Billy Bob Thornton stars in the latest epic film to dramatize a 19th century American battle that became a rallying cry for the then-young United States. Alan Silverman has a look at The Alamo.

Almost 170 years ago some 200 men from a variety of backgrounds answered that challenge at an old Spanish mission fortified as a military outpost: The Alamo.

In 1836 Texas was not yet part of the United States, but a breakaway province of Mexico, populated by "Tejanos" and "Texians," an eclectic mix of native Mexicans and North American settlers. Opposing their bid to become an independent republic was Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna Perez de Lebron - known as Santa Anna - a general in Mexico's own war for independence a decade earlier and known for his military and political ruthlessness.

For 13 days, the handful of defenders squared off against a vastly superior Mexican Army, which finally attacked on March 6, 1836. After only 90 minutes all of the Texians were dead or captured and later executed; but their brave stand turned them into legends. Of course, one of them was already a legend when he arrived to join the defenders at The Alamo celebrated frontiersman and former U.S. congressman from Tennessee, Davy Crockett, played in the new film by Billy Bob Thornton.

"He perpetuated his own legend ... and at some point you have to live up to it," explains Thornton. "Really what I tried to do in this movie was to play him as a regular guy as opposed to the image we usually have the John Wayne sort of thing. He was just some guy who wanted to be a politician. He wanted to go to Texas because maybe he could be president; but he got there and thought 'oh, it's like this? So I really have to be Davy Crockett now.' I think that, more than anything, was why Davy Crockett was such a legend because he ultimately had to become that thing that had been told about him."

Thornton's Crockett is quite different from the way he was played by the late John Wayne in the 1960 epic about the battle. Co-writer and director John Lee Hancock, who grew up in Texas, says historians disagree about exactly what happened at The Alamo; but he tried to root the film in reality rather than legend.

"I think we have a lot more historical information in the last 40 years, since John Wayne's movie came out, which I think is of interest. It's a great story," he says. "I think we had an opportunity to tell it, perhaps, in a slightly different way [and] give people a little more of the historical realm of the thing. Also, for me, these guys especially the well-known ones like Travis, Bowie and Crockett have always kind of been [portrayed as] mythological, without any examination of who they are. I was interested in examining some of that."

Billy Bob Thornton says The Alamo fits nicely into a favorite theme for movie audiences: cheering for the underdog.

"We like to see people fighting against great odds. I think it's human nature to want to experience that," Thornton says. "We don't really know exactly what happened at The Alamo. We have some ideas through the history books and diaries; but I believe what happened there was that they all came with some type of agenda, mainly about land and a new start. This is an event about people trying to find a new life; but I think at some point they did realize they were doomed. There was nothing they could do about it and they were going to have to fight."

The Alamo also features Dennis Quaid as Texan leader Sam Houston; and the film concludes, not with the defeat, but with the battle of San Jacinto six weeks later, when Houston led forces that destroyed Santa Anna's Mexican Army and led to independence for Texas.