By Thane Peterson One of President Bush's favorite books is a biography of Sam Houston, a wild and troubled man whose story in some ways parallels the President's. Houston was a heavy drinker who reformed and went on to become a great general and politician. He heroically defeated Mexican General Santa Anna after the fall of the Alamo in 1836 and played a key role in the creation of the state of Texas. No less an authority than the historian and conservative writer Richard Brookhiser has speculated that Houston may represent a sort of father figure for the President.
I mention all that not to probe the President's psyche but to demonstrate just how hard it would be to make a boring movie about the Alamo. It's a stirring tale with a number of colorful characters, including legendary frontiersmen Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie, both of whom died defending the Alamo. No movie about the battle has been made since a conventional 1960 Hollywood extravaganza directed by John Wayne, so it has been ripe for a less reverential remake.
WRITEDOWNS AHEAD? Plus, given that the nation is at war in Iraq and that the President hails from Texas, the story has contemporary relevance -- either as a cautionary tale or an inspiring fable of brave men standing up for what's right, or some combination of the two.
So how did Walt Disney (DIS) blow it so badly? The Alamo, which cost about $100 million to make, barely grossed $16 million in its first two weeks. It's just one of several expensive movies Disney has released recently that are doing so badly that analysts are fretting the company may have to take tens of millions of dollars in writedowns.
That would be yet another strike against embattled Disney CEO Michael Eisner, who's under pressure to improve financial performance. I went to see a few of the new Disney movies -- The Alamo, The Ladykillers, Home on the Range, and Kill Bill II. Based on what I saw and the box-office numbers, Eisner better not count on getting a big bottom-line boost from the first three. But Kill Bill I and II are turning into major -- and highly profitable -- blockbusters that will help offset the weak performance of Disney's other movies. Here's the rundown:
The Alamo: It would take several columns to discuss all the problems with this movie. It started out as an aspiring blockbuster, and ended up an unfocused production that has the feel of having been cobbled together by committee. Ron Howard was supposed to direct, and Russell Crowe was to have starred as Houston. However, John Lee Hancock (The Rookie) directed, and Dennis Quaid played Houston -- because Eisner's bean counters wanted to save money, according to published reports.
The main weakness is that Disney apparently wanted the movie to have a happy ending -- not exactly easy considering all of the Alamo's 187 defenders died in the battle. So, the film reaches its climax in the middle. The Alamo falls, and the last survivor -- Davy Crockett in Disney's version, though not in history -- defiantly refuses to beg for his life before being bayoneted to death by Santa Anna's soldiers. Things then drag on through a long postscript in which Houston plays cat-and-mouse across Texas before finally defeating Santa Anna's army in an anticlimactic rout.
The wasted dramatic possibilities in this production are numerous. Quaid, who has delivered wonderful performances in such recent movies as Far From Heaven, is a disaster as Houston. He has only a few significant speeches in which to establish the character and spends most of the movie scowling and grunting. We see him pass from being a Tennessee drunk to a wily Texas territories general with no explanation whatsoever.
The only major character who works is Davy Crockett. Billy Bob Thornton plays Crockett as a joshing, self-deprecating frontier politician who feels trapped by his fame. Thornton's performance is so much stronger than anyone else's that his character becomes the center of the movie. The trouble is, Crockett was only one of three key figures in the defense of the Alamo. Two other, Jim Bowie (played by Jason Patric) and Lieutenant Colonel William Travis (played by Patrick Wilson), are stick figures who never come alive.
Home on the Range: As Westerns go, this feature-length cartoon is a lot better than The Alamo. It's also doing better financially, having grossed $38 million in its first three weeks. But you probably won't enjoy it if you're over the age of eight. It relies heavily on belching and flatulence jokes. My guess is that strong DVD and video sales may limit Disney's losses on this $100 million production, the last one Disney plans to make by traditional hand-drawing techniques. Home on the Range is harmless entertainment that parents will be happy to buy for their kids as long as they don't have to sit through it themselves.
The Ladykillers: This comedy has one good reason to sit through it: Tom Hanks. He plays an eccentric professorial thief who leads a team of other eccentric thieves in a scheme to rob a riverboat casino. Hanks is a great actor, and it's worth the ticket price just to see him do a light comedy. The movie is directed and co-written by the talented Coen Brothers (Fargo, Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?), so it's clever and funny. But this remake has none of the dark undertones of the 1955 original starring Alec Guinness.
It's the kind of movie you forget about a few days after you see it, so it probably isn't getting much word-of-mouth. It has grossed a only little more than $30 million in its first few weeks. Considering The Ladykillers cost $60 million to make, it looks destined to lose money.
Kill Bill II: Financially speaking, this offering from Disney's Miramax unit is a major coup. Quentin Tarantino, Miramax' star director, originally made a three-hour opus that was probably too long to have been a hit. Rather than offend Tarantino by cutting the movie, Miramax CEO Harvey Weinstein came up with the brilliant idea of dividing Kill Bill into two separate releases, thereby potentially doubling the studio's revenues. Kill Bill (I and II combined) came in only slightly over the $55 million budget, and Kill Bill I has already grossed more than $180 million worldwide. Now, II is shaping up as a hit, too, having grossed nearly $26 million in its first weekend.
Critics are divided between those who see the movies as a cinematically brilliant romp full of irony and knowing film references, and those who can't stand it. I'm in the latter camp. To me, it's an empty, overly violent production whose historical and moral context comes mainly from TV. I hated Kill Bill I, and I like II slightly better only because it's less violent (see BW Online, 10/14/03, "Eastwood Hits, Tarantino Misses").
What do these four movies tell us about Disney? Though Kill Bill II isn't to my taste, it clearly has huge appeal for younger moviegoers. Indeed, the only real dog in the bunch is The Alamo. And there the lesson seems pretty clear. It would have been better to pay up and go with a proven talent like Ron Howard or not go ahead at all. Cheaping out backfired, and I doubt Disney will make that mistake again any time soon. Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BusinessWeek Online