' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Last Night at the Alamo (1983)

Friday, October 14, 2022

Friday's Old Fashioned: Last Night at the Alamo (1983)

“Last Night at the Alamo” refers not to the famed San Antonio fort cum tourist attraction but a bar outside Houston named for the place where Davy Crockett and others made their last stand. The facts of that seminal passage in Texas history have been challenged, though that’s not anything new as Eagle Pennell’s black and white 16mm movie from 1983 goes to show, not that he is putting such obvious words in the mouths of his characters. As the title suggests, the Alamo watering hole is slated for demolition, putting a more recent first-time viewer such as myself in the mind of 2020’s superb last-night-in-a-bar “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets.” That, however, was fiction posing as a documentary whereas “Last Night at the Alamo” is fiction that feels like a documentary, the camera an interloper, an eavesdropper, just taking it all in. When Cowboy Regan (Sonny Carl Davis) topples to the floor during a fight, losing his ten-gallon-hat and exposing his bald spot heretofore hidden from view, another movie might have accentuated the simultaneous exposing of the silver screen cowboy archetype. In Pennell’s deromanticized aesthetic, Cowboy just looks like some drunk sprawled on the floor. 

Given that the whole movie revolves around talkative barflies, “Last Night at the Alamo” appropriately opens mid-conversation – nay, mid-argument between young Ichabod (Steven Mattila) and his long suffering (picture in the dictionary and all that) girlfriend Mary (Tina-Bess Hubbard) in the former’s truck and on their way to the Alamo. This argument, it never really stops, not exactly, just finding something like an armistice in alcohol drawn from the tap and picking right back up where they left off as the movie ends. Then again, Claude (Lou Perryman) might come to the Alamo to find respite from an argument with his wife, but he finds none, their argument continuing by phone and in his mind. His spouse, she is never seen, only groused about, and all that grousing allows Perryman to really wrap his lips around the word “shit,” over and over, again and again. This evokes its lingual place as an all-purpose swear word and emotional catch-all, but in Perryman’s voice becomes profane poetry, his north Texas drawl drawing out that concluding “it” and making it vibrate like an echo off the inside of an empty water tower. You don’t need a sad song on the jukebox; you just need to hear Claude lament “shit.”

The key character here, though, is Cowboy Regan, kind of a Lone Star Harry Lime, the person everyone talks about but who takes a little while to make his entrance, effectively setting him up as larger than life. That very idea though is mocked in Davis’s inherent diminutive stature, and though the character boasts about being on the way to Hollywood to star in westerns, it sounds as believable as his claim that he knows a Texas legislator that can save the Alamo. These are tall tales that sound taller during the first couple of beers, less so a few more beers in, by which point Regan has been unmasked as just one more drugstore cowboy, his fall from semi-towering heights aided by Davis’s shrewd performance, never changing his demeanor, exactly, just allowing the gradually (d)evolving situation to just cast his character in a whole different light. And by the movie’s end, when Cowboy leads something comically approximating an armed sit-in to stop the demolition, he’s essentially playing the Battle of the Alamo as Drunk History. If “Last Night at the Alamo” were released today, it is hard to know whether it would get past the censors of the Texas State Legislature.

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