Based on the 1836 standoff between a group of Texan and Tejano men, led by Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie, and Mexican dictator Santa Anna’s forces at the Alamo in San Antonio Texas.
The film begins in March 1836 in the Mexican State of Coahuila y Tejas town of San Antonio de Bexar (now Downtown San Antonio in the US state of Texas), site of the Alamo, where bodies of Texan defenders and Mexican attackers are strewn over the Alamo. The film then flashes back to a year earlier. Sam Houston (Dennis Quaid) attends a party where he tries to persuade people to migrate to Texas. He meets with David Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton), recently defeated for reelection to Congress. Houston explains to Crockett that as an immigrant to Texas, Crockett will receive 640 acres (2.6 km2) [a square mile] of his own choosing. Crockett, with a grin, pointedly asks Houston whether this new republic is going to need a president.
Meanwhile, in San Felipe, Texas, the Texas provisional government is meeting to discuss what action to take after the recent capture by the Texans of the Alamo and Bexar from Mexican forces at the first Battle of San Antonio de Bexar. Texas having rebelled against Mexico and its dictatorial president Santa Anna, who is personally leading an army to retake the Alamo, the Texan War Party calls for the Texas army to depart Bexar, cross into Mexico and confront Mexican forces at the town of Matamoros. The Opposition Party seeks to rebuild the Texan army and establish a permanent government to be recognised by other nations of the world. The provisional government votes out Sam Houston as commander of the Texas army. While having drinks with Jim Bowie later, the disgusted Houston tells Bowie to go to San Antonio and destroy the Alamo.
William Barret Travis (Patrick Wilson) is also in San Felipe, reporting for duty. His character is quickly established as a man who seeks respect as a uniformed military officer, a Lieutenant Colonel in the Texas Army. Interlaced scenes show him granting his wife a divorce (for his adultery, abandonment, and “barbarous treatment”), and seeking to begin a new life in Texas. The Texas provisional government orders him to take command of the Alamo. There he meets Colonel James Neill (Brandon Smith), who informs him that Travis will be in command of the Texas Army regulars while Neill is away on leave. Travis is alarmed that the Alamo’s small force cannot withstand the Mexican Army which is rumoured to have thousands of foot soldiers, plus the formidable Mexican cavalry. Again he sends a rider to deliver his plea for reinforcements. As small groups of Texans arrive, Travis oversees defence preparations, hoping that enough reinforcements will arrive before the inevitable attack.
Crockett arrives in San Antonio, where he tells a crowd, “I told them folks you’all can go to hell, I’m going to Texas'”. He is told that the other defenders are impatient for Santa Anna to arrive now that Crockett is on hand to fight alongside them to which a puzzled Crockett replies, “I understood the fighting was over… Ain’t it?”
Santa Anna soon arrives in San Antonio, much to the surprise of the Texan fighters, who were not expecting the Mexican Army to arrive until late March or early April. The Texans retire to the Alamo compound despite its vulnerability, and begin fortifying it as best they can. Amid the chaos Travis writes letters asking for reinforcements. Only a couple dozen men arrive to join them.
Santa Anna’s army surrounds the Alamo compound and the siege begins. Bowie leaves the Alamo to meet with Mexican General Manuel Castrillón (Castulo Guerra) to talk things over before matters get out of hand; however, an incensed Travis fires the 18-pound cannon on the south-west wall, thus cutting short Bowie’s impromptu attempt at diplomacy. This virtually ends the chance to forestall the Mexican attack and Bowie returns to tell Travis that Santa Anna has offered surrender at discretion. Travis offers all within the Alamo an opportunity to leave. Almost to a man the defenders decide to stay and fight to the end. At least one woman remains, Mrs. Susanna Dickinson (Laura Clifton), whose husband, Lieutenant Almeron Dickinson (Stephen Bruton), has decided to stay. Bowie becomes debilitatingly ill and is bedridden in one of the buildings. For the next several nights the Mexican Army band serenades the Texans with the “Degüello” (slit throat), followed by an artillery bombardment of the surrounded compound. Convinced that the Texans will not leave the Alamo, Santa Anna orders a blood-red signal flag to be raised, the sign for “no quarter”. The flag is visible also to the Alamo’s defenders, who know its meaning.
Crockett, having stayed awake through the night, checks the walls and notices the approaching Mexican army. The Texans are awakened by his first shot and begin rushing to their posts. The Texans also hear the battle cry of the Mexican soldiers: “Viva Santa Anna!” After a long, brutal battle the Mexicans, despite taking heavy casualties, breach the north wall of the mission where Travis is killed, shot in the head by a young Mexican soldier. A small group of Mexican engineers, armed with axes and crowbars, assault and break down the boarded-up doors and windows of the west wall, while another small group storms the southwest wall. The few surviving Texans fall back to the buildings, where they are all killed. Attackers discover the bedridden Bowie in his room, where he fires his pistols and attempts to fight with his knife, but is swiftly bayonetted to death. Crockett and the last 4 defenders retreat into the church where they fight their last stand. Crockett is taken prisoner. In a final act of defiance, he mockingly offers to lead Santa Anna and the Mexican Army to Sam Houston in order to ensure the formers’ safety; Santa Anna thereupon angrily orders Crockett to be executed.
Days later, after hearing that the Alamo has been taken, Houston, once again in command of the remnants of the Texan army, orders a general retreat eastward. His army and the families of most of the soldiers flee. They are pursued by the victorious Mexican Army, led by the confident Santa Anna. (Historians call this near-panic flight the “Runaway Scrape”.) However, against the advice of his officers, Santa Anna decides to split his army in an attempt to catch the retreating Texans, leaving only a few hundred men to defend him. A few weeks later, Houston halts his retreat near the San Jacinto River (east of the future site of the City of Houston), where he decides to face the Mexicans in a final stand. With the support of two cannons and a small group of mounted “Tejanos”), Houston surprises Santa Anna’s army during its afternoon siesta. During the ensuing short rout (called by the victors the Battle of San Jacinto), the vengeful Texans massacre at least seven hundred Mexican soldiers and capture General Santa Anna, whose identity is given away when Mexican prisoners respond to his presence by reverently rising to their feet. Santa Anna surrenders to the wounded Houston, and in exchange for his life agrees to order all Mexican troops to withdraw from Texas and to accept Texan independence, despite the Texans wanting to hang him as revenge for the Alamo. The last scene in the movie shows the spirit of Crockett playing his fiddle on the top of the Alamo and then looking out on the horizon.
Production & Filming Details
- Director: John Lee Hancock.
- Producers: Ron Howard and Mark Johnson.
- Writers: John Lee Hancock, Leslie Bohem, and Stephen Gaghan.
- Music: Cater Burwell.
- Cinematography: Dean Semler.
- Editor: Eric L. Beason.
- Production: Touchstone Pictures and Imagine Entertainment.
- Distributor: Buena Vista Pictures.
- Release Date: 09 April 2004.
- Running Time: 137 minutes.
- Country: US.
- Language: English.