Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

The Celluloid Alamo: 4

 

The Man from the Alamo (Universal, 1953)

 

Last time, in our Celluloid Alamo 3, we looked at the first talkie featuring the defense and fall of the Alamo. They were soon to come thick and fast.

 

There were movies that centered on Sam Houston, in which the siege figured, naturally, but these weren’t really full-on Alamo movies as we have been discussing. And Alamo films tended to give Houston minor roles, if he appeared at all. Raoul Walsh directed the first Houston biopic that we know of, The Conqueror (1917) with William Farnum as Houston, but as we were saying in our recent article on Lost Westerns, that film, like so many, is tragically lost.

 

 

We have Republic’s Man of Conquest (1939) with Richard Dix as Sam, and more recently CBS’s Houston: The Legend of Texas, with Sam Elliott as Houston (which we shall soon be reviewing), and they were quite effective as far as the Alamo goes; Allied Artists’ The First Texan (1956), with Joel McCrea in the role, while it glosses over the Alamo really, does cover in some depth the period from Houston’s arrival in Texas in 1832 to the Battle of San Jacinto in 1836, so we do get background.

 

 

Storming the Alamo in Man of Conquest

 

Joel as Sam in The First Texan

 

Frank Thompson, in his book Alamo Movies, says, “The Alamo segment of Man of Conquest is brief [less than five minutes of the runtime, adds Jeff] but has rarely been bettered in its concise aura of authenticity.” Praise indeed!

 

An Alamo film came along in 1953. Even that wasn’t truly an account of the defense and fall of the mission, for most of the action takes place away from it; nevertheless, the famous siege does play an important part. It was Universal’s The Man from the Alamo.

 

 

It caused a bit of a stir. In 1952, patriotic Texans were disturbed to read in the San Antonio Light that Hollywood was preparing a film about Moses Rose. Rose was the Judas Iscariot figure of Alamism, that religion dear to the hearts of all (Anglo) Texans. Rose was the only one who, when Travis, according to legend, drew his line in the sand and asked all those ready to die with him to cross over to be at his side, failed to do so. He was not ready to be a martyr. The Daughters of Texas were up in arms about the new film. Their president wrote, “I am very distressed that the Motion Picture fraternity has scraped the barrel to the point they have to use Moses Rose as the hero of a picture.”

 

Actually, the Daughters need not have worried. Aaron Rosenberg’s film was to star Glenn Ford, and Glenn could never be a Judas. He was far too heroic. And he wasn’t even Moses Rose. He was ‘John Stroud’. Stroud is one of the volunteer defenders of the Alamo from the settlement of Oxbow, and when Sam Houston (Howard Negley) sends messenger Lt Tom Lamar (Hugh O’Brian) to tell the Alamo’s defenders that he will not be sending reinforcements – they must hold out as long as they can – the courier also informs them that Oxbow is in danger from guerrilla raiders. The defenders from Oxbow all want to stay and be martyrs, of course, but someone has to go help their women and children. Therefore they draw lots to see who must leave the Alamo. Stroud draws the black bean. He cannot cross the line.

 

No Moses

 

As he departs, one non-Oxbow defender says that he never thought he’d see the day that John Stroud’d turn yellow. Another replies, “Did you ever figure that it might take more nerve to leave than to stay?” For of course Glenn is being heroic.

 

When Stroud gets back to Oxbow he finds that the raiders are in fact Anglos dressed up as Mexicans. He finds himself in a cell for desertion awaiting hanging by the ‘good’ citizens with, as luck would have it, a member of the gang (perennial heavy Neville Brand). If they can escape together and Glenn can infiltrate the gang…

 

Locked up with Neville

 

So now he has to play double agent to thwart the baddies and save Texas. A great deal of action ensues, before Glenn bests the bad guys and sets off to join Sam Houston at San Jacinto, thus proving his enormous courage, gallantry and all-round Texas grit. The end.

 

The early Alamo bits of the movie are quite good, in fact. They built a special set at Universal Studios. Travis (Arthur Space) and Bowie (Stuart Randall) have an easy-going jokey relationship, and Crockett (Trevor Bardette) is in buckskins and coonskin cap (obviously) and is quite an elderly but no-nonsense second-in-command.  Bowie has a slave, unusually. The characters are in beat-up old clothes and look rather good.

 

Heroes of the Alamo

 

Indeed, the première of the movie was held in San Antonio, attended by three of the picture’s stars, Hugh O’Brian, Chill Wills and Julie Adams, and citizens (maybe even the Daughters of Texas, who knows?) heartily approved of the picture. Phew.

 

The San Antonio Express even reported, “The most spectacular scenes are those around the Alamo itself at the beginning of the picture. The scene is truly impressive, though Hollywood steps up the firepower of Travis’ and Santa Anna’s feeble artillery to something resembling the D-Day assault on Omaha Beach.”

 

Really, though, we have to review The Man from the Alamo as a straight Western, and not an Alamo picture proper.

 

Westerns loved the title The Man from… One thinks of the man from Laramie, of course, but there were also men from Bitter Ridge, Dakota, Del Rio, Galveston, Guntown, Hell’s River, Salinas, Snowy River, Texas, Utah, loads more, even from Nowhere.

 

Maybe after a couple of rather less than stunning 1951 Westerns, Glenn Ford wanted to recapture the magic of The Man from Colorado of 1948. Actually, for such an ardent Westernista, Glenn slightly eschewed the genre at this time: this was his only outing the saddle between The Secret of Convict Lake (released March 1951) and The Violent Men (January 1955).

 

 

This one is set too early to be a ‘true’ Western by some purists’ standards but actually, although it’s supposedly set in the 1830s, it’s a real Western alright.

 

The leader of the guerrilla band, Jess Wade (good outlaw name) is played by regular villain Victor Jory. So the cast was pretty good.

 

Fake Mexican Victor

 

Stroud is aided by a young Mexican boy (Marc Cavell), who knows the fellow is no coward and by Beth Anders (beautiful Julia/Julie Adams, in the sixth of eight straight Westerns she starred in 1952/53), who comes round to that view. Chill Wills, splendid as a one-armed town elder John Gage, also comes to see Stroud as heroic but only at the very end. Of course Chill would return to the Alamo in 1960.

 

At least someone believes him

 

Chill and Hugh do too, eventually

 

True love blooms

 

Ford was an outstanding Western hero. He was handsome, rode well (always on high grade horseflesh), wore that Jaxonbilt so well and did an excellent line in the strong, silent, often misunderstood type. Above all he underplayed it, in an almost Gary Cooperish way. The role he had in this movie suited him to a T. Actually, according to a September 1952 Hollywood Reporter article, he broke three ribs during filming when he was thrown against a tree by a horse. Production was suspended for approximately five weeks. Oops.

 

 

The picture was directed by Budd Boetticher, one of three oaters he did that year. He left to others the grand themes of Western history. He wasn’t interested in the Alamo as symbol of liberty or independence so much as the story of one man. Think of those excellent mid-to-late 50s movies he made with Randolph Scott: they aren’t about great themes, conquering the West or crossing the continent; they are about how one man deals with adversity courageously.

 

Budd at the helm

 

Produced by Rosenberg for Universal (we think of those Anthony Mann Westerns), directed by Boetticher, written by Steve Fisher and DD Beauchamp from a Niven Busch story, photographed in color by talented Russell Metty and with music by Frank Skinner, this early 50s Western really had all the right ingredients.

 

You might spot Dennis Weaver and Stuart Whitman in uncredited bit parts.

 

The ending is as expected maybe but none the less heartening for that. There’s a good action finale with mucho rootin’, tootin’ and, of course, shootin’. Variety said, “High spot of the footage is the climactic battle between good and evil, with Ford protecting a wagon train against Jory’s gang of renegades. It’s a sequence that Budd Boetticher’s direction fills with violent, but believeable [sic], action.”

 

Charge!

 

Biff!

 

You take the one on the left, Annie

 

Some of the dialogue is a bit pedestrian, it’s true, and you always wonder in these cases why the hero doesn’t simply explain the situation and get the people on his side. As the New York Times said, “we still would like to know why The Man From the Alamo elected to keep his mouth shut.” But no, he has to go his lonesome way with jaw set and upper lip stiff, gritty in the knowledge that he is right and must stand above the base taunts and rumors, even if they get him lynched. No true Western hero will stoop to justifying himself.

 

You believe what you want

 

Howard Thompson in the New York Times called The Man from the Alamo a “respectable, old-fashioned outdoor melodrama … another medium-budget ‘historical’ Western of strictly medium, unhistorical significance.” That was a bit harsh. Variety liked it better: “This basic outdoor feature has a rousing climax, good performances and beautifully photographed outdoor values. Glenn Ford and Victor Jory are particularly good in the rugged scenes and the former’s performance helps to carry things during some midway story slowness.”

 

Later critics have been generally positive if a tad dismissive. Dennis Schwartz: “Budd Boetticher directs a superior no-nonsense action-packed traditional ‘B’ Western.” It wasn’t a B-Western. The Man from the Alamo was perhaps not in the same league as great ’53 pictures like Paramount’s Shane, Warners’ Hondo or Metro’s The Naked Spur, but it is a good little oater, well worth a DVD purchase. With that cast and crew, you can’t go too far wrong.

 

And the Alamo bits are alright.

 

 

4 Responses

  1. An other Ford asset very useful for a westerner : he was the fastest gun in the movie industry as you have said in your detailed essay about him.
    Not sure it was so important for this film though as, in 1836, the first Colt revolver (Paterson) had just been patented

    1. Yes, I believe Glenn was mighty quick on the draw. But as you say, there are no quick-draw showdowns in Main Street at noon in this one.

  2. I saw this on its initial release and did not like it one bit, but wanted to do so, it turned me off, Glenn.

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