Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

The Celluloid Alamo: 7

 

The Alamo (United Artists, 1960)

 

The big one

 

Poor John Wayne. He tried so hard and invested so much in The Alamo – not just pretty well all his worldly wealth but his health, heart and soul. All his professional life he wanted to make this movie. The Alamo project was so important to him. And at long last, in 1960, he finally got it made. But it was a dud.

 

 

Wayne and his company Batjac didn’t seem to understand that a huge budget, a cast of thousands and some big name stars don’t on their own add up to much if you don’t have a gripping story and above all, pacing. This film moves at the pace of an obese snail on valium.

 

A lot of the blame must go to James Edward Grant, Wayne’s preferred writer, friend (although Duke sometimes had to clench his teeth) and in this case associate producer. He came up with a screenplay that is ponderous, turgid and only periodically actionful. Perhaps it was too hard anyway to make that plot into anything beyond the obvious siege and heroic, doomed defense. But inventing totally fictional heroic sallies to destroy artillery or rustle cattle behind enemy lines didn’t help. You just keep wanting Santa Anna to get on with it and start the attack.

 

Not his finest hour

 

Author of Alamo Movies Frank Thompson says, “Grant’s terrible script remains universally disliked; it is the single greatest obstacle to taking The Alamo seriously as a film.”

 

That’s another weakness: the Mexicans have no character or personality at all. They are just uniforms to be mown down. Santa Anna (Ruben Padilla) is only billed 24th in the titles, second to last, and has no lines. At 203 minutes (director’s cut) Wayne had all the time in the world to develop key characters like this if he had bothered. Presumably he didn’t think it mattered.

 

But that’s the main weakness: the 203 minutes. Nearly three and a half hours! OK if it’s gripping, but ‘overblown’ is the only word here. Even the shortest cut weighs in at a hefty 2 hours, 20 minutes. Editor Stuart Gilmore (who also directed – the rather stodgy post-war color remake of The Virginian) seems to have misplaced his scissors.

 

And it’s so talky, especially the first half. The characters spend the whole time talking about liberty and explaining to the audience how historic their present efforts are going to prove to be. It’s not only extremely unlikely, it’s boring – the cardinal sin of the Western. Granddaughter Gretchen Wayne said, “They never shut up. No wonder they lost. The Mexicans could have come over the walls while they were all talking.”

 

Another thing: with most Westerns, the fact that they do not recount a story true to the historical facts is by the by. That’s not what Westerns are for. But to play so fast and loose with the history of such a well-known event, as this movie does, in such a blatantly ‘historical’ film, was a bit over the top. At least the movie doesn’t begin with those lying “This is the way it really happened” titles that so often disfigure the twaddle offered as Western history. But all Alamo films stressed their ‘authenticity’, however absurd they were historically. The above-mentioned Frank Thompson, this time in a True West magazine article, wrote, “To say that Alamo movies are historically inaccurate is a bit like saying that Godzilla is a tad green and scaly.”

 

But I think Wayne was going for the ‘emotional truth’ rather than the literal one, if you see what I mean. He certainly believed passionately – for most of his adult life – that the story of the Alamo had much to say to contemporary society. “I think it’s the greatest piece of folklore ever brought down through history,” he said in 1958, “The Alamo is real Americana. Those fellows were real heroes, and if somebody doesn’t like heroes they’d better not come to see this picture.”

 

In a world that seemed, in Wayne’s view, to have given up on heroes and patriotism, the tale of noble self-sacrifice and holding off a vastly more numerous ‘foreign’ enemy (of course the Mexicans are presented as foreign; the fact that Texas at the time was part of Mexico is glossed over) for 13 days had a lot to teach us, he thought. But teach us, and only entertain us by the way. And if you’re presuming to teach, you really have a duty to present the true story as far as you can.

 

But as Thompson says, “The Alamo was made to celebrate heroism, not history.” He goes on, “In fact, there isn’t an instant in the film that corresponds to the historical event of 1836 in any way, except coincidentally.”

 

Wayne told Louella Parsons, “These are perilous times. The eyes of the world are on us. We must sell America to countries threatened with Communist domination. Our picture is also important to Americans who should appreciate the struggle our ancestors made for the precious freedom which we now enjoy.”

 

Actually, among the greatest of the Alamo heroes was the film maker himself. Few have struggled so long and hard as Wayne to get their own personal vision to the screen. As I was saying last time in The Celluloid Alamo: 6, Wayne’s Alamo film goes back a long way.

 

It is said that even in the 1930s, 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 studio’s biopic Man of Conquest, Republic’s most expensive film to date. That went to the then 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 and John 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 may already have had other ideas. He wanted to direct himself.

 

Duke seems prophetically to be holding Ol’ Betsy

 

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.

 

Yates stalled

 

Wayne scouted locations around San Antonio and later in Mexico with Pat Ford, John Ford’s son, and Pat produced a detailed proposal, almost a draft script, which included many of the ideas and characters that eventually made it into the 1960 movie. Yates came up with a grudging $1.2 million budget, not nearly enough, as everyone knew, and kept stalling.

 

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].” If so, one wonders why the end result was so fictional.

 

Al Ybarra

 

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 (although it would prove that Fellows was little more enthusiastic than Yates had been).

 

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 now set about putting one together. The modest-budget picture The Last Command would come out in August 1955.

 

Wayne made some very successful pictures for Warner Bros, including Hondo in 1953 and The High and the Mighty with William A Wellman in ’54, and this nicely filled the Wayne-Fellows’ coffers, so he floated The Alamo to Jack Warner. No go.

 

Frank Thompson suggests that this as much because Wayne was insisting on directing himself as for budget fears. Even Fellows thought that Hawks or Ford would be a safer bet. He may have been right. But it led to a parting of the ways. Wayne bought Fellows out, and renamed the company Batjac.

 

Through the rest of the 1950s Wayne kept working on the script of The Alamo and planning its production. In 1959 Rio Bravo made Wayne an even bigger star and made Batjac a lot of money – quite rightly; it’s a great movie, and not only that, Dmitri Tiomkin could rehearse his Dugüello. Finally The Alamo became a realistic project. With Texas Governor Price Daniel on board, some rich Texans were lining up as partners. United Artists fronted $2.5 million in return for distribution rights if Batjac would match it. The Texan millionaires kicked in several millions and Wayne dropped in $1.2m of his personal wealth.

 

Work started on a giant set on the ranch of ‘Happy’ Shahan, near Fort Clark, TX, where The Last Command had been filmed. Shahan would ‘inherit’ the set as a future asset. A stone Alamo was built, infinitely bigger and more impressive than the one for The Last Command. Wayne insisted on a full-scale reproduction of the original mission as well as the town of San Antonio as it appeared in 1836. The complex would spread over 400 acres. Al Ybarra started work in earnest.

 

After Wayne told Ybarra, “Gimme something allegorical,” (!) the designer put a broken cross atop the mission.

 

A 14,000-foot runway and 14 miles of roads were put in. Wells were dug and dikes built. At the height of the production around 2500 people were living and working in the area. The cost was staggering. Wayne didn’t seem to care. On September 9, 1959, production began.

 

Grant had produced his twelfth rewrite of the script – which was still prolix. DP William Clothier said, “Duke knew that script backwards. He knew every line better than the actors did. [In fact Clothier had to tell him to stop mouthing the lines of other actors when he was on camera.] He was the first on the set in the morning and the last to leave in the evening.”

 

Clothier and Wayne

 

Wayne decided to shoot the film in the very costly 70mm Todd-AO process, which had helped make Oklahoma! a hit. Just as Grant’s screenplay was the single biggest weakness of the film, so Bill Clothier’s cinematography is its greatest strength. An early trade paper ad had said that the picture would be shot in Cinerama, the new three-panel widescreen. Fortunately that didn’t happen (it was a disaster on How the West Was Won). Clothier was a master of shooting large-scale action. He went right back to Wings in 1927. Clothier later said, “I think The Alamo was the biggest picture I made as a first cameraman.”

 

Because Wayne had insisted on fully functional buildings, there were no ‘wild’ walls or ceilings and one of Clothier’s biggest challenges was cramming all his cameras and equipment into the small rooms. The ceilings were low and he couldn’t get any height for his lights.

 

In fact Clothier was pretty well Wayne’s chief artistic input. He also managed by skilled trickery to multiply the number of extras, making them seem far more numerous than they were – and they were pretty numerous in the first place. There were 1800 seen in the final assault scenes. In publicity materials Batjac claimed 8000 but all companies exaggerated the numbers of extras.

 

There were many problems. UA got cold feet and wanted to cut funding mid-shoot. A ‘flu virus struck down many members of the cast and crew. There were rattlesnakes everywhere (the highest count for a day was sixteen). A fire burned down the office, with its payroll records. Two crew members were killed in a car crash. A local girl who had been given a small part was even murdered by her jealous boyfriend. But the movie went on.

 

Of the principals, Wayne had originally wanted to concentrate on directing and producing, not star, only taking a cameo as Sam Houston (that part he had wanted back in 1939) but UA urged him to take a lead role to augment box-office receipts, so he became Davy Crockett, and Duke is Duke so you know what you are getting. ‘Davy Crockett’ is John Wayne in a coonskin cap. Originally Wayne said he would “Leave the coonskin cap to Fess Parker” but by 1960 an entirely capless Crockett was unthinkable, so he wore one here and there. Bosley Crowther in the New York Times said the cap “becomes but an occasional item of his personal adornment.”

 

Duke in a coonskin cap

 

Richard Widmark, first slated to be Crockett, became Bowie after Wayne’s preferred choice of Charlton Heston turned it down, luckily for us. Heston later regarded that decision as a career mistake. Widmark’s Bowie is more active than usual Bowies and not so bed-ridden. Widmark was bored and disillusioned by the whole project and fell out badly with Wayne (who called him a “little shit”, twice). Widmark didn’t like Wayne calling him Dick (for some reason) and also felt himself too short at 5 foot 10 to be playing the famously tall Bowie. His volley gun was rather cool though.

 

Dick was Bowie

 

Laurence Harvey as Travis was miscast, although he did a good acting job and his panama hat is utterly superb. Wayne got on well with Harvey, surprisingly. He called him “the English fag” and Harvey hooted with laughter. Once Harvey crossed a room full of tough-guy stuntmen, tweaked Wayne’s cheeks and called him ‘Dukey’. Another time, the crew burst into spontaneous applause at the end of one of Harvey’s scenes and Jimmy Grant, as sour as he was egocentric, said, “Don’t look so smug, Laurence. They’re applauding the writing, not the acting.” Of course they weren’t, and Harvey rebutted, “Quiet, James, or I will give you a big kiss and all these Texans will be sure you are a fag.” He had a great sense of humor. Still, he shouldn’t have been Travis. Frank Sinatra had showed interest in the part but wasn’t available when the film was shot. He shouldn’t have been Travis either.

 

Laurence was Travis

 

As often in Alamo films, in this one too Crockett is the mediator between the antagonistic Travis and Bowie. Harvey’s Travis is aristocratic, arrogant and thinks he knows best (and is often photographed from a height looking down on the men) whereas Widmark’s Bowie is more democratic and a common man, dressed in buckskins. He is hard-headed and hot-headed. He’s the one who wants those (fictional) guerrilla raids behind the Mexican lines.

 

Remarkably, for such a ‘mythic’ film, Travis does not draw the legendary line in the sand with his saber. But there’s a similar bit when Bowie, Crockett and their volunteers prepare to leave after the first assault, Travis tells them that Bonham has informed him there will be no reinforcements, but thanks them and gives them his blessing to leave. Then one by one, beginning with Bowie, they change their mind and dismount, going to stand with Travis. It’s rather good, actually.

 

The holy trinity

 

Wayne had penciled in his protégé James Arness to replace him as Sam Houston and asked producer/director Andy McLaglen to set up a meeting on the Gunsmoke set with Wayne and his people. McLaglen said, “Jim powdered. He absolutely did not show up for the meeting.” Wayne was so cross that he snapped at McLaglen, “Get that other guy you work with.” He meant Richard Boone, of Have Gun – Will Travel. And Boone took the part. He wasn’t bad, in fact. Wayne didn’t refer to him as excrement because Boone was notoriously touchy and would have exploded or walked off the set or both.

 

Boone became Houston

 

As to other real characters, Pat Wayne was Bonham. The Dickinsons are there: Joan O’Brien was ‘Mrs. Sue Dickinson’, Ken Curtis was ‘Capt. Almeron Dickinson’ (I thought he was Lt Dickinson but he seems to have been promoted). He’s become Travis’s adjutant. Wayne’s daughter Aissa is little Angelina, their daughter (billed as Lisa Angelica Dickinson). Joseph Calleia (I like him) was Juan Seguin, so kudos to Wayne for including Seguin, for once.

 

The Dickinsons

 

 

But thanks to Grant there are a great number of fictional characters, many played by Wayne insiders. Duke’s wife Pilar made a brief appearance, as ‘Alamo woman’. Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams is an Irish lieutenant. Olive Carey has a small part as a noble Mrs Dennison. Chuck Roberson is billed as simply ‘Tennesseean’. Hank Worden is a parson and Denver Pyle a gambler. The usual suspects, you might say. Worden and Pyle are, frankly, pretty weak, as I am afraid they could be (though I love them both dearly).

 

There’s Denver on the left

 

On the set. Duke’s wearing his great Rio Bravo hat, the one he later gave to Sammy Davis Jr

 

All Westerns had to have a pop singer in those days for some odd reason (Ricky Nelson in Rio Bravo the year before, Fabian in North to Alaska right after The Alamo, etc) and Frankie Avalon did duty this time, as another fictional character, Smitty.

 

Obligatory pop singer

 

And there was Linda Cristal as ‘Flaca’ (the thin one), love interest for Crockett. Smitty and Flaca have more than a passing resemblance to Consuelo and Jeb in The Last Command.

 

Thin Linda

 

Musician Jester Hairston played Bowie’s slave (so that’s another plus for the film: Alamo movies usually write out all mention of slavery) and he sang the rather moving The Green Leaves of Summer.

 

Of the cast, Chill Wills is about the best, as the crusty old-timer Beekeeper, yet another fictional bod. He knew it, too, and took out adverts in the trade press afterwards lobbying for an Oscar, which was in rather poor taste (and Wayne took out adverts in reply saying so). In any case he didn’t win one. The only Oscarable performance was (in my view) that of Harvey, but he didn’t even get nominated. In fact the film only garnered one Academy award, for Best Sound, which was rather damning with faint praise.

 

Chill gives it plenty

 

Wayne himself had hired every actor and even every stuntman (there were 27 stuntmen, on a thousand dollars a week each). Joe and Tap Canutt were among them. Fred Graham, Boyd ‘Red’ Morgan. Etc.

 

All was going well when one day John Ford suddenly turned up on the set. He sat down in the director’s chair and stopped Wayne in mid-scene. “Jesus Christ, Duke, that’s not the way to do it.” He really could be an insufferable old man. Clothier came up with the solution: give him a camera and crew and make him second unit director. It worked. Ford spent days shooting footage that would, though he didn’t know it then, never be used. It was a costly ruse for Wayne but an effective one.

 

It looks as if Duke is about to punch him but I don’t think so

 

Most of December ’59 was taken up shooting the fall of the Alamo, “one of the most spectacular scenes of combat ever put on film,” as Thompson puts it. Assistant director Cliff Lyons helmed a lot of it. There’s one scene I hate where 14 Mexican cavalry horses jump the palisade and are all brought down at once, though Wayne proudly showed a note from the ASPCA that no animals were hurt during filming. Many of the soldiers and defenders seem to be using 1873 Trapdoor Springfields. Oh well. But the action scenes are not the problem with The Alamo. They are remarkable. It’s all the blah-blah that lets it down.

 

 

The Dimitri Tiomkin music turned out to be like the curate’s egg, good in parts. It has its rousing moments but is often disfigured by Hollywood angels and soppiness. A bit like the film. Some love it, though. Erik Maurel said, “Here he delivers his finest work, a masterly summation of the best he’s written in his long career.”

 

Dimitri jots down the crotchets

 

Wayne, Tiomkin and Grant confabulate

 

When shooting wrapped, Wayne had lost 30 pounds.

 

The picture premièred (in San Antonio, naturally) on October 24, 1960. San Antonians greeted it with a kind of religious ecstasy – the rest of the world, not so much. The New York Times said, “The Alamo, for all its bigness—and big and long it certainly is!—is but another beleaguered blockhouse Western.” Bosley Crowther admired the spectacle, especially of the final assault, “But this horrendous representation of the last battle for the Alamo comes after two hours of slogging through some rather sticky Western clichés.” He added, “As his own producer and director, Mr. Wayne has unfortunately let his desire to make a ‘big’ picture burden him with dialogue. His action scenes are usually vivid, his talk scenes are long and usually dull.”

 

 

Variety too liked the action finale – “With the rousing battle sequence at the climax … the picture really commands rapt attention” – but said that the film “has a good measure of mass appeal in its 192 minutes. But to get it, producer-director-star John Wayne has loaded the telling of the tale with happy homilies on American virtues and patriotic platitudes under life-and-death fire which smack of yesteryear theatricalism rather than the realism of modern battle drama.” On the historicism of the film, the reviewer said the movie makers “have somehow shrouded some of the fantastic facts of the original with some of the frivolous fancies of their re-creation.”

 

They all liked the action

 

Reviews generally were not damning. The picture was not a critical flop. But they didn’t enthuse either.

 

Wayne knew that The Alamo needed to gross $17 million to make any money. It made $8m – a decent take for a normal film, but not nearly enough.

 

Wayne immediately cut 31 minutes from the roadshow print to enhance its chances commercially. That excised footage was for a long time thought lost but an uncut 70mm print was discovered in Canada in 1990.

 

The DVD Classik site has launched a petition to ‘Save The Alamo!’ In my translation, it says: “The Alamo, directed by John Wayne in 1960, has been abandoned, suffering the ravages of time with no hope of the slightest restoration attempt that would be so beneficial. Right now, it’s not a question of simply asking for a restoration with a view to releasing a Blu-ray, but of saving an essential film of American cinematographic heritage, whose original 70mm nitrate print will soon have deteriorated to the point of no return. And it’s the exploitation of this material that’s needed today, as soon as a scan is carried out in 4K, in anticipation of a digital restoration. At the rate things are going, and a number of sites have mentioned this with solid arguments, The Alamo will soon be lost. The long version of this masterpiece (202 fabulous minutes in total) is thus threatened with permanent disappearance.”

 

With later sales abroad, TV (it premièred on NBC in September 1971) then video and DVD rights, The Alamo did eventually break even but by then Batjac had sold its interest to pay debts and Wayne reaped no financial reward. UA re-released the film in 1967, this time with greater success but that was too late for Duke. Most people of course now see the film on a much smaller screen at home, cropped, cut, with lo-fi sound. That way, the huge sweep and spectacle is muted and the weak script becomes more pronounced.

 

Little by little since 1960, The Alamo has gathered fans and been re-evaluated by critics. Still in the 1980s the picture was being knocked – Brian Garfield, for example, said, “The first 130 minutes are childish and boring” and called the picture “a sorry dirigible” – but more recent reviews have been much more positive. Erik Maurel has said, “The Alamo is an epic fresco, spectacular and imposing yet constantly inspired and never heavy-handed, a committed and courageous film that oozes sincerity at every turn, a majestic work with a warm, tender atmosphere, a passionate, sensitive, poignant and constantly dignified historical western.” Wow.

 

Certainly some JAW readers have expressed their appreciation. In comments on my earlier post (I reviewed the flick back in 2016) Bart from Belgium said, “To be honest I always loved this movie despite its heroism, maybe just because of its heroism. Wayne, Widmark… there are no more movie stars like them…I also like the melancholic score of Tiomkin.” Jean-Marie from France said, “The action sequences have still an epic grandeur without any of the today’s special effects especially the final assault.” He added, “And after all these years, I still watch it with great indulgence.”  Chris Evans said, “I agree. Really nicely put. Flaws and all I find it a fascinating film. As a fan of epic war films I find the final assault really well done. I pull out my DVD every now and then just for that.”

 

I’ll leave the last word (of this overlong review; sorry about that but I must have got an attack of Wayneism) to Frank Thompson, perceptive as ever: “The Alamo has been ignored, dismissed, patronized. But those who bother to take a second look will find a film of unique qualities, composed of equal parts naïvete and intelligence, crudity and beauty. Despite its failings, The Alamo remains John Wayne’s crowning achievement, and the best of all Alamo movies.”

 

 

9 Responses

    1. Thompson thinks so. Me, I’d go for THE LAST COMMAND. A weak film in some respects, it was, ironically conidering the Wayne background, better than THE ALAMO. “The best of all Alamo movies” isn’t a very high bar, I fear. Many were pretty dire. Which would you say was the best?

      1. I like the 2004 one flaws and all would have liked to see the longer version that was promised long ago. Best version? Hard to say though I like ‘The Last Command’ too and Wayne’s always.

    1. Thank you. I agree, and if a really good quality print were available, with the bigger screens and better sound that people tend to have at home these days, I think there’d be a re-appreciation of the picture.

  1. I believe Wayne’s Alamo, and perhaps all others, is a bore. The Republic Last Command was light years ahead, but not great, just watchable. That’s enough. An aside concerning The Virginian in its 1946 incarnation; Just Great. Americana as it should be minus BrianDonlevy’s work. McCrea, not my favorite Western star would have been at or near the top had he not goneAllied Artists on me and the world. Oh, about Buffalo Bill, screw the director’s take. He wanted to vomit, fine, do not do it near me.

    1. I agree that THE LAST COMMAND was not a great film but it was better than THE ALAMO.
      I am a McCrea fan and think he was a great Westerner but I do find the 1945 THE VIRGINIAN a bit stodgy. Donlevy was certainly the worst ever Trampas.
      About Wellman’s BUFFALO BILL, probably the less the said the better. Though even in that McCrea was fine.

  2. I don’t see what your problem with Brian is. A terrific actor. As far as Wellman and Buffalo Bill is concerned, Wellman hated the ending, the kid shouting ‘God Bless you…’ Without that the film stinks, or sinks, with it, you leave the theater feeling something positive. As for McCrea, before leaving Paramount he was great, in his post-Paramount career, a lot of sanctimonious old-man movies. My favorites films of his, are Union Pacific, Foreign Correspondent, and The Palm Beach Story.

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