The Alamo: John Wayne produced, directed, and starred in this stirring epic War-Western

The Alamo(1960), based on the ‘Battle of Alamo’ that took place in the year 1836, is an epic historical-war Western produced and Directed by John Wayne. This was Wayne’s directorial debut, and he also played the role of Davy Crockett in the film alongside an ensemble cast that comprised of Richard Widmark and Laurence Harvey.

John ‘Duke’ Wayne made close to Two-hundred films in a career spanning 50 years, but the one film he obsessed about making the most, and the one that proved most difficult to make was the 1960 film, “The Alamo.” Making a film out of the events leading up to, and events during the thirteen-day battle between Texans (of then newly formed ‘Republic of Texas’) and the Mexican army of General Santa Anna had been an obsession of Duke for almost a decade and a half. Duke considered ‘The Alamo’ story the ultimate American story of courage, stoicism and sacrifice. He first proposed the idea of making a film on the story in 1945, when he was a contract player at Republic studios. But ‘Republic’ was a poverty-row studio, and its president Herbert J. Yates balked at spending the $3 million (which was big money at the time) that was needed to make the film. Duke left the studio on account of this, and formed his own company, ‘Batjac’; and throughout the 1950s he tried to interest other studios in financing his dream project. Duke, by then, had developed a strong vision for the story and decided that he will direct the film himself- so that other directors will not taint his vision. On top of it he didn’t want to act in the film, just concentrate on producing and directing it. John Wayne directing and not starring in the film, as well as the downbeat nature of the subject- by the end of the film all the heroes die and Texans are defeated- was enough to disinterest studios from funding the project. Finally, in the late 50s, Duke managed to convince ‘United Artists’ to put up half of the money required to make the film- on the condition that Duke will star in the film as well. Duke raised the rest of the money all by himself: taking mortgages on his homes and cars, as well as borrowing money from a bunch of wealthy Texas millionaires. To cut costs, Duke initially thought of shooting the film in Argentina and Mexico, but a threat of boycott from Texans forced him to shoot the entire film in Texas itself. The movie set, later known as Alamo Village, was constructed near Brackettville, Texas, on the ranch of James T. Shahan. The set, which took two years to construct, was an extensive three-quarter-scale replica of the mission, and has since been used in the shooting of other Western films, television series, documentaries, music videos and commercials. The set, which also includes a representation of the village of San Antonio de Bexar of the same time period, was considered one of the most authentic movie sets ever built, and became a very famous tourist attraction. Duke shot the entire film in a period of three months, and despite Duke’s inexperience behind the camera, and the massive scale of the production, the film went just 3 weeks over schedule. However, the budget of the film is a different story. Initially budgeted at $5 million, the final cost of the film was a staggering $12 million- making it the costliest film ever to be made entirely on the American soil; the then chart-topper was the 1959 Ben-Hur which cost $15 million, but was made predominantly in Italy. The making of this film took a heavy toll on Duke- personally and financially; his health and wealth deteriorated: the tensions induced by the massive shoot lead him to smoke about 100 cigarettes a day, and to finish the picture he had to agree to an unfavorable financial arrangement with United Artists; which meant that despite the film making a lot of money, Duke did not earn a cent from it; Worse, he lost a lot of his own money which he had sunk into the production.

“The Alamo” was designed to be a big Roadshow presentation: it was shot in the ‘Todd AO’ widescreen process, and the total running time – including overture, intermission and Exit Music- was approx. 3 & 1\2 hrs. The film begins with Sam Houston (Richard Boone), who’s leading the armies of the newly formed Texas Republic, arriving in San Antonio and charging Col. William Barrett Travis(Laurence Harvey) with defending The Alamo- a former mission, now a fort. Houston is short of men, and he needs time to build an army to take on the the opposing Mexican forces – led by General Santa Anna – who are numerically stronger as well as better-armed and trained. Houston expects Travis to hold off the Mexican forces at The Alamo, while he raises his army. In defending The Alamo, Travis will be helped by Jim Bowie (Richard Widmark), member of the Texan Militia who has about hundred volunteers under him. Travis has misgivings about working with Bowie, especially about Bowie’s drunkenness, battle-tactics, and ties to Spanish aristocracy. So, it comes as no surprise that the two men don’t get along,: Bowie the more honest and realistic of the two, tries his best to explain how bad their situation is, while Travis, a military martinet, hides that he knows exactly how bad their situation is, and wants to keep doing things his way. Davy Crockett (John Wayne) arrives from Tennessee leading his band of free-spirited adventurers. Crockett’s men believe that they have come south ‘to hunt and get drunk,’ but Crockett has other plans: he intends to join Travis and Bowie in the defense of The Alamo; and though outwardly he projects an image of a carefree boozer and brawler, he decides to go along with Travis when the latter comes calling for help; he even tricks his fellow Tennesseans in joining the impending battle.

Soon, Santa Anna’s armies arrive and surround the fort. After Travis refuses to surrender, Santa Anna allows the non-combatants- mainly women and children- to leave the fort unharmed. Despite being outnumbered almost ten-to-one, The Alamo-defendants maintain high hopes as they are told a strong force led by Colonel James Fannin is on its way to break the siege. Crockett, however, sensing an imminent attack, sends one of his younger men, Smitty, to ask Houston for help, knowing this will perhaps save Smitty’s life. When the attack begins, the defendants put up a stirring defense, inflicting heavy casualties on the Mexican side, but their morale soon drops when a messenger informs Travis that Fannin’s reinforcements have been ambushed and slaughtered by the Mexicans. Travis chooses to stay with his command and defend the Alamo, but he gives the other defenders the option of leaving. Crockett, Bowie and their men prepare to leave, but an inspired tribute by Travis convinces them to stay and fight to the end. They defend the fort for thirteen days, but on the thirteenth day of the siege, Santa Anna’s artillery bombards the Alamo, and the entire Mexican army sweeps forward, attacking on all sides. The fort’s walls are breached, and the Mexicans swarm through and overwhelm the defenders. Travis is killed first, and then Crockett dies- in the chaos when he is run through by a lance and then blown up as he ignites the powder magazine. Bowie, who was lying wounded in bed, kills several Mexicans but is bayoneted and dies. The battle eventually ends with a total victory for the Mexicans. Santa Anna observes the carnage and provides safe passage for Mrs. Dickinson and her child- who had stayed back in the fort. Smitty returns too late, watching from a distance. He takes off his hat in respect and then escorts Mrs. Dickinson away from the battlefield.

“The Alamo” is an impressively mounted film, beautifully photographed, impeccably designed and wonderfully scored; with ‘Western’ genre maestro Dimitri Tiomkin providing a multifaceted epic score – dramatic, thrilling, grand and tragic all at once – that captures the slow build-up, eventual battle and the aftermath. The soundtrack of this movie boasts some of the most beautiful songs and themes in American movies, like “The Green leaves of Summer” and “The Ballad of Alamo.” William H. Clothier, who has been a regular DP on John Ford and John Wayne Westerns, have resplendently photographed this film in rich painterly hues. One of the most striking visuals in the film is a moment in the Mexican encampment, when Crockett, Bowie and others are carrying out a nighttime raid: the defendants wading through water in pitch darkness are struck motionless when a flamenco dancer suddenly strikes up in the firelight behind; the frame is straight out of a chiaroscuro painting. The shooting of the battle scenes also deserve special mention: the arrangement of the Mexican soldiers in their colorful costumes and the choreography of their movement are all handled with precision and clarity; this is nicely contrasted with the more chaotic battle tactics of the ragtag group of Alamo-defendants- the battle scenes are definitely some of the best ever committed to screen. Duke proves his mettle as a great action-director and a purveyor of epic grandeur. The huge sums of money spend on the film is certainly up there on screen. That’s were the primary value of this film resides, it’s in the cinematic rather than in its ‘Historical’ veracity; because this is not a historical epic by any standards. John Wayne is out to tell the legend of Alamo, and not the hard-historical truths about the events that transpired or the complex motives of the characters involved in those events. This is a larger-than-life rendering of a true story, or rather this is a ‘Western’ version of a historical battle: the heroes are pristine icons, while the villains are an evil monolith: we get to know about the attacking Mexicans only as much as the Native tribes in a cowboy Vs Indians Western; we get to know that Santa Anna’s troops are brave, battle-hardened and loyal to their Generalissimo, and that’s it; and just like at the end of John Ford’s “Fort Apache,” we see Santa Anna and his troops honoring the fallen Texan martyrs, and saluting the survivors of the battle.

Obviously, Duke learned much of his filmmaking from his mentor John Ford- who by the way turned up on the shooting spot unannounced and tried to take over the direction of the movie, much to Duke’s chagrin; Duke had to respectfully send Ford away to shoot some second unit footage, none of which made it into the final cut. From Ford, Duke had learned to ‘never let reality spoil a good story.’ Duke, wisely, chose not to go into the complex reasons which lead to the Texan revolution, and the ‘battle of Alamo.’ Duke’s vision of this story is purely on a mythical level; by his own admission, he hates ambiguity- he likes clear cut heroes and villains (as he says in the film: there is something that’s right and something that’s wrong). It’s not that he doesn’t acknowledge some of the prickly subjects, like slavery, that’s an integral part of ‘The Alamo’ tale: the story of Bowie and his slave, Jethro, is treated in the film, but it is filtered through a very simplistic worldview. Duke is also going for a big screen spectacle on the lines of Selznick’s “Gone with the Wind” and “Duel in the Sun,” as well as the epics of Cecil B. DeMille- the film owes more to DeMille than John Ford or Howard Hawks; and hence the characterization and scenarios are uncomplicated, melodramatic, theatrical and larger-than-life. This also leads some of the problems in the film; since this is is designed to be this big roadshow epic spectacle running in excess of 3 hrs., Duke is forced to stretch the slim subject-matter way beyond its utility. And to this end, Duke and writer James Edward Grant add in several sub-plots and supporting characters which have no bearing on the main story. Some of them definitely add color to the proceedings, and lead to some entertaining bits of cinema, but other times they seem wholly unnecessary.

Since this is meant to be a commercial movie and not a docudrama, one does understand Duke has to add humor and romance in the picture, so, I don’t really mind the time that’s given over tot he romance between Crockett and a Mexican lady, Flaca (Linda Crystal). That romantic element is also personal for Duke, because all his (real-life) wives are Latinos, and he definitely has a soft spot for Mexico and Mexican ladies. Ultimately, the romance remains unrequited- Crockett sends her away for her own safety- and is used as just another tool to highlight the nobility of Crockett. One thing I definitely wish Duke had cut down on are the longwinded, idealistic speeches written by Grant; some of them delivered by Duke in his typical ‘John Wayne’ drawl are enjoyable (as I have already mentioned in my reviews of other John Wayne films, I love Duke’s dialogue delivery) – including the much debated ‘Republic’ speech; whatever the political inclinations of that speech, as spoken by Duke, it comes across as really moving. But when even bit characters in the film starts talking like great philosophers, it gets really heavy-going. The first half of the film is rather sluggish, as it concentrates on a lot of plot exposition, character introductions and establishing the character inter-relations. It also doesn’t help that Duke is not as good at directing actors, or directing scenes of intimate drama as he is at directing the ‘big scenes’. Apart from Duke, who has a flair for this kind of material, none of the other actors makes a mark. Both Harvey and Widmark has substantial roles that’s almost on par with Duke’s- Duke should definitely be complimented for this; that he could keep his star-ego subordinate for the sake of the overall quality of the film. But the two actors are not as comfortable in their parts as Duke is, and looks miscast in their roles- Harvey more than Widmark, though it was Widmark who had trouble getting along with Duke during the shoot. Since a lot of the first have deals with the confrontation between Harvey and Widmark, the lack of chemistry between them jeopardizes the effectiveness of these scenes, and the film’s quality suffers.

But once the Mexican army arrives in the second half and the skirmishes begin, it starts to get exciting. The writing also improves, and we get some really good moments. I had always felt that there is a terrific and exciting 2hr. ‘John Wayne Western’ trying to break out of this 3 hrs. plus would-be epic. The film gives an iconic ‘Western hero’ introduction for Duke, which breathes much needed energy into the film’s first half: Duke and his merry-men arrive dressed in Coonskin caps and buckskin jackets, immediately setting them apart from the rest of the San Antonio inhabitants; much boozing, brawling and merrymaking ensues. Even in the second half, the best scenes in the film are the typical ‘Western’ scenes, like the “Cannon-sabotaging” scene or the “Cattle-theft” sequence, which is superbly choreographed by stunt coordinator Cliff Lyons. Even though the film is so long, there is very little character-development- maybe Richard Widmark’s Jim Bowie is the most developed character in the film; we get to see a glimpse of his inner life- in his anguish for his dead wife and his spirited debates with Travis; but Travis, and more importantly Duke’s Crockett remain ‘Western’ archetypes- they are treated as folk heroes rather than flesh & blood heroes. Despite this being one of the rare films where Duke dies in the end, he has tried not to disappoint his hardcore Western fans; and it has to be said that it does suit the folkloric nature of film.

“The Alamo” was the most intensely personal project that Duke ever undertook. The film reflects his ideology about freedom, and the right of individuals to make their own decisions. It’s also a cold-war allegory, with Santa Anna’s Mexico equated with the Communist USSR and the the Alamo-defendants representing the free world. There are lot of conversations about life, death, afterlife, god & religion in the film. The main conflict in the film is between the uncompromising militaristic attitude of Travis- who’s determined to do things his way and expects those under him to be totally subservient to him – and the fiercely individualistic attitude of Bowie – who will not bow to any authority. Crockett represents the middle ground: a frontiersman and a congressman, who is individualistic, but is not above suppressing his own individualism in order to work together for a common good. I think that would be Duke’s attitude as well, and it’s no surprise that It’s Crockett’s ideology that ultimately triumphs; Crockett plays peacemaker between Travis and Bowie and manages to unite them in defending the fort. The film also has most of Duke’s friends and family members working in front and behind the camera. His son Michael produced the film, while his other children Patrick and Aissa had roles in the film.

At the time of its release, the film received a mixed response: the critics praised the battle scenes and the overall scale of the film, but they criticized the film’s length and, what they perceived to be, Duke’s unabashed promotion of his brand of right-wing politics. The reception was further muddled by a disastrous publicity campaign undertaken by the film’s publicist, Russell Birdwell- one that even Duke found distasteful. Further embarrassment came Duke’s way when actor Chill Wills, who was nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar for the film, took out out a tasteless Oscar ad. Duke had to issue a statement of his own to distance himself from Wills. These were the reasons sighted for the film not doing well at the Oscars, despite it receiving 7 nominations. The box office for the film was good, but not great, especially considering the cost of the film. United Artists forced Duke to cut out more than 30 minutes of footage so that they can have more screenings, which would improve the box office performance of the film. Though the film is widely touted as a flop, that was not the case, it was one of the top earning films of the year, and eventually earned its money back, though Duke, as I already said, didn’t benefit from it. Actually, Duke was flat broke at the time- not only because of the financial problems on ‘The Alamo,’ but also because his Business manager mismanaged his assets through bad investments. Duke had to quickly return to doing the typical ‘John Wayne’ Westerns like “North of Alaska” and “The Comancheros” to raise much needed cash. He would never again in his career attempt a film of the scope and ambition of “The Alamo.” . The full 202-minute version of the film was believed lost until the last known surviving print of the 70 mm premiere version was discovered in Toronto. At present, the only existing version of the original uncut roadshow release is on standard definition 480i digital video. It is the source for broadcasts on Turner Classic Movies. The best available actual film elements are of the 35 mm negatives of the shorter version, which is widely available on home video. In 2014, several contemporary film directors, like J.J. Abrams and Guillermo Del Toro, joined an Internet campaign urging MGM to restore The Alamo from the deteriorating 70mm elements, but MGM did not respond favorably. It’s believed now that the original 70MM print has deteriorated to a point that it is now unusable; which means that, perhaps, we will never get to see Duke’s full version of “The Alamo” in its original picture quality again. a real pity!….

11 thoughts on “The Alamo: John Wayne produced, directed, and starred in this stirring epic War-Western

  1. John Wayne was stressed during the making of this film. He lost a lot of money. It was a quality film that came about. David Crockett was his hero. He didn’t make it as an homage to Crockett. It is to The Duke’s credit, that he fleshed out, the other characters involved. James Grant’s screenplay was a good one. He wrote many scripts, involving Wayne. It was because of John Wayne’s status, that he was able to recoup his losses.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes Grant was Duke’s favorite screenwriter, and he had written some good scripts for Duke. He’s particularly good at writing those snappy dialogues for Duke

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I confess to being a little bit obsessed with this movie, and this is one of the most spot-on essays about it I’ve ever read. There is an excellent, but (like the movie) overlong book about its making by John Farkis out there which tells us that some of John Ford’s material is indeed in the film however. I’ve always found it amusing that when the film came out Ford, trying to help Duke told the press that the film would “run forever,” to which one critic corrected him by saying that “no Mr. Ford, it only seems to run forever.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Steve. There are various accounts of what happened with John Ford’s footage. Some insist that Wayne never used any of the stuff, while other accounts state that a lot of Mexican armies marching and assembling scenes in the film are done by Ford.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I bought a director’s cut, 2 VHS tapes in the box, video about 16 years ago so I can see the full, uncut version. (Now I just need to get a VHS player!) But it seems to me that other such VHS tapes must exist so I don’t know why the studio does not reprint it on to a DVD?

    Like

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