Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

The celluloid Alamo: 1

 

Martyrs

 

The story of the defense and fall of the Alamo in 1836 is a key one in the American psyche and of almost religious significance in Texas. It is no wonder that it has been so often the subject of Western movies.

 

 

Today I’d like to start a series of articles, this one being about the first Alamo movies, about how that story has been represented (and often misrepresented) in those films.

 

This is the result of having recently read two books, both fascinating and highly enjoyable: the ‘revisionist’ – if you want to call it that – Forget the Alamo, by Texan authors Brian Burrough, Chris Tomlinson and Jason Stanford, and Alamo Movies by Frank Thompson, a survey of the films made about the siege. I have wantonly plundered both.

 

 

John Steinbeck wrote, “I have said that Texas is a state of mind, but I think it is more than that. It is a mystique closely approximating a religion.” Thompson makes the point in his introduction that the Alamo today, in downtown San Antonio, is a kind of shrine, to which pilgrims come.

 

A religion must have its sacred relics and a costly new museum now houses Alamo artifacts. Many of these were donated by British drummer, band leader and solo artist Phil Collins, an ardent disciple: Sam Houston’s Bowie knife, a belt worn by Travis, Davy Crockett’s shot-pouch and so on. Doubtless he checked the provenance of these articles very thoroughly. It would be truly tragic if it was someone else’s shot-pouch. Many of the old photographs are flecked with spots of light and Collins believes these are globs of paranormal energy, and he believes too that in a previous life he was a courier carrying messages to the Alamo. The British Daily Mail rather ungenerously called him “one drumstick shy of a pair.”

 

Phil donates

 

 

And despite the First Amendment, the work of Madalyn Murray O’Hair and the judgment of the Supreme Court, this religion is taught in Texas public schools. Children learn the legend as historical fact, and woe betide the young enquiring mind who dares to question it. As the authors of Forget the Alamo say, “Over the years, the state has gone to extraordinary lengths to safeguard the traditionalist legend against revisionist questioning. The State Board of Education actually has standing orders that schoolchildren must be taught a ‘heroic’ version of Alamo history. In 2018, when a teachers’ committee suggested this was a bit much, Governor Greg Abbott spearheaded a wave of online outrage that brought revisionists to their knees. Alamo ‘heroism’ thus remains literally the law of the land.”

 

Jim Bowie, Davy Crockett and William Barret Travis, says Thompson, are the holy trinity of martyrs in this faith (the first extant film heightened this religiosity by being named The Martyrs of the Alamo), Susanna and Angelina Dickinson are its Madonna and child, and deserter Moses Rose is its Judas Iscariot.

 

 

Fervent and passionate believers defend the glorious memories of these saints (except Moses) at all costs. Anyone who suggests even a slightly different reading of the story than the Fess Parker or John Wayne one is a heretic and deserves death threats (really).

 

So I better be careful.

 

All through the nineteenth century after the Alamo and San Jacinto, the legend grew. Poems, songs and plays were written about the heroic siege, some comparing the fate of the ‘martyrs’ to that of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae. But as Thompson says, “It was left to a particularly twentieth-century art form – the cinema – to complete their ascent into pure myth.”

 

Other American icons have been exalted and then demolished on the screen. One thinks of Errol Flynn’s dashing and noble Custer in They Died With Their Boots On and then Richard Mulligan’s raving lunatic in Little Big Man, for example, and all sorts of other heroes, Wyatt Earp, Billy the Kid, Jesse James, Buffalo Bill and more have had hatchet jobs done on their reputation. Not the heroes of the Alamo. Even a fairly recent comedy like Viva Max (1969) , which might have spoofed the legend, still has a foolish tin-pot Mexican leader (Peter Ustinov) and brave white-American keepers of the flame.

 

All Alamo movies (the first we know about was in 1911) have aimed to preserve the legend – even add to it – and nurture the myth (for Texas, a kind of creation myth) and they want to sell tickets to the faithful. But all have also claimed absolute fidelity to the historical truth. Ay, but there’s the rub. Is there an objective truth about the story? And if there is, what is it?

 

Thompson says, “The Alamo movies are intriguing mixtures of history, tomfoolery, legend, lies, inspiration and nonsense. But they are, individually and collectively, quite important. Because they determine how we remember the Alamo.”

 

Let’s look now at the early versions.

 

Here’s a heart-warming story for you:

 

In 1977, film enthusiast Tony Rimmer, then a student at the University of Texas, Austin, interviewed a certain Elmo Hegman, who had trucked a silent movie around Texas in the 1920s and 30s, showing it wherever he could rent a theater cheaply, and Hegman told Rimmer that he’d put the film in his basement in 1948 and believed it might still be there. “When I crawled in and saw those cans there,” recalled Rimmer, “it was as if there was a halo over them. I felt like Howard Carter must have felt when he discovered King Tutankhamen’s tomb.”

 

Rimmer contacted the (wonderful) American Film Institute, which had an incomplete copy of the film, the two prints were combined and restored, and thus we now have available to view (it’s on DVD) the first extant film of the fall of the Alamo, The Martyrs of the Alamo, or, The Birth of Texas.

 

 

The subtitle was significant. Another bit of film history:

 

In July 1915, The Moving Picture World announced that the Triangle Film Corporation had been formed, combining the film-making talents of DW Griffith, Thomas H Ince and Mack Sennett. Griffith’s side of the Triangle would be known as Fine Arts Films. In February 1915, Griffith had become world-famous on the release of the 3 hour 7 minute The Birth of a Nation, and he moved straight on from that to work on another major project, which would become Intolerance, which finally came out in September 1916. He therefore delegated the making of other pictures – to the annoyance of some. Photoplay (December 1915) commented, “Mr. Ince and Mr. Sennett, probably very busy men, have time to direct their own pictures. Why cannot Mr. Griffith do the same?”

 

 

DW

 

So Griffith entrusted W Christy Cabanne with the production, casting and direction of The Martyrs of the Alamo (often marketed without The in the title). Cabanne (pronounced Cabanné, with the stress on the last syllable) had already worked for some time with Griffith but had little of his mentor’s fame or profile. Film writer, producer and director Kevin Brownlow has called Cabanne “one of the dullest directors of the silent film era”. Frank Thompson was a little more tactful, saying that Cabanne “did not quite share his mentor’s genius as a director.” In fact Cabanne would spend most of his career helming low-budget fare, including many Westerns, up till a forgettable oater, Silver Trails, in 1948.

 

Christy at the helm

 

In any case, all publicity for Martyrs, which was premièred in New York on October 3, 1915, didn’t even mention Cabanne. It stressed that the film had been “supervised” by DW Griffith, and it was given a subtitle (in a bigger font than the title) which made obvious reference to Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, almost as if it were a sequel.

 

 

Reviews were nevertheless glowing and Griffith, justly or not, received enthusiastic praise. The New York Dramatic Mirror reported, “D. W. Griffith has again proved his mastery in the staging of spectacular scenes. [The motion picture] is wonderfully realistic and wonderfully exciting.” Variety said, “To just call this a ‘stirring drama’ would be a slur upon one of the best features in its class and of its length.” The review added, “Some of the battle scenes excel those in Griffith’s immortal ‘The Birth of a Nation’.” No doubt Griffith was gratified. One wonders how Cabanne felt.

 

Martyrs was not, however, the first film centered on the fall of the Alamo.

 

In 1910, Gaston Méliès, brother of the great film pioneer Georges, who had come to the US with his son Paul to protect the copyright of his brother’s films, which were being freely pirated and shown without payment or credit, set up in Texas to make one-reel Westerns, then a popular and money-making genre. Tragically, none of these pictures has survived.

 

Gaston in Texas

 

One of them was The Immortal Alamo, also marketed as Fall of the Alamo. It starred Francis Ford, John Ford’s older brother, and Edith Storey, Frank’s frequent co-star, as ‘Lucy Dickenson’. The well known William Clifford was Travis. Gaston Méliès himself played a padre.

 

 

Frank was the hero

 

The picture was helmed by William F Haddock, one of the earliest directors, who made 24 films, between 1909 and 1919 (when he left the business), of which The Immortal Alamo was the second. They used a painted backdrop to represent the Alamo (judging by the still photographs that exist, not terribly convincing). The motion picture was released in May 1911. It didn’t make a great splash. The San Antonio newspapers didn’t even mention it, although the Moving Picture World reported favorably that “It is very thrilling and altogether satisfactory.”

 

Backdrop

 

After that, The Siege and Fall of the Alamo, a five-reeler, also now lost, was released in San Antonio on June 1, 1914. It starred Ray Myers (known for Ince’s War on the Plains in 1912, with Francis Ford) but we don’t know in which role. This is thought to be the only Alamo film that was actually filmed at the Alamo. We have four production stills, a brief synopsis and an advertisement which appeared in the San Antonio Light, stating that the film was made with a cast of 2,000 actors, and cost more than $35,000.

 

Palisade constructed

 

So the first Alamo film we have now is Cabanne’s The Martyrs of the Alamo (I call it Cabanne’s, for he co-wrote it too). It is a fascinating watch today.

 

The movie is impressive in its scope and size and contains some quite sophisticated shooting techniques with close-ups. Maybe Cabanne was applying Griffith techniques.  The action is well staged, utilizing a series of blackouts in the Griffith style. The thirteen days of siege are shot as one continuous battle, with the defenders seeming to have no shortage of powder and shot.

 

The treatment is intensely patriotic, appropriately for 1915, and much play is made of the American flag. The opening titles tell us that “Liberty-loving Americans who had built up the Texas colony were denied their rights.” So it’s pretty clear where we stand. The Mexicans, apart from assailing the virtue of American women and being very free with alcohol, are Roman Catholics who cross themselves before going into battle. Of course they are also cowardly and they flee before the blazing guns of the defenders.

 

These defenders are commanded at first by James Bowie (Alfred Paget, best known for being Prince Belshazzar in Intolerance), whose Bowie knife is a rather feeble toothpick compared with later film versions, but Travis (John T Dillon, brother of actor/director/writer Edward), rather curiously clad in buckskins and coonskin cap, is appointed by Houston (Tom Wilson, the kindly officer in Intolerance and the angry cop in Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid) to take over. Bowie is stricken with a mortal disease anyway. Paget plays Bowie as an educated well-dressed type, characteristics usually in Alamo movies assigned to Travis, but this Travis is more rustic.

 

Davy looks skeptically at Jim’s Bowie knife

 

David Crockett is there, of course, looking very young (Allan Sears, who was 28, while the actual Crockett was 50), also suitably rigged out in coonskin cap. In fact nearly all the defenders wear them. It’s the furriest Alamo ever. David is a crack shot with his musket.

 

Naturally, Travis draws his line in the sand and says (on the title card) “Those who wish to die like heroes and patriots, cross the line to me,” as in all canonical Alamo movies. However, this is the only Alamo film (of the ones we have) in which the men hesitate to cross the line. Finally, with an ‘oh hell’ smile, Crockett crosses over and the others follow. Bowie staggers across and is not carried. Only one man does not stand beside Travis. This must be Moses Rose but nothing more is said of him.

 

The martyrs. Bowie, center in white shirt, has Travis on his left and Silent Smith on his right, while Crockett is between Bowie and Smith.

 

However, Travis, Bowie and Crockett are rather minor characters in this one. The main hero, and with top billing, is Silent Smith (Sam De Grasse), scout and fearless fighter, who has fallen for an old soldier’s daughter (Juanita Hansen). This character is clearly based on Houston’s scout and spy Deaf Smith (1787 – 1837), who fought in the Grass Fight and at San Jacinto. Unlike Deaf Smith County, Texas, named in his honor, which is pronounced /ˈdɛf/, or def, his name was given the more traditional pronunciation /’di:f/, or deef.

 

The real Deaf

 

Smith is sent by Travis to get reinforcements from Houston. It was lucky, in the pre-talkie days, that Silent could be so taciturn. Canadian De Grasse was one of the most famous villains of the silent era, and Douglas Fairbanks (who is in the credits for this film as a Texas soldier but it’s difficult to spot him) used him all the time as the bad guy. But here he is the goody.

 

Sam is silent

 

Frank Thompson says, justly, I think, that even if Cabanne lacked Griffith’s genius, “his actors also lack the more annoying mannerisms that sometimes afflicted Griffith’s.” The performances are quite restrained for the time, when actors often played to the back of the gallery with exaggerated gestures. Only the actor playing Santa Anna, seriously hammy Griffith stock company member Walter Long, was over the top. This casting was shrewd, though: Long had been the renegade Negro Gus in The Birth of a Nation, the man who drove Mae Marsh to suicide after his attempted rape. Audiences would have loathed him.

 

Boo! Hiss!

 

In an early scene, Mrs Dickinson (Ora Carew) is accosted in the San Antonio streets by a Mexican officer. She rebuffs him angrily and when her husband (Fred Burns) finds her shaken by the ordeal, he goes immediately and shoots the soldier dead. The film clearly supports Dickinson in this and the white Americans rally round the Dickinsons in support against the intolerable affront they have suffered.

 

Rather a good set

 

There is only one black man in Martyrs, however, and he is a white actor in blackface.

 

 

The fight over the Alamo is nevertheless seen in essentially racialist rather than political terms, the noble white man resisting the lower-born race from south of the Rio Grande. There is of course no mention of the fact that the Texans wanted to continue slavery and Mexico had banned it. The picture treats Mexicans and Mexican-Americans as dismissively as Afro-Americans were treated in The Birth of a Nation – here Hispanics are all drunken women-molesters and Santa Anna is a sadistic dope fiend who enjoys orgies (though with fully-dressed women). Mexican audiences probably did not like the film much, and indeed that may have been the case with most American Alamo films. 1915 was a time when Mexican revolutions were causing concern, even fear, north of the border. In March 1916 Villa would launch his attack on Columbus, NM, and all those fears appeared justified to many Americans. See? Mexicans are dangerous and untrustworthy.

 

Finally, the Mexicans break through, using a secret passage. There is an old story that such a tunnel existed (some tales even say that Davy Crockett escaped through it, if I may be heretical for a moment, but Martyrs is the only Alamo movie to use it as a plot device.

 

People inside the Alamo are killed, including unarmed women and children, and there is a series of tableaux showing the bodies, Bowie’s on his bed with two Mexican bayonets (rifles still attached) in his chest.

 

RIP, Jim

 

Some survivors are, however, brought before swinish Santa Anna and then executed. Silent Smith manages to escape, though, and rescue his girl (who has clearly been reserved for Santa Anna’s lustful designs, probably at one of those orgies) and he tells Houston of the Mexican general’s plans.

 

For the film does not finish with the fall of the Alamo, the final reel dealing with San Jacinto, and the picture thus has a kind of happy ending, rare in Alamo movies, as the decadent Mexicans are finally defeated and Texas becomes free – white Texas anyway.

 

The picture was shot, by William Fildew (seven silent Westerns, three of them for Cabanne) entirely on the back lot of the Fine Arts studio on Sunset Boulevard. They constructed some necessary structures specially, including a rather impressive baroque Alamo.

 

There would be another silent Alamo in 1926. But that’s for another day.

 

 

19 Responses

  1. Myths and mystifications are essential in the U.S. history since the beginning as God had assigned to the new country a civilizing mission to justify its providential (and manifest) destiny. Visiting Alamo (almost 40 years ago) was exactly like visiting Jerusalem or Saint Peter in Rome (I have never visited the Taj Mahal…). Even if you are not a believer, you cannot help but be impressed and deeply moved by the atmosphere. Same strong impressions at Little Big Horn, also Gettysburg or Shiloh… Hollywood has been the more prolific factory to promote in many various ways the american myths to the world. The western being the new Bible, Iliad and Odyssey altogether.

    1. All cultures have their myths, of course, and Europe has those 300 Spartans I mentioned and Arthur at the Round Table and Roland at Roncevaux and Robin Hood and all the rest. The difference perhaps, or one difference anyway, is that the American ones are so recent, and often verifiable, though the last thing a myth wants is verification, as Governor Abbott showed.
      I agree that there are some places where even a non-believer feels a certain aura or presence. I have experienced that in various distant corners of the world. I too felt it at Little Bighorn, also at Fort Laramie, Fort Apache, and Lincoln NM, I recall. Most emphatically not, however, at the likes of Deadwood or Tombstone, which may be ‘shrines’ to many but are just tacky tourist spots for me.

      1. The huge difference between the US and the rest of the world regarding the myths propagation is Hollywood !
        The dream factory as André Malraux had called it, or the cosmetics industry according to Jean-Luc Godard, has endlessly recycled and revisited the myths already developed by the dime novels, novels, paintings or Wild West shows. But depending on the times, faith can vacillate and iconoclasts can instill some doubt on religious glorification. Jeff has already brillantly shown us how the filming treatment of the American hero from Davy Crockett to Geronimo, Wyatt Earp or Jesse James can vary tremendously. The best example is with no doubt George A. Custer, one day a saint and martyr, a quasi American Joan of Arc impersonated by Errol Flynn, years later an ambitious sadistic brute by Robert Shaw and the morning after a megalomaniac psychopath as played by Robert Mulligan. At least it gives us the pleasure to watch more and very different films…
        But as said previously, “the” western starring a “real” non as mythical Custer movie has still to be made.

          1. I am always watching the young american actors in their 30s to imagine who could be the ideal Custer. I had imagined that Matthew McConaughey might have been perfect with Ryan Gosling (yes it sure would be a superproduction…) as his brother. But the first is closer to 55 now and the 2nd over 40 even if they are still looking pretty juvenile maybe more than GAC in 1876 at 36…

          2. I’m not au fait enough with the new young actors to i/d a possible Custer, I fear. It would be a challenging role – and a challenge for the writer too!

          1. Chalamet had a very small and short role in Hostiles as a member of the cavalry platoon led by Christian Bale to escort Wes Studi.

        1. Do you know Tom Hiddleston ? Although worlwide known because of his Loki rôle in the Marvel blockbusters (never seen any…), he has been cast by various and prestigious directors such as Woody Allen, Steven Spielberg, Jim Jarmusch or Guillermo del Toro. In 2016, he was awarded best actor Golden Globe for his role in exc The Night Manager mini-série (from John Le Carré novel). He might be over 40 and he is british but he has something custerish in his look though. Timothée Chalamet could probably be pretty convincing in the next few years…

          1. I don’t know these but googled them and maybe there is something Custerish about them. You probably ought to make the movie.
            Tom Hiddleston

          2. Hiddleston made a good try at Hank Williams in ‘I Saw the Light’. Wish the movie had been a little better to tell THAT incredible story. Hiddleston wasn’t at fault though.

      2. I have felt the aura too. Shiloh, Vicksburg, Chickamauga, Kennesaw Mountain, and Andersonville among others IT is there. The ground is haunted and to paraphrase a favorite book ‘The Black Flower’ by Howard Bahr: the Earth remembers things. I feel at these places the history of America. My history.

  2. Excellent article. Always fascinated by the Alamo and its movies. Another book I like that does good with history and memory is ‘A line in the sand’ by Olson and Roberts who also did an excellent bio on John Wayne.

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