Wednesday, October 23, 2019
HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD (1961) isn't just another cheesy sword & sandal movie. It is a phantasmagorical wonder, allowing Mario Bava's creativity and ingenuity to run riot (even if the film's budget didn't).
Kino has given the title a magnificent Region A Blu-ray release, which contains two discs and three different versions of the film:
The U.S. release, HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD
The European release, with the German title VAMPIRE GEGEN HERAKLES, with an Italian dialogue track and English subtitles
The U.K. release, HERCULES IN THE CENTER OF THE WORLD
There are minor differences between the three versions, but all of them look spectacular, highlighting Mario Bava's eye for color and composition.
Bava had worked on the two films that had started the sword & sandal craze, HERCULES and HERCULES UNCHAINED, as cinematographer, effects artist, and at times director. In HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD Bava got his second official credit as overall director, along with camera and effects work. The result makes other mythological strongman movies look positively tepid.
The mighty Hercules (Reg Park) literally goes to Hades in an attempt to break the spell that has taken hold over his lady love (Leonora Ruffo). The evil power behind this situation is the young woman's uncle, Lico (Christopher Lee), who is using dark forces to gain control over the land. Hercules goes through a number of trials and tribulations before he confronts Lico and his undead minions.
HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD (or whatever title you choose to pick for it) is a fun action adventure that is immeasurably helped by Mario Bava's artistry. Reg Park's Hercules is a bit more pleasant and less forceful in this outing, making him an appealing hero. Christopher Lee is more than a match for him as the villain. Unfortunately Lee is dubbed in all versions of the film, but his iconic presence still makes an impact. Interestingly Lico has a tendency to take the blood of others, but whether he is an "official" vampire depends upon your interpretation of the character.
Kino has been releasing a magnificent series of Mario Bava titles over the last few years, and this one is no exception. HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD was put out on DVD by a company called Fantoma in the early 2000s (I have this copy, of course). The DVD version was a decent transfer but this Blu-ray blows it away. The sound quality is also an improvement.
Bava expert Tim Lucas provides yet another of his outstanding commentaries that focus on the director and his work. Lucas does spend a bit of time pointing out the inconsistencies in the story (which honestly I never really thought about), but he doesn't do it in a derogatory fashion. The other main extra is a short program that features an interview with actor George Ardisson (who played Theseus in the movie) and a discussion on the film by Fabio Melelli.
I cannot emphasize enough how fantastic this movie looks on this Blu-ray, and how fantastic it is to have access to three different versions of it. I know a lot of folks look down on the sword & sandal genre, but due to the genius of Mario Bava HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD winds up being a fantastic, entertaining adventure that has classic horror overtones. It needs to be seen and appreciated, especially by those willing to use their imaginations. This Kino Blu-ray will more than likely appear on my list for best home video releases of the year.
Wednesday, October 16, 2019
The latest issue of Richard Klemensen's LITTLE SHOPPE OF HORRORS, #43, is chock full of goodies. Two films are exhaustively covered in this issue. The first one is CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED, the almost-forgotten sequel to the original VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED.
The second is THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR, a 1967 low-budget English Gothic from Tigon Films. The fact that this movie gets featured on the cover of the new issue of LSOH may surprise many. (The above cover artwork is by Paul Watts). THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR has a decidedly unsavory reputation. When is it examined in books and magazines, it is usually the subject of derision. The film's star, Peter Cushing, was alleged to have said it may have been his worst movie--and this was during the making of it! (One has to realize that this was before Cushing worked on such truly awful films as TENDER DRACULA, SHATTER, and LAND OF THE MINOTAUR.)
Set sometime in Victorian England, THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR tries to follow in the Hammer Horror tradition, but it has neither the style or flair to do so. The plot concerns a Dr. Mallinger (Robert Flemyng), who, for some inexplicable reason, has turned his beautiful daughter Clare (Wanda Ventham) into a human/giant moth hybrid. (That is, if she is his real daughter--more on that later.) The creature kills a number of young men for their blood, and the murders gain the attention of local Police Inspector Quennell (Peter Cushing). Mallinger and his creature flee the area, but Quennell tracks the duo down, and saves his daughter Meg (Vanessa Howard) from their clutches in the process.
THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR is not a good film, but I don't think it deserves to be in the "truly awful" category. It's technically competent, although director Vernon Sewell certainly doesn't go out of his way to make a splash. From my perspective, every scene seems to go on just a bit too long, presumably in order to pad the film's running time. The giant moth costume is mediocre, but the viewer doesn't get to see it all that much. It doesn't even look like what I would imagine a giant moth might be--I think it looks like an alien from a bad third season episode of the original STAR TREK TV show. To many, the disappointment of the giant moth costume is why THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR is rated so badly--but I've seen plenty of just as bad or even worse monster movie makeups. No matter how silly a movie monster may look, you still have to use your imagination on the rest of the film--and if you can't do that, you shouldn't be watching these types of films anyway.
What lifts THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR out of the truly awful category, at least in my estimation, is the performance of Peter Cushing. It's very unusual for an English Gothic horror film to have a police official as the lead character. Typically the main police official in an English Gothic is a supporting role, and whenever he does turn up, it's usually a signal for the viewer to go get some snacks or go to the bathroom. The police official role in an English Gothic is a thankless one, simply because the character spends most of the time trying to find out things the audience already knows. This can sometimes be alleviated by casting a quirky character actor, such as Patrick Wymark or Donald Pleasence.
According to John Hamilton's very thorough and excellent article on the making of THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR for LSOH #43, Peter Cushing had the choice to play either Dr. Mallinger or Inspector Quennell--and he chose the Inspector. I have a feeling that the fact that Cushing had recently worked on the sordid CORRUPTION might have had something to do with his pick. In CORRUPTION Cushing had to go through some very brutal histrionics (and massacre almost the entire cast as well). In THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR Cushing not only gets to play the "good guy", he gets to play a man who is conscientious, even-tempered, and intelligent. Inspector Quennell must have been a walk in the park for Cushing compared to some of his more recent roles. This is not to say that Cushing treated it like a walk in the park--his professionalism was too great for that--but Quennell is probably one of the actor's most normal movie characters, behavior-wise. (Notice in this movie how Quennell is dressed decently, but not as high-class as Cushing's Baron Frankenstein or Dr. Van Helsing--I'm sure that idea came from the actor himself.)
Quennell may be a genial fellow, but Cushing is still able to invest him with some personality. The Inspector has a warm relationship with his daughter, and he shows a wry sense of humor when paired with Sergeant Allan (Glynn Edwards). At one point Quennell's police superior tells him, "Watch those expenses"--Cushing's eye roll in response as he walks away is hilarious. Quennell stills knows how to get the job done, just like all of Cushing's monster fighters. When Quennell figures out the entire plot, Cushing goes through the dialogue so smoothly and effortlessly that you absolutely buy into it--another example of how much value the actor brought to low-budget genre films such as this.
Due to Cushing, this is one monster movie where the audience anticipates seeing the police investigator instead of the scientist or monster. Robert Flemyng brings the same nervy tension to Dr. Mallinger as he brought to the lead role in the infamous THE HORRIBLE DR. HICHCOCK. The role was originally supposed to be played by Basil Rathbone, but he died before shooting began. (One can't help but wonder what it would have been like to have Peter Cushing and Rathbone acting in the same scene.) Since we are told almost nothing about the Mallinger, or why he is performing these experiments, it's hard to have much of any feeling for him. If you like ambiguity in movie plots, THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR has it in spades. There seems to be no reason why Mallinger would want to enable a human to change into a giant moth, or why said human, fully clothed, transforms into a moth with no clothing, and then back into a human fully clothed again. Is Clare his daughter at all?? Is she some sort of totally new creature?? We don't get to find out, but she seems to have more human than moth tendencies. She definitely likes young men as victims, but the script doesn't take full advantage of this. The screenplay was by Hammer veteran Peter Bryan, and it has echoes of both THE GORGON and THE REPTILE. Those films, however, make much more sense. One wishes the story had taken better advantage of Wanda Ventham's sultry nature--what if she tried to seduce her "father", Dr. Mallinger? Or, she tried to seduce Inspector Quennell?? If THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR had been made in the early 1970s, one can easily assume that Clare's human form would have been given a more explicit showcase.
Speaking of exploitation, THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR has very little of it. There's not much gore, and the giant moth attacks mostly happen off-screen. Vanessa Howard is sweetly innocent as Quennell's young daughter, but ironically she would go on to play dangerous teases in movies like MUMSY, NANNY, SONNY & GIRLY and WHAT BECAME OF JACK AND JILL? If she had been used in a certain way, she might have given THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR some much needed spice. The movie does have an old-fashioned air to it, especially when one compares it to the movie Tigon made next--WITCHFINDER GENERAL.
In his LSOH article John Hamilton does a far better job of deconstructing THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR than I ever could. He also gives the reader all the information one could want on the movie. LSOH #43 also has interviews with FX artist Roger Dicken (who made the giant moth costume), director Vernon Sewell, and plenty of behind-the-scenes photos, along with artwork inspired by the movie.
For those wondering why THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR should be given such extensive coverage in a magazine, and a cover story no less, I say...why not?? You can read about the same famous movies over and over again, but I get much more enjoyment learning new information about obscure titles. THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR is no classic, but I'd rather spend nearly 90 minutes watching Peter Cushing as a good guy instead of seeing a generic mainstream title that I'm likely to forget about a couple of days later.
Monday, October 14, 2019
Roger Moore was born on this day in 1927, so there's no better time to write a blog post on Kino's new Region A Blu-ray of the 1980 action-suspense film FFOLKES.
Moore plays Rufus Excalibur ffolkes (the first letter in his last name is supposed to be smaller-case), a rather eccentric underwater expert and leader of his own personal group of commando-like frogmen. A group of men (led by Anthony Perkins) has hijacked a North Sea oil rig, and they are demanding a huge ransom from the British Government. The authorities decide to call in ffolkes to deal with the matter, despite his acerbic and irregular attitude. The prickly ffolkes has less than 24 hours before the oil rig is set to explode.
As mentioned in the audio commentary on this disc, FFOLKES is something of a throwback to the many English action thriller movies made in the 60s and 70s. Producer Elliot Kastner (WHERE EAGLES DARE) and director Andrew V. McLaglen (THE DEVIL'S BRIGADE, THE WILD GEESE) were veterans of this sub-genre. Despite the presence of the then-current 007 and the movie's advertising artwork (see above), FFOLKES is not a slam-bang stunt filled production. It has a lower-key, realistic tone to it, with more tension and suspense than bullets or fistfights.
FFOLKES is also rated PG, which means no overt gore, or suggestive situations. Believe it or not, Moore's ffolkes doesn't flirt, or even get to kiss a woman--because the character is annoyed by them! The man is much more at home with cats, and he takes to needlepoint when he's trying to think. He's also bearded, brusque, opinionated, arrogant, and he's fond of drinking hard liquor straight from the bottle. When watching this film it's obvious that Moore had a grand time playing this role, since it enabled him to go totally against the grain. The character of ffolkes might have come off as a jerk if played by most other actors, but Moore has such charisma and screen presence he makes the fellow entertaining. Much of the enjoyment of the film is due to watching ffolkes exasperate everyone around him.
The supporting cast helps the movie immensely. James Mason, as a Royal Navy Admiral, is something of an "M" to ffolkes, and a foil to him as well. Anthony Perkins is a very, very tense main bad guy, with the always effective Michael Parks backing him up. (Parks gets a lot of creepy attitude out of the Coke bottle glasses he wears throughout the movie.) Film buffs will appreciate seeing supporting actors such as Jack Watson (THE GORGON) and David Hedison (a personal friend of Roger Moore). Faith Brook plays the female British Prime Minister, and while there's no doubt the role was influenced by Margaret Thatcher, the character is not portrayed in an insulting or humorous manner.
FFOLKES does not have a lot of showy FX, but it does have very impressive model and miniature work. The head of special effects for this film was John Richardson, a longtime veteran of the James Bond films. The music was composed by Michael J. Lewis, but the score sounds very much like the work of Ron Goodwin, who did a number of soundtracks for action movies like this.
Kino's Blu-ray of FFOLKES uses a superb transfer, in 1.85:1 widescreen. The main extra is a commentary by film experts Howard S. Berger, Steve Mitchell, and Nathaniel Thompson. It is more analytic than fact-filled, which I appreciate. The men enjoy the movie, and they enjoy talking about it. The talk is wide-ranging, and the trio spend a lot of time discussing the career, and style, of Andrew McLaglen. McLaglen is not considered a "top-tier" director, but he made several entertaining films that are shown on cable TV constantly, and he knew how to tell a story. A number of trailers for similar action features released by Kino are also included.
FFOLKES is the type of picture that is now called a "Dad's movie". I first saw it on TV when I was a kid (I think it might have been its American network broadcast premiere). It's not a big-budget spectacular--it's more of a comfortable type of film to watch, and it owes a lot to the star power of Roger Moore. It also doesn't wear out its welcome at 95 minutes.
Saturday, October 12, 2019
This month being October, one naturally thinks about classic horror films. Producer Val Lewton is most famous for the series of thrillers he made at RKO in the 1940s. Writer Guy de Maupassant penned many renowned tales of terror. MADEMOISELLE FIFI is a 1944 film that Lewton produced based on two of de Maupassant's stories, but it has nothing to do with classic horror.
The movie is set in 1870, during the Franco-Prussian War. In an area of France occupied by the Prussian army, a young and pretty laundress named Elisabeth (Simone Simon) refuses to fraternize or work for the invaders. Traveling back to her hometown on a coach, Elisabeth is looked down on by her fellow passengers. While stopping over at an inn, the coach is held up by an arrogant Prussian officer (Kurt Kreuger). The officer will let the coach and its passengers continue if Elisabeth agrees to have dinner with him. The woman refuses, but is eventually cajoled into doing so by her fellow travelers. At dinner, Elisabeth fends off the officer's advances, but in the morning, as the coach leaves, the passengers look down on her even more. The Prussian officer is also on the journey, and Elisabeth is fated to encounter the man once again, this time with more dramatic results.
MADEMOISELLE FIFI has obvious parallels with WWII, with "Germans" (Prussians) occupying France, and ordinary citizens dealing with the situation in different ways. Kurt Kreuger's Prussian officer is blond, clean cut, and disdainful fellow who acts more like a contemporary Nazi than a 19th Century military man. Simone Simon's Elisabeth is portrayed as patriotic and courageous compared to her fellow coach passengers, who are middle-aged, well-off, stuffy, and silly. But even the poor women who work alongside Elisabeth in the laundry are shown as more than willing to receive favors from their Prussian occupiers.
In Guy de Maupassant's story the character played by Simone Simon was a prostitute. This would not have been allowed in 1944 Hollywood, but one wishes it had for this particular film. As soon as Elisabeth gets on the coach the other passengers treat her as if she has some disease, which doesn't make much sense even if she's "only" a lowly laundress. (What makes the travelers' attitude even more puzzling is the fact that Simon is the best looking person in the movie.) The idea that a prostitute would be the one person brave enough to stand up to the Prussians, instead of the supposedly respectable folk, would have had much more dramatic weight. (By the way, the title MADEMOISELLE FIFI does not refer to Elisabeth...it is the nickname of the Prussian officer!)
Simone Simon made a major impression in Val Lewton's CAT PEOPLE due to her combination of innocence and exotic sultriness. She's effective in MADEMOISELLE FIFI, but she doesn't get a chance to be sultry--her Elisabeth is prim and proper (was this to alleviate any concerns the character might have been a prostitute?). The poster shown above makes Simon appear to be a alluring femme fatale, which she is decidedly not in this film. (Notice how the poster also gives no indication that this movie is set in 1870.)
Val Lewton was a creative and extremely cultured man, and the series of horror films he produced for RKO are filled with all sorts of literary allusions. He must have been excited to do a movie without the horror element attached to it. MADEMOISELLE FIFI is an okay movie, and it is capably directed by Robert Wise, but it needed a larger budget and a larger running time (it is only 69 minutes long) to properly examine all the issues in the story. The film is stodgy and preachy at times, and according to my research it was not a box-office or critical success. One can imagine that the RKO executives had no idea what to do with it. MADEMOISELLE FIFI shows that even when Val Lewton wasn't dealing with a tale of atmospheric horror, he still approached things in an unusual and off-beat manner.
Saturday, October 5, 2019
Last week a wrote a post about the 2004 THE ALAMO. This week I viewed another film dealing with subject of Texas independence: THE FIRST TEXAN, a 1956 production that is a mini-biography of Sam Houston.
Joel McCrea portrays Sam Houston, and here the statesman comes off like just about every other McCrea movie character--as a quiet, steadfast man of integrity. The story opens in 1832, with Houston crossing the Red River into Texas. It is mentioned that Houston was the governor of Tennessee, but he has resigned that position due to personal issues and traveled to Texas to start a new life. Texas at this time is still part of Mexico, and within the first few minutes of Houston's arrival he's already brawling with Mexican soldiers. One shouldn't judge the movie from this sequence, though....the rest of the tale is rather sedate.
The first part of the film deals with Houston's attempts to stay out of the tension between the American settlers of Texas and the Mexican government. This is reminiscent of the many Westerns where the famous lawman/gunslinger tries to settle down in a new town and live a peaceful life. Of course Houston gets caught up in the Texas independence movement, and he interacts with such luminaries as Jim Bowie (Jeff Morrow), William Travis (William Hopper), Stephen Austin, James Fanning, Davy Crockett, and even Andrew Jackson. After the fall of the Alamo (which is not shown onscreen), Houston becomes head of a ragtag army, and he tries to avoid the larger forces of Mexican leader Santa Anna until the Texas forces are in an advantageous position. The second part of the film is taken up with Houston's leadership of the Texas army, and the theme here is how many see the man as afraid to face Santa Anna due to his strategy of avoiding battle till the time is right. The movie ends with Houston's stunning victory against the Mexican army at San Jacinto.
I'm no expert on the life of Sam Houston, but the man lived a boisterous and colorful life. THE FIRST TEXAN may be in color and Cinemascope, but it is not a boisterous film. The movie has a very formal air to it, and it is very dialogue driven. Even the climatic battle of San Jacinto is not all that spectacular. The movie doesn't seem to have a large budget, since various soldiers and settlers ride over what looks like the same plot of land. McCrea's Houston is a virtuous, straight-arrow fellow, and the real Houston was far more complicated and far more opportunistic.
One would expect that all the various historical legends that pop up in the film would enliven the tale, but they are barely fleshed out, and appear as virtual cameos. The only supporting actor that grabs your attention is Jeff Morrow as Jim Bowie. He doesn't get a lot of screen time, but he shows some hot-headed charisma (Morrow himself would have made a good Sam Houston). Felicia Farr plays Houston's love interest, but this part of the story isn't all that interesting.
THE FIRST TEXAN was produced by Walter Mirisch, and directed by Byron Haskin, who is best known for the science fiction films he made with George Pal. It's a competently made picture, but it lacks a certain spark. A film that deals with the life of Sam Houston and the battle for Texas independence should be a lot more adventurous and noteworthy.
Tuesday, October 1, 2019
This week is the 100th anniversary of the 1919 World Series. For those of you who are not baseball fans, the 1919 World Series is one of the most infamous events in American cultural history. During that series, the American League champion Chicago White Sox faced off against the National League champion Cincinnati Reds. The Reds defeated the White Sox, 5 games to 3, but it was discovered that certain players on the Sox had conspired to "throw" the series--that is, to not play their best in exchange for money from gamblers.
Thirty years ago, the film FIELD OF DREAMS was released. It is now considered an American classic. The movie is constantly quoted and referenced on the internet, and the actual baseball field that was built in Iowa for the film has become an iconic site.
The Black Sox scandal has a major part in the plot of FIELD OF DREAMS. The eight White Sox players permanently banned from Major League Baseball due to the circumstances of the scandal "appear" in the film as ghosts, and one of those players, Shoeless Joe Jackson, as portrayed by Ray Liotta, has an important function in the story.
FIELD OF DREAMS is undoubtedly a great film. It's a tale about loss, redemption, hope, and following your heart. It's entertaining and moving, and it's worth seeing just for the baseball park in the cornfield. Writer/Director Phil Alden Robinson (whose script was based on W.P. Kinsella's book SHOELESS JOE) did a magnificent job in creating a modern fairy tale. The scene where James Earl Jones talks about what baseball means to America is one of the greatest movie speeches ever.
A lot of people have a large emotional attachment to FIELD OF DREAMS. That's very understandable. It's all and well to admire the film...I do myself.
Those that do love FIELD OF DREAMS need to understand, however, that it is essentially a fairy tale. It should not be taken as legitimate history on the Black Sox scandal. The reason I point this out is that it seems a lot of people's knowledge of the Black Sox comes strictly from FIELD OF DREAMS or the 1988 movie adaptation of EIGHT MEN OUT.
The entire Black Sox scandal is a very complicated and frustrating affair. All of the people that were heavily involved in it have passed away a long time ago, and historians and researchers are still finding--and refuting--information on it even to this day. We will probably never fully know exactly what happened.
I've been a White Sox fan since I was a little kid. The very title of this blog refers to the 1906 World Champion White Sox, a team that was nicknamed "The Hitless Wonders". I've always been fascinated by White Sox lore--I own dozens of books on the franchise, including all three editions of the White Sox encyclopedia. The most authoritative White Sox historian, author Richard Lindberg, is a Facebook friend of mine.
When I was starting to get interested in baseball history as a kid, the Black Sox--the eight players who were banned from baseball because of what happened in the 1919 World Series--were widely looked down upon. As the years went by, that perception started to change, and it really turned around after EIGHT MEN OUT and FIELD OF DREAMS was released. The Black Sox--and Shoeless Joe Jackson especially--were now looked at by many as wronged men, underpaid working class guys who had been unjustly treated by the "miserly" owner of the White Sox, Charles Comiskey.
FIELD OF DREAMS went out of its way to "rehabilitate" the Black Sox by giving them a chance as movie characters to come out of the cornfield and get a second chance to play the game they supposedly loved. Shoeless Joe is played by Ray Liotta, and he comes off as handsome and noble.
Unfortunately....the real Shoeless Joe looked a bit like a young Harry Dean Stanton, and I doubt he was as articulate as Ray Liotta. The real Shoeless Joe also batted left and threw right, whereas in the movie Ray Liotta bats right and throws left. (Did Jackson learn how to switch hit and throw in heaven??). The Shoeless Joe in FIELD OF DREAMS is a metaphor, a symbol. He truly is a movie character, with very little in common with the historical Shoeless Joe.
The problem is, most people's knowledge of Shoeless Joe comes from FIELD OF DREAMS, and because of their love for the movie, they're convinced that Joe is a wronged innocent, and they might even think the rest of the Black Sox were really innocent too. You really shouldn't base a historical judgement on a movie that features ghosts.
Ray Liotta as Shoeless Joe Jackson
We live in a sound bite era, where the mainstream media finds it very easy to brand someone as a hero or a villain. Automatically accepting whatever narrative the media decides to give you is not the best idea. The Black Sox scandal is far too complicated for a sound bite, or even a feature length film. (A multi-part mini-series would be the best way to approach it.)
Whenever someone asks me about the Black Sox scandal, I ask them, "What books have you read on the subject?" Invariably the response I get is something along the lines of "I haven't read any books on it...but I love FIELD OF DREAMS!!" If you want to know some actual facts concerning the Black Sox scandal, I suggest you go seek out the several volumes that have been written on it...and yes, I'm referring to reading books--not "stuff on the internet." Books are those things where you have to think and pay attention and turn the pages.
FIELD OF DREAMS is a great film, an American classic....but it should not be used as a primer on the Black Sox scandal.
*If you are interested in my thought on EIGHT MEN OUT, I wrote a post on it for this blog in February of 2013.
Saturday, September 28, 2019
My birthday was earlier this week, and as a present my great friend Josh Kennedy sent me a DVD of the 2004 version of THE ALAMO. Josh has been trying to get me to see this movie for years.
Josh is a native Texan, which means that the legend of the Alamo has made a huge impression on him. Josh can literally recite any line of dialogue from John Wayne's THE ALAMO at the drop of a hat. Josh loves the Wayne version, but he also realizes that it is a dramatic interpretation of the actual historical events. He's mentioned to me several times how the 2004 THE ALAMO takes a more nuanced and realistic approach to the subject.
The 2004 THE ALAMO does go for a more "warts and all" approach. The three main characters are still Davy Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton), Jim Bowie (Jason Patric), and William Travis (Patrick Wilson), but the script (co-written by director John Lee Hancock) takes great pains to try and cover various angles of the tale. Mexican General Santa Anna is a minor character in the film, and it is shown that native-born Mexicans fought alongside Travis and his men. The Mexican soldiers are not portrayed as just faceless villains, and the defenders of the Alamo are not set up as pure & noble heroes. The physical realization of the Alamo compound is much more accurate than the John Wayne version, and the costumes are more realistic than the typical generic "Hollywood Western" look.
The movie also tries to set up the events that led up to the siege of the Alamo in 1836, with infighting between Sam Houston (Dennis Quaid) and the leaders of the Texas independent movement. There's also plenty of tension between Travis and Jim Bowie, but it is portrayed in a much less florid manner than in the Wayne version.
John Wayne's Davy Crockett was a larger-than-life figure (with the Duke playing him, what else could he be?). Billy Bob Thornton's Crockett is a man almost haunted by his fame--he feels that he may not be able to live up to his reputation. Thornton's Crockett literally does more fiddling than fighting, and he also gets most of the script's best lines (such as "We're gonna need more men"). Patrick Wilson's Travis is set up as a lightweight as a counterpoint to Jason Patric's brooding Jim Bowie, who spends most of the time sick in bed (just as he really did during his time at the Alamo.) What is missing in this film are the many classic Hollywood character actors that enlivened so many other historical cinematic epics.
Patrick Wilson as William Travis, Billy Bob Thornton as Davy Crockett, Jason Patric as Jim Bowie
The actor that made the biggest impression on me was Dennis Quaid as Sam Houston. This may be due to the end of the film, which shows what happened after the slaughter of the Alamo defenders. The movie does not climax with the ending of the siege of the Alamo, as one might expect. It goes on to show how Sam Houston led his ragtag army to victory against the Mexican forces of Santa Anna at the battle of San Jacinto. That victory guaranteed Texas independence, and it is a subject that is worthy of a entire film itself. In fact the San Jacinto sequence feels somewhat like an extended trailer for a sequel to THE ALAMO. I happen to think it's an excellent sequence, and I'm sure it was included to make the ending of the film less of a downer.
The 2004 THE ALAMO is a very good film, but it is also a very somber one, with almost no humor (there's no John Wayne-John Ford style rough housing here). It's not nearly as long as the John Wayne THE ALAMO, but there are times when it feels longer. Director John Lee Hancock is a Texan, and one can tell he tried to cover all the bases when it came to the facts behind the Alamo. Hancock avoids the contrived moments that one expects from an historical epic. He stays away from using CGI or outlandish editing techniques during the battle scenes. Hancock also doesn't use wild camera movements--instead he takes advantage of Dean Semler's atmospheric cinematography. The co-producer of the film was Ron Howard, and the movie does have some of the dramatic style one sees in a Ron Howard-directed title.
I liked the 2004 THE ALAMO. I appreciated the idea of making a film that takes a more measured and realistic approach toward the Alamo story. It's not a grand spectacular epic, but then again that wasn't the approach that the filmmakers decided to take. It's a film that history buffs will especially enjoy.