Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

The Celluloid Alamo: 6

 

The Last Command (Republic, 1955)

 

While Davy Crockett was all the rage, and Disney’s version of the Alamo was hitting the headlines (see The Celluloid Alamo: 5), over at Republic another picture about the heroic defense and fall of the mission was being prepared. It would turn out to be a better film than Disney’s (not very hard) and a better Alamo picture too.

 

The Republic project went back a long way. It is said that John Wayne, soon to make it big in John Ford’s Stagecoach but at the time languishing in low-budget Republic oaters, greatly coveted the role of Sam Houston in the biopic Man of Conquest, the studio’s most expensive film to date. That went to bigger star Richard Dix but Duke never lost his interest in 1830s Texas and as early as 1946 determined to make a film about it.

 

Wayne wanted it

 

Wayne and Ford visited the Alamo in 1948, posing for photographs there, while they were scouting Texan locations for 3 Godfathers, but declaring their intention to make an Alamo movie. “It may be a year before we start shooting scenes of the Alamo picture,” said Ford. It seemed that he was intending to direct. Wayne (who seems prophetically to be holding Ol’ Betsy) may already have had other ideas.

 

 

Studio boss Herb Yates, however, had serious doubts. On the one hand he’d like a nice big picture and he wanted to keep his biggest star, which Wayne had become after Stagecoach and would increasingly be in the late 40s with the likes of Red River and Fort Apache. On the other hand, Yates famously threw his money about like a man with no arms and he blanched at the projected cost. There was talk of a cast of thousands and constructing a whole Alamo in Texas. So he did what producers and studio bosses do best, he stalled.

 

Not too keen on the outlay

 

In 1950 Wayne hired art director Alfred Ybarra, who had done The Fugitive for Ford, to make sketches and models for a big film, and James Edward Grant, who had written Angel and the Badman for Wayne, to put together the first draft of a screenplay. Ybarra and Grant really got into it. Grant said, “I must have read one hundred books [on the Alamo].”

 

When Wayne’s contract came up for renewal in 1951 he presented Yates with an ultimatum. Make the movie or he was off. Yates called Wayne’s bluff and Duke left to set up Wayne-Fellows Productions with producer Robert Fellows. He would make the film himself.

 

Unfortunately for them, though, Yates had let Wayne go but kept hold of Ybarra’s work and Grant’s script drafts. Wayne tried to persuade Yates to give the material up but whether out of malice or business acumen, Yates wouldn’t. What’s more, rather cynically, you have to say after refusing to make an Alamo picture for so long, and to Wayne’s great dismay (he swore he’d never speak to Yates again), Republic set about putting one together.

 

The new picture went through various working titles, such as Texas Legionnaires, The Unconquered Territory, The Texian and San Antonio Bexar, curiously all without any mention of the word Alamo (maybe Yates was concerned about legal issues) before it became The Last Command, a title which had been used for Josef von Sternberg’s 1928 Russian Revolution silent movie but of course this was no relation. Even the film’s publicity hardly mentioned the Alamo, oddly, though one poster slyly tapped into Disney-evoked Crockett mania by advertizing “Jim Bowie! Davy Crockett! Sam Houston! All the Heroes of the Wildest Frontier!”

 

 

Warren Duff (who wrote a lot for Cagney and also Tourneur’s Out of the Past with Robert Mitchum) was credited as writer, from a story by Sy Bartlett, and Duff clearly rewrote Grant’s work substantially, this time highlighting Jim Bowie as the main character, but the similarities were obvious enough to show that it was indeed a rewrite.

 

Yates assigned Frank Lloyd to direct. Thought of as an unpretentious and not very inspired but still skilled director, Lloyd had helmed such pictures as the 1935 Mutiny on the Bounty with Charles Laughton and Clark Gable at MGM, and in the Western vein he had started directing those silent Zane Grey Westerns with William Farnum for Fox back in the day and in 1937 helmed Paramount’s big nation-building Wells Fargo with Joel McCrea. Now he was near the end of his career and in fact The Last Command would be his final picture – or last command.

 

Lloyd at the helm (pictured in 1939)

 

A Texas rancher named James T Shahan, known as Happy Shahan, had already been to Hollywood to try to get movies made on his ranch near Fort Clark. He’d managed to get Paramount’s Nat Holt production Arrowhead made there in 1953. He had hoped that Ford and Wayne would make the Alamo picture he wanted but he shrugged and went with the Republic one. He’d get a replica Alamo built, and being a shrewd businessman like Yates, he made sure he provided all the building materials, at a handsome profit. Work began.

 

It certainly wasn’t on the scale that Wayne had planned and the set was far more modest, just two walls and a wooden palisade. The Alamo chapel was simply a matte painting (and looked it). San Antonio street scenes were shot on Republic’s lot by the studio’s workhorse DP Jack Marta. But Marta did a good job on the exterior scenes he was allowed, in bright Trucolor. Yates put up $2m, big bucks for him, and the picture wasn’t an ultra-cheap B-movie.

 

Modest

 

As for the cast, that was a typical Republic ‘semi-stellar’ affair. John McIntire was scheduled to play Crockett (a key role given all the Disney brouhaha) but sadly that never happened. He would have been excellent. Still, the part went to good old Arthur Hunnicutt, so that was OK. Of course everyone in America knew by then exactly what Davy Crockett looked like: young, tall, clean-shaven, it was Fess Parker. So Arthur’s cranky whiskered oldie with almost a comic-relief role may have been a bit of a shock. The fact remains that Hunnicutt’s Crockett was far closer to the original mountebank than the stolid and rather stiff goodie Disney had, and had much more vim.

 

Hunnicutt’s Davy gets a laugh

 

Richard Carlson was Travis. He’d been a hit in Wyler’s The Little Foxes in 1941 and after the war had done well in MGM’s big King Solomon’s Mines but since then he’d had parts in not-quite-A-movies, notably It Came from Outer Space in 1953 and Creature from the Black Lagoon in ’54. He didn’t do many Westerns but he directed three, two with Rory Calhoun.

 

Travis

 

But the key role, as I said, was Bowie, and that went to Sterling Hayden. Now I’m a bit of a Sterling fan (click the link for our Haydenography) but I have to admit that he was not always the most committed actor; he called the Westerns he did “wretched” and said he was only doing them to pay for his sail boat. He is noticeably stiff as Bowie. He later said he took the heroic/patriotic role to “atone” for his earlier brush with leftie politics. Carlson at the time was playing an FBI agent working undercover as a Commie in I Led Three Lives on TV, so it is quite amusing, if not ironic, in the movie when, as Brian Huberman and Ed Hugetz write, “Carlson hounds Hayden about his divided loyalties, demanding that Hayden commit to one side or the other.”

 

Hayden was Bowie

 

For in this version Bowie is pro-Mexican in spirit and is shown as a close friend of Santa Anna. This wasn’t historically true of course but it is quite a neat way of illustrating Bowie’s ties to and love of Mexico, which is certainly not the way he is shown in many other Alamo films. In fact much of the film is not about the Alamo siege itself but about the events leading up to it, and Bowie’s gradual involvement in the politics of the time. Most Alamo stories suffer dramatically from too long a lead-up to an outcome we already know, but then I guess you could say that of Hamlet… Bowie has a prickly relationship with Travis, unlike the rather bland Disney one.

 

 

Santa Anna, more correctly billed as Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana, was played by J Carrol Naish (rather well, actually). The Mexican general hadn’t even appeared in the Disney production and when he did figure in other Alamo pictures he was only a cardboard cut-out evil dictator. Naish’s Santa Ana, however, is, as Frank Thompson says in his book Alamo Movies, “a three-dimensional human being”, who is “less a cruel despot than a leader forced into action by the dual pressures of power and honor.”

 

Santa Ana a bit more human

 

 

In fact The Last Command goes to some lengths to play down the racial aspects of the conflict. There are Hispanics lined up with the Anglos fighting for independence. Previous movies had pretty well ignored the contribution of Tejanos.

 

This one invents an unhistorical Tejana, Consuelo de Quesada (second-billed Italian soprano Anna Maria Alberghetti) who loves Bowie but is also loved by young Jeb (Ben Cooper). These two characters are clearly related to Linda Cristal’s Flaca in Wayne’s version and Frankie Avalon’s Smitty. Jeb and Smitty are allowed to escape the Alamo, as couriers.

 

They invented some Tejana love interest

 

For while The Last Command is, in many respects, more accurate historically than earlier Alamo pictures, we mustn’t overdo it. A lot was made up. Director Lloyd said, rather intelligently, I think, “The addition of fiction to fact is permissible and often dramatically desirable so long as fiction does not contradict fact, but is presented as a logical and reasonable development. It is the perversion of facts, not their augmentation, that destroys authenticity.”

 

A voiceover intro gives the picture a faux-historical feel (not that actual history ever really troubled Hollywood Alamos much).

 

Also in the Alamo is tough Ernest Borgnine, as Mike Radin, a stocky landowner who gets into a knife fight with Bowie (a dangerous undertaking, one would have thought) but then they fight side by side.

 

 

John Russell, Slim Pickens and Jim Davis are there too, and Russell Simpson as a parson (obviously). John Russell is Lt Dickinson and his wife is played by Virginia Grey, so at least they were historical (vaguely). We also get glimpses of Stephen Austin (Otto Kruger) – Bowie duly gets him released from prison, where incarceration has turned him into a fighter for independence – and Sam Houston (Hugh Sanders).

 

As for the Mexican army, publicity plugged “four thousand extras” but this was nonsense. There were never more than four hundred on the set at any one time and the local uniform making company reported that they made 260 infantry uniforms and 160 cavalry ones. This was still way more than the pitiful force that Disney had assembled.

 

Not quite 4000

 

Of course there had to be the line in the dirt bit. Bowie is the first to stride over. They did it in the rain, for a change (technicians spraying the cast) and in fact the filming was done at the same time of year as the actual siege happened, and in similarly changeable weather.

 

Max Steiner’s theme song, Jim Bowie, was sung by Gordon MacRae, who that year was starring in the hit film Oklahoma! Steiner’s score also re-imagines El Degüello, the Mexican song of no quarter, as a bugle call.

 

The final assault, much directed not by Lloyd but by William Witney, is pretty well done, though there’s no pre-dawn surprise attack.

 

 

Travis fights from the south wall because they hadn’t constructed a north one and is duly shot. Crockett does the thrusting the torch into the magazine death, as Wayne would. He isn’t executed afterwards. Bowie struggles up from his cot and gets a couple of Mexicans with pistols then stabs a couple more before perishing. Hayden does a rather perfunctory death.

 

Filming

 

The movie premièred, naturally, at San Antonio’s Majestic theater, on August 3, the same venue as Disney’s picture which had first screened on May 25.

 

The Los Angeles Times called it “an exciting, vigorous attraction” and reviews generally were pretty positive.

 

The Last Command is certainly not the picture Wayne envisaged. It has little epic sweep, though it tried, because of fairly modest direction and budget. There are too many studio sets and fake exteriors. But it definitely has its moments, there are a few excellent performances (not Hayden’s, sadly) and a fair bit of worthy historical detail. Historian Paul Andrew Hutton called it “a nicely done adventure film” and said that “Although made on a modest budget, its battle scenes are impressive and the storyline relatively fast-paced. It is the best of the Alamo films.”

 

Although Wayne’s picture, when that finally came five years later, would be infinitely grander, I must say that in many ways it wasn’t as good, but we’ll discuss that in The Celluloid Alamo: 7!

 

 

3 Responses

  1. I just watched this and liked Hayden’s performance. One thing I noticed though was he had a habit sometimes of looking off into the distance and not at the actor he had a dialogue scene with. Well at least for parts of some scenes.
    I kept wondering why he referred to Carlson’s character as being younger than him, until I saw that Travis was younger Bowie.
    You say that Crocket is closer to how Hunnicutt portrayed him.
    I assume you mean in character, and not looks.
    Jeez, the version I watched did not have the knife fight between Hayde and Borgnine.
    I have seenThe Alamo a few times. But it’s been decades since I last watched it. My memory (which I won’t swear by) is that I was disappointed in it.
    Oh and very interesting information on the movie here. Thank you.

    1. Aye, Hunnicutt maybe captured the roguishness of Crockett more than other actors but he didn’t look much like the portraits!
      Curious that the knife fight got cut out. It was quite a key moment.

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