Dir: John Lee Hancock. US. 2003. 136mins.

Reconceived and re-budgeted after the departure of original director Ron Howard and then rescheduled by Disney from its planned release date last Christmas, The Alamo finally arrives on screen with a lot of baggage. But it's not the baggage that weighs down this latest movie depiction of the fateful mid-nineteenth century battle at a besieged fort in Texas. Rather, it's the film's unsuccessful attempt to mix political complexity with old-fashioned Western melodrama that ultimately turns The Alamo into worthy but unexciting historical epic.

Though neither the film itself nor its advertising campaign indulges in any blatant flag waving, at home in the US distributor Buena Vista may be able to tap into a patriotic national mood fostered by the war in Iraq and pull in a big - and broad, given the film's PG-13 rating - opening weekend audience. Word of mouth, however, could cause a fast drop-off in subsequent weeks.

International audiences, of course, will be much harder to win over, given that the film combines a quintessentially American story with only a mid-level cast. And in some territories outside the US the film's box office chances will undoubtedly be hurt by local perceptions of the situation in Iraq.

Director and co-writer John Lee Hancock (The Rookie) ended up making the film with a reduced budget of around $95m. He uses the money to pack a lot of story - perhaps too much - into the two-and-a-quarter hour running time.

In the first half hour, Hancock tries to give his audience a crash course in the politics of what was then the fledgling republic of Texas and fill in the back-stories of the battle's key players. General Sam Houston (Quaid) is the stubborn military tactician and Texas booster; David Crockett (Thornton) is the easygoing Western legend with political ambitions; James Bowie (Patric) is the hard-living militiaman with the big knife; and Lt Col William Travis (Wilson) is the brash young professional soldier.

History begins to get in the way of drama when Crockett, Bowie and Travis arrive to organise 200 men in the defence of the Alamo against thousands of Mexican troops commanded by General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna (Mexican star Echevarria, from Amores Perros).

In real life, the Mexicans waited nearly two weeks to actually attack the fort. The film uses the delay to start building relationships between the American protagonists and to give very brief glimpses of what the battle meant for Mexican Tejanos inside the fort and the Americans' black slaves. Perhaps because the Americans aren't initially a particularly likeable lot, Hancock also takes time to paint a caricature of Santa Anna as a cruel, preening bastard.

The mood gets gloomier as the inevitable Mexican attack approaches and the film resorts to some very stagy and melodramatic scenes of soldiers writing home, giving speeches about what Texas means to them, and posing against impressive sunsets.

The attack itself goes by in a night-time blur until the dramatic moment when Crockett is left as the last (American) man standing. The final half hour takes the action back into the countryside to follow Houston and his men as they seek revenge on Santa Anna.

Perhaps in the interests of historical veracity, the film doesn't single out a particular hero on the American side, so none of the actors really stands out. Thornton gives the most enjoyable - if sometimes pretty hammy - performance and movie newcomer Wilson is quite appealing. Quaid (who starred for Hancock in The Rookie), however, just grimaces through his intermittent appearances on camera and Patric's role eventually becomes one long death scene. Spanish star Jordi Molla (Segunda Piel) gets a flimsy part as the captain of the Mexican Tejanos.

Prod cos: Touchstone Pictures, Imagine Entertainment
US dist:
Buena Vista Pictures
Exec prods:
Todd Hallowell, Philip Steuer
Mark Johnson, Ron Howard
Leslie Bohem, Stephen Gaghan, John Lee Hancock
Dean Semler
Prod des:
Michael Corenblith
Eric L Beason
Costume des:
Daniel Orlandi
Carter Burwell
Main cast:
Dennis Quaid, Billy Bob Thornton, Jason Patric, Patrick Wilson, Emilio Echevarria, Jordi Molla