Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

The celluloid Alamo: 3

 

Heroes of the Alamo (Sunset Productions, 1937 and Columbia, 1938)

 

In the last episode of The Celluloid Alamo (click the link for that) we looked at the 1926 version, a silent made by Anthony J Xydias, Davy Crockett at the Fall of the Alamo. Well, with the advent of sound, Xydias, who had retired in 1931 with ill health, longed to remake his ‘historical’ Westerns – as well as the Alamo picture he had put out silent movies featuring Kit Carson, Daniel Boone, Buffalo Bill, General Custer and Sitting Bull – as talkies. Unfortunately, the first talkie remake, the Alamo one, was a commercial flop, and so the others never got made. Xydias retired for good (later, he had the bad luck to be in Manila when the Japanese invaded; despite his fragile health, he survived the war in a prison camp, returned to the US and died in 1952).

 

Xydias signing another of his stars, Jack Hoxie

 

Heroes of the Alamo was premièred in San Antonio by Xydias’s Sunset Productions in August 1937 (rather late to cash in on the Texas Centennial of 1936), bought by Columbia later that year and re-released under the Columbia brand in 1938, but it didn’t fare much better.

 

Heroes of the Alamo had a title quite similar to a 1915 silent predecessor, Martyrs of the Alamo, which we looked at in episode 1 of The Celluloid Alamo, ‘heroes’ and ‘martyrs’ both being faithful to the orthodox doctrine of how the holy trinity of William B Travis, Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett has been portrayed on screen. Xydias’s earlier picture, however, in 1926, had placed Crockett front and center, as its title suggests. This one, not so much. Davy only turns up half way through, and is not the central character.

 

Heroes incorporated quite a lot of the footage of Davy Crockett at the Fall of the Alamo, namely the scenes of Santa Anna’s massed ranks (actually an impressive number of uniformed extras) and this is very obvious when seen, the old footage being jerky and more faded, but the rest was new. There were different actors this time, and the new film placed the Dickinsons (named Almerian, called Al, and Anne, though, not Almeron and Susanna) at the heart of the action, rather than the usual triumvirate of heroes.

 

Our heroes

 

This time round the director was not RN Bradbury, as in the silent picture, but Harry L Fraser, who had helmed Xydias’s Custer one, and it was written by Roby Wentz – his or her only credit.

 

I’m afraid that much of the acting is distinctly amateur, though the principals weren’t too bad. We had Bruce Warren as Dickinson and Ruth Findlay as his wife. Earle Hodgins played Stephen Austin (Austin has quite a big part), Lane Chandler was Crockett, Roger Williams played Bowie and Rex Lease was Travis. Of these, Warren did very few Westerns at all, Findlay (the director’s daughter) did a handful of Bs, Hodgins was also pretty low-profile, and Williams played heavies in a hundred plus B-Westerns, serials and other oaters in the 1930s. It was only really Chandler and Lease who were at all well known in the genre. In his book Alamo Movies, Frank Thompson says, “A few of the stars, like Rex Lease, Lane Chandler and Earl Hodgins, were prolific B-movie stalwarts and competent actors (at least in competent films) but most of the performances in Heroes are, to put it kindly, inadequate.”

 

Lane was Davy

 

 

Travis and Bowie are fairly minor characters. Bowie is not in command or joint command and he doesn’t say much.

 

In fact the whole picture has a ‘B’ feel to it. Thompson again: “Although the film’s press book, in which its merits are hilariously blown out of all proportion, loves to call Heroes of the Alamo ‘majestic’, ‘spectacular’ and ‘magnificent’, it is, in fact, pitifully amateurish.”

 

The Alamo set constructed was far from convincing. To save money, only the bottom half was built. Unfortunately, director Fraser and his cinematographer Robert Cline often forgot this and several shots clearly show the empty space above the doors. Furthermore, there is no attempt (as in the silent footage) to use period-appropriate costumes; the characters are dressed in standard B-Western issue from half a century later.

 

However, the very ‘non-epic’ quality may have actually contributed some interest to this Alamo picture. There’s no overwhelming Wayne-ish grandeur and length. It’s more an intimate drama, concentrating on individual motives rather than high-flown notions of liberty or independence. The Dickinsons give the picture some more relatable human interest. Al is a simple farmer who loves his wife (and they have sweet baby Angelina) and Anne is not at the Alamo from the start, as in history, but runs the gauntlet to get in mid-siege and be with her husband, one feels so that she can deliver the speech to Travis, “I’m a Texas woman. I couldn’t just sit at home. I’ll nurse the men, I’ll do anything, but I won’t leave.” At another point she delivers the stirring words, “Whatever happens to us, Texas will go on – a Texas so great, so wonderful in the years to come that you and I can’t even imagine it. But without us, without the Alamo, that Texas could never be.” Classic Alamo-legend stuff. She seemed to have remarkable powers of foresight.

 

Heroic Mrs Dickinson

 

The Dickinsons are simple all-American folk refusing to bow down before the foreign tyranny of Santa Anna. They just want to farm and build a family.

 

This would have resonated with a public for whom the Great Depression was still a vivid memory and was still causing problems. The Dickinsons don’t want to fight. Even Travis is reluctant. But in the end they decide they have to in order to safeguard their simple way of life. With the clouds of world war gathering once more when the film came out, many Americans would have understood that.

 

The Santa Anna in this one (Julian Rivero, San Francisco-born but a stock Hollywood Mexican) is appropriately arrogant, ruthless and cruel. “There will be no quarter given,” he orders. “I mean to have the life of every Texan dog in that fort. And when I’m finished, not one will be left to whine of his defeat.” He is accused of breaking all his promises to the Texians. There is of course no mention of the slavery issue. Austin is shown to have a black servant/slave (regular Hollywood ‘cheerful darkie’ Fred ‘Snowflake’ Toones) but this is taken as completely normal, and the central fact that the Mexicans had abolished slavery and the Texians were determined to preserve it is, as usual, simply disregarded.

 

Austin tries to reason with Santa Anna but he is arrogant and dictatorial

 

Naturally, we have once again Travis drawing his line in the sand. Although, as the authors of Forget the Alamo tell us, there is precious little evidence at all for this episode, it has been consecrated into the legend and is now ‘fact’. In Xydias’s earlier picture Travis had etched the line with his boot. This time he grabs a musket from Bonham (Lee Valanios, misspelled in the credits as Valianos) and uses the butt of that (most versions prefer a saber). “If any of you want to leave, this is your last chance,” he announces. “Those that will stay, cross this line to me!” The defenders all rush to cross, Bowie demanding to be carried over the line in his sick bed. There’s no hesitation, and there’s no refusenik Moses Rose.

 

On the eve of the final assault, the defenders gather round the camp fire and sing The Yellow Rose of Texas, which wasn’t written till years later but never mind, it’s appropriately patriotic and romantic. Other Alamo film versions like to have a final sing-song too. It builds community spirit and warms the heart, right?

 

The final attack is composed almost entirely of footage from the previous picture, and resembles “a schoolyard scrap”, as Thompson puts it, more than the massive attack of an army. But then the fall of the Alamo “was probably more about hand-to-hand grappling than about massed armies sweeping across the plain.”

 

The deaths of Travis, Bowie and Crockett are more minor events than in any other Alamo film. Travis is killed by a single shot on the wall. Soldiers shoot Bowie on his bed from the doorway. And Crockett is still crawling when Santa Anna enters the fort after its fall, and orders Crockett to be killed. A soldier clubs him to death with a musket. This is in fact quite interesting, because sacred Alamo dogma requires Crockett to fall heroically in the Fess Parker/John Wayne mode, the real possibility that he survived and was later executed being considered semi-heretical.

 

An advertisement for the WORLDS PREMIERE [sic] quoted various Texas bigwigs who praised the historical authenticity of the picture – makers of Alamo movies usually stressed this aspect. Governor Allred called it “an authentic and romantic reproduction on the screen of this period of Texas history”, Mayor Quin underlined that the film was “historically correct” and “well-executed”, while the General Federation of Women’s Clubs was quoted as  saying, “We consider it the most interesting historical picture made to date.” Adina de Zavala, a pioneer of Alamo conservation (about whom the authors of Forget the Alamo are very interesting) thought Heroes was “the best and most accurate on the subject that we have ever seen.” One wonders what history books they had been reading, or indeed if they are talking about the same film I watched. Historically accurate? I should say not. To quote Frank Thompson again, this time in an article he wrote in True West magazine, “To say that Alamo movies are historically inaccurate is a bit like saying that Godzilla is a tad green and scaly.”

 

 

More generally, the critics at the time were somewhat less flattering. Boxoffice commented, “A conglomeration of stock shots and jerky action, almost completely devoid of the intimate romance and atmosphere so necessary to the successful presentation of historical drama, this is a carelessly made low-budget production that will find few takers among the average class of action lovers.” Ouch. Prescient, though, regarding the box-office side.

 

Because commercially, it did not do well either. For most of its modest run it was paired with another B-movie, the horse-racing crime drama Racing Blood. A decade later it was cut down to about half its length, re-titled Remember the Alamo and shown as an educational short in schools (where to this day teachers are mandated to present only the ‘heroic’ side of the story).

 

Still, it’s another landmark in the development of the celluloid Alamo, and thus worthy of our attention, though perhaps not of our wholehearted admiration.

 

 

17 Responses

  1. Something I want to see, and a fine review. Some of these performers, especially Lane Chandler and Earle Hodgins are consistently welcome in any thing.

  2. Thank you for another interesting article in this excellent series. Kind of crazy the number of Alamo movies compared to say movies on the great battles of the American Civil War.

    1. Yes indeed, the (legend of the) Alamo struck a chord with successive generations and is still doing so.

  3. Thank you for another interesting article in this excellent series. Kind of crazy the number of Alamo movies compared to say movies on the great battles of the American Civil War.

    1. The Civil War has its share of film, but tthe wars themselves do not resonate historically. The Alamo fills a niche similar to the stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.

  4. The only historical event who can resonate as much as Alamo is Little Big Horn because of this battle to the last man with no survivor. Besides Alamo is about freedom (even if the true history is a little more complicated) which is an other great “resonator”. Of course Mexicans and Indians would not agree…

    1. I was going to bring up Little Big Horn as another. I have a book that looks at five American battles and how they have been interpreted down the ages: Lexington/Concord, The Alamo, Gettysburg, Little Big Horn, and Pearl Harbor. That seems about right. Though it is interesting how faded the legendary Battle of New Orleans with the cotton bales, Old Hickory, Pirates, and the British on the plains of Chalmette has become in American memory. Thought it deserved more than just two versions of ‘The Buccaneer’!

      1. I think Jean-Marie has a point when he singles out the Alamo and Little Bighorn as battles with no survivors (among the ‘goodies’).

  5. I have visited all the sites you have listed but Massachusetts. Pear Harbor is maybe the most impressive because of the Arizona Memorial but Little Big Horn is truly haunted and poignant because, the site is almost fully protected and even after so many research and studies, we do not know exactly what happened and will never know except the list of the dead soldiers.
    Alamo since it is located within San Antonio does not have the same impact.
    All the others are very well documented without this part of lmystery.
    Corregidor is an other interesting US defeat especially the way it was presented to the Americans with the famous McArthur “I came through and shall return” etc. Also, Hollywood being able to produce movies in the very war time, even a defeat was shown as hope for a future victory (To Be or not to be, Bataan, They Were Expendable, Mrs Miniver, Man Hunt etc).

      1. Other sites where I have felt ‘vibes’ from the past and ‘atmosphere’ are Fort Laramie, Fort Apache and Lincoln, NM.
        ‘Old West’ venues now sterile and tourist fly-traps, on the other hand, include Deadwood and Tombstone.

        1. The three Civil war sites I have felt ‘it’ the most were Shiloh, Chickamauga, and Andersonville. Shame about Tombstone just becoming a tourist trap over the years.

  6. Sand Creek in Colorado, Wounded Knee, Fort Sumter cemetery NM, Bear Paw Battlefield National Monument in Montana (or Big Hole like most of the Nez Perce Trail spots), Chiricahua National Monument and Fort Bowie in Arizona, Lava Beds in California too, are some other very “atmospheric” sites which are not over visited.

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