back less than a quarter of that, trounced by Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.  But if you’re looking for a cinematic account of the Alamo and related events from Texas’ fight for independence from the Texans’ point of view, this is the best available.  Modern critics of Manifest Destiny won’t enjoy it as much.


Roger Ebert pointed out one of the problems with expectations about a film based on iconic events like this.  “The advance buzz on ‘The Alamo’ was negative, and now I know why:  This is a good movie.  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….

“Much of the picture takes place at night, illuminated by campfires and candlelight, and Hancock’s cinematographer, the gifted Dean Semler, finds color and texture in the shadows that evoke that hour between midnight and dawn that Fitzgerald called the dark night of the soul.  Oddly enough, as Santa Anna’s troops march up to within 100 yards of the Alamo, there seem to be hardly any watchmen to see them, and when they attack, it is a surprise.

“The battle scenes, when they come, are brutal and unforgiving; we reflect that the first Mexicans up the scaling ladders must have known they would certainly die, and yet they climbed them heedlessly.  This intimate hand-to-hand conflict is balanced by awesome long shots, combining the largest sets ever built by modern Hollywood with some special effects shots that are generally convincing.”

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Great Performances in Westerns, Part 1

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 3, 2013

This is the first of seven posts focusing on individual actors who gave excellent performances in westerns, regardless of whether the entire movie was excellent.  The list is quite selective; there are a lot of really good performances that don’t show up here.  It is intended to point to the very best, in no particular order.  The list is also open for additions, but you should wait until the completion of the series to make sure your suggestion isn’t already on the list.  Some (e.g., Lee Marvin, John Wayne) are on the list for multiple roles.


Billy Bob Thornton as Davy Crockett in The Alamo

Especially for baby boomers, it’s hard to get past the coonskin-capped caricature of Tennessee’s David Crockett rooted in Fess Parker’s work for Disney in the 1950s.  Thornton does the best job on film in portraying a real Crockett—a frontier personality who seems like he could have been a successful politician, with both personal magnetism and some sensitivity.  One scene that lingers in the mind is Crockett at twilight, playing a fiddle on the walls of the Alamo as a Tennessee counterpoint to the Mexican deguello (the cut-throat bugle call), with death looming two or three hundred yards out.  Another is wordless, as he places cocked pistols in the hands of a Jim Bowie (Jason Patric) almost too weak to hold them, prostrate with typhoid.  Best of all, he doesn’t wear a coonskin cap.  With his Arkansas accent, Thornton would be a natural for westerns, if there were more being made.  He did show up effectively in a bit part in Tombstone, as a violent gambler backed down by Wyatt Earp.  This recounting of the Alamo story isn’t among the very greatest westerns, but it is the most accurate historically and it’s worth watching for Thornton’s performance.  

Broken Trails

Thomas Haden Church as Tom Harte in Broken Trail

Church uses his distinctive voice and a stony face marvelously in his role as Tom Harte, lifelong ne’er-do-well cowboy and nephew to Robert Duvall’s Print Ritter.  Initially Harte is seemingly motivated by resentment that his inheritance has gone to his mother’s brother, but he nevertheless develops as a stand-up guy whose flinty resolve is the bedrock quality that ultimately saves everybody.  He’s relied on at key points in the plot’s backbone story, and he comes through believably.  His initial judgment is schooled at times by Ritter, and he rises to that tutelage.  He’s helped by good production design that makes him look authentic.  Church is another actor who seems made for westerns but will never get the opportunity to make many.  In some ways here he’s reminiscent of Lee Marvin, although he successfully plays lighter roles elsewhere (see Sideways, for example) as well.  This made-for-television miniseries is highly re-watchable, with several excellent performances (Duvall, Greta Scacchi, Scott Cooper and others) in addition to Church’s.  He’s probably the most historically-accurate Billy Clanton on film in Tombstone.


Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday in Tombstone

Doc Holliday is the showiest role for an actor in the Wyatt Earp story, retold many times.  Earlier versions were played by the physically robust Victor Mature and Kirk Douglas, as well as by excellent character actor Jason Robards.  Kilmer probably does it better than anyone (with the possible exception of Dennis Quaid), being believably tubercular and hair-trigger dangerous, yet with an educated intelligence behind it all.  A lovely performance, one of the best in a western in recent memory.  His lines “I’m your huckleberry” and “You’re a daisy if you do” have continuing resonance for their whimsical quality with an underlying edge and implicit threat.  But also look at his cameo as a not-terribly-effective cavalry captain in The Missing.  Kilmer is the only actor to have played both Doc Holliday (here) and Wyatt Earp (Wyatt Earp’s Revenge, 2012).


Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp in Tombstone

A lesser actor would have been overshadowed by Kilmer’s Doc Holliday in this version of the Earp story.  Russell was not only convincing in a role that can be quite dour (see Costner’s version, as well as Burt Lancaster’s and James Garner’s) because it deals with a relentless quest for vengeance, but he also seems more balanced.  And physically he bears an extraordinary resemblance to one of the most famous photographs of Earp.  On top of that he’s a terrific actor, believable in action and motivation and in his relationship with Holliday.  We believe him when he’s restraining violence and when he isn’t.  He makes an excellent center for the most successful retelling of the Earp story since the 1940s.  For a late-career resurgence in westerns, see him in Bone Tomahawk and The Hateful Eight (both in late 2015).


Dennis Quaid as Doc Holliday in Wyatt Earp

Quaid’s performance is often overlooked because of Kilmer’s dazzling performance in the same role a year earlier and because the Kasdan-Costner version of the story was kind of a cinematic clunker.  Quaid nevertheless is very convincing as the tubercular dentist and killer.  He lost so much weight for the role that it left new lines in his face, and Holliday’s innate meanness showed through in Quaid’s performance.  That’s unusual for an actor whose most bankable characteristic is his devil-may-care grin.  Although Holliday has been played by some superb actors, Quaid and Kilmer are the best in the role so far.

MarvinWalshMonte Walsh

Marvin7Men Seven Men from Now

Lee Marvin as Masters in Seven Men From Now, Liberty Valance in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Rico Fardan in The Professionals and dual roles (Kid Shelleen and Tim Strawn) in Cat Ballou

Marvin and Richard Boone were probably the best villains in the history of westerns, and they were both very versatile actors.  Marvin had an implacable quality that served him well in various roles, especially in (but not limited to) the roles listed here:

  • The most effective of the Budd Boetticher-Randolph Scott westerns featured an ambiguous bad guy, one whose relationship with Scott’s character could possibly go in different directions.  That was true of the first such movie, Seven Men From Now.  Masters had once been put in jail by Scott’s Ben Stride and they are wary of each other, but Marvin’s capacity for menace increases as the movie goes along and provides for an excellent denouement.  In particular, look at the claustrophobic scene in the back of a wagon at night in the rain, when Masters starts a story that strips two of the other characters bare psychologically until Stride kicks him back out into rain.
  • Marvin’s menace is unmitigated in his role as the villain in the title in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.  The movie is full of remarkable performances (John Wayne, James Stewart, Vera Miles, Woody Strode), but Marvin’s palpable bad-guy-ness makes it all work.  He’s one of the easiest-to-hate villains ever in a western, with a psychotic edge to his performance here.  (For a variation on this role, see him in The Comancheros where, in a brief part, he seems considerably worse than the movie’s ostensible real bad guys.)
  • Marvin won his Oscar as Best Supporting Actor for his dual role in Cat Ballou as drunken gunfighter Kid Shelleen and his noseless, black-clad assassin brother Tim Strawn.  There is a memorable photographic still from this performance of the inebriated Shelleen on his apparently drunk horse, both of them leaning against the side of a building, trying to stay upright.
  • Marvin could also do convincing good guys, as in his performance as Rico Fardan in The Professionals.  Here he principally projects control, hardness and competence (as he would later in The Dirty Dozen), with an overlay of elusive principle.  He’s the team leader, and although the movie’s an ensemble success, that’s in large part because Marvin is so believable as Fardan.  Marvin’s military background (he had been a Marine) shows through to advantage.  He could also be on this list for his performance in the title role in 1970’s Monte Walsh.

 BooneRioConchos As Lassiter in Rio Conchos.

Richard Boone as Frank Usher in The Tall T and as Major Jim Lassiter in Rio Conchos

Like Lee Marvin, Richard Boone is best remembered for the villains he played.  Like Marvin, Boone had a distinctive voice which he used to considerable advantage.  He could play silkier than Marvin and was very good at inhabiting the margins of villainy in different ways.

  • In Budd Boetticher’s The Tall T, Boone as Frank Usher develops a strange relationship with Randolph Scott’s flinty Brennan.  He’s never anything other than bad, the mastermind of murders, kidnapping and robbery with two henchmen he thinks are below him.  But there’s a sense that he could have been something else, that he shares some dreams and aspirations with Brennan.  Some of that’s in the writing, which is quite spare.  But mostly it’s in Boone’s performance.  For a couple of other great Boone villains, see Hombre and Big Jake.  For earlier Boone bad guys in slighter movies, see Ten Wanted Men, Man Without a Star and Robbers’ Roost.
  • Major Jim Lassiter is an embittered, alcoholic Confederate veteran who hunts Apaches in revenge for their killing of his wife and son.  He is by far the most interesting character in the expeditionary ensemble in Rio Conchos.  It’s one of his rare opportunities to play an ambiguous character on the right side, and he carries the movie.  For work with some similarities (i.e., Boone playing parts other than overtly bad guys), see A Thunder of Drums and his work as the enigmatic Paladin in television’s Have Gun Will Travel.

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