'The Alamo': A Battle Disney May Never Forget
By SHARON WAXMAN
LOS ANGELES, March 23 — When the dust finally settles, the Walt Disney Company may not want to remember "The Alamo."
An updated epic about the historic last stand at the Texas fort, the big-budget feature was meant to be Disney's prestigious, star-studded showpiece for Christmas 2003, the culmination of a banner year for Disney Studios.
Instead it is turning into an unintended emblem of the embattled media company's troubles. The movie, over budget and extensively recut, will finally be released on April 9, laboring under the taint of skeptical industry talk. Starring Dennis Quaid as Sam Houston, Billy Bob Thornton as Davy Crockett and Jason Patric as James Bowie, "The Alamo" may ultimately find a broad audience. But its journey, from conception to release, has been a bumpy one.
The film was originally slated to be directed by Ron Howard in 2002, just after his best-picture Oscar for "A Beautiful Mind," and to star Russell Crowe. The budget was to be about $125 million, and the movie was to have an R rating for violence. Instead Disney switched gears to opt for a lower budget and a less experienced director, John Lee Hancock, who was to make the film for $75 million and a tamer PG-13 rating, to draw a wider audience.
But after a false start and recuts, "The Alamo" has ended up costing about $107 million and has gone from a 3-hour version to one about 2 hours 15 minutes, the filmmakers say. The role of General Houston, originally intended for Mr. Crowe and played by Mr. Quaid, has been reduced, said Mark Johnson, the movie's producer.
The film, screened this week for a reporter, is heavy on history and sweeping shots of the reconstructed Texas monument, but short on action and drama.
Part of the problem with the movie, Mr. Johnson acknowledged in December, was the lack of a central hero. "There's no one lead," he said during the re-editing process, when three editors were reworking on sections of the film. "We've got to keep six characters alive, which is proving really difficult. We may have attempted to do too much." Last week Mr. Johnson and the director, Mr. Hancock, said they were happy with the final version. "I feel really good about it," Mr. Hancock said. "The scenes are shorter. If any character suffered from this, it's secondary" to the story.
Films that are pulled from release schedules for further editing are often labeled troubled in Hollywood, and "The Alamo" is no exception. Its fate has been fodder for Texas newspapers and Internet movie sites. And though script changes, delays and inflated budgets are not uncommon, the attention on the troubles of "The Alamo" could hardly come at a worse time for Disney. While last year the movie studio was the company's one bright spot, this year it has already had one pricey disappointment in "Hidalgo," an estimated $140 million production (Disney officials would not confirm the figure) that so far has taken in only $48.5 million at the box office.
An expensive animated film opening on April 2, "Home on the Range," which is said to have also cost close to $100 million, has poor advance word according to market research.
All of this comes just on the heels of the shareholder revolt against Michael D. Eisner, the Walt Disney Company's chief executive, which led this month to his removal as chairman and the appointment of George J. Mitchell to the position.
Dick Cook, chairman of Disney Studios, said he was confident that the delayed film would be worth the wait. "I'm thrilled" with the new version, Mr. Cook said in an interview on Monday. "We all felt we've got something really great, really special. We made an epic."
In May 2002 Disney proudly announced its intention to remake the classic tale of "The Alamo," with Mr. Eisner saying the film would "capture the post-Sept. 11 surge in patriotism." Disney said it would take care to give context to the Mexican side of the battle, leading to observations in the press that the film would be a politically correct version of the tale.
The latest of many screen versions, "The Alamo" was to be based on the 1836 story of about 200 defenders — mostly Texians (Anglo immigrants to Texas, then a part of Mexico) and a few Tejanos (people of Mexican descent living in Texas) — who held the fort for 13 days before it fell to Mexican troops led by Gen. Antonio López de Santa Anna.
The Alamo heroes included Col. William Travis (Patrick Wilson), Bowie (Mr. Patric) and Crockett (Mr. Thornton), whose last stand passed into history and became a rallying cry for General Houston to win the war for Texas independence.
Mr. Howard had spent a year developing the script with the writer John Sayles ("Lone Star," 1996). The Oscar-winning writer Steven Gaghan ("Traffic," 2000) had been hired to polish the story, and vast sets had begun to rise on a plain near Austin when in July 2002 Disney said Mr. Howard would not be the director.
At the time Disney executives explained that the budget was too high, since an estimated $30 million would go to Mr. Howard, Mr. Crowe and Mr. Howard's producing partner, Brian Grazer. Mr. Grazer said Mr. Eisner mainly pulled the plug over the R rating, which was the only way Mr. Howard saw to direct the film.
"We finally found the right filter through which the story was worth retelling," Mr. Grazer said. "The only way it really made sense was within the psyche of the three guys" inside the Alamo fort.
Mr. Grazer said that he and Mr. Howard felt they had had Disney's commitment to make an R-rated movie, which the studio ultimately rejected, and were upset because they had used their influence to get Mr. Crowe, much in demand at the time, to star. Ethan Hawke had also signed on for a supporting role, and Sean Penn was close to taking the Bowie role, Mr. Grazer said.
Disney instead hired Mr. Hancock, whose first film, "The Rookie," had become a modest hit. Mr. Hancock, a Texas native, said he had spent five weeks deciding to take the job, agreeing to a lower budget and a PG-13 rating.
"I always looked at it as a character drama on a historic stage," said Mr. Hancock, 46, about undertaking the shoot. "I was frightened. I'd never done anything like this before. Some days we had 12 cameras going, at once. Sometimes it was like directing the `Monday Night Football' game from the booth. It's big."
Shooting, scheduled for November 2002, got under way in January 2003, with a budget that had soared to $95 million. The studio erected what the producers say was the largest set built in North America, a 50-acre swath recreating the Alamo fort and the 19th-century town of San Antonio in Dripping Springs, 75 miles outside of modern-day Austin. "You could shoot 360 degrees around safely without seeing anything but the entire town of San Antonio as it existed in 1836," Mr. Johnson said.
Mr. Hancock ended up with one million feet of film, and just a few months to trim it into shape, in time to be the centerpiece of Disney's Oscar season, Christmas films. Ultimately the director was not happy with the cut he had completed by October. The movie was tested at a length of 3 hours, and again at a length of 2 hours 25 minutes. "Neither one was the right movie," Mr. Johnson said.
The essential problem was that the movie broke into three sections, with the fall of the Alamo happening at the end of the second section, and the third act involving Houston taking revenge for the fall of the fort. The director was grappling with getting to the siege and battle more quickly.
On Oct. 29, with some billboard advertising already in place and the trailer mailed to the news media, Mr. Cook, chairman of Disney Studios, agreed to pull "The Alamo" from its schedule, just eight weeks ahead of its planned release date.
"Ultimately the end product is more important than the need to meet arbitrary deadlines for awards, etc.," Mr. Cook said at the time.
The epic was trimmed to two hours, then tested. Two weeks ago another 15 minutes was reinserted into the film. The filmmakers said that Mr. Quaid's role had shrunk considerably and that other roles had been cut entirely.
For Mr. Hancock, the director, it has been an agonizing process. Last week he was near tears, Mr. Johnson said, when he called an actor to tell him his role had to be eliminated.
Despite the delay Disney has put significant marketing muscle behind
the film, spending an estimated extra $35 million on advertising, including
during the Super Bowl. The studio has planned a star-studded, blowout premiere
in San Antonio on Saturday night, and a three-day media junket.