Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

The Celluloid Alamo: 8

 

The Alamo: Thirteen Days to Glory (NBC TV, 1987)

 

The next Alamo film after John Wayne’s was really Viva Max in 1969, but I’m not reviewing it because (a) it isn’t a Western and (b) I haven’t seen it. The story of the making of the picture is amusing, though – so just a little aside on that before we get on to the next Alamo movie proper.

 

In 1966, Dallas writer Jim Lehrer wrote a satirical novel about a modern-day Mexican general who with a hundred soldiers invades Texas and takes back the Alamo. The book contains barbed and barely disguised portraits of LBJ and Texas Governor John Connally but reserves its venom chiefly for the ‘Daughters of the Texas Revolution’ – no prizes for guessing who they were.

 

The militant ladies charged since 1905 with the care and upkeep of what they regarded as the ‘shrine’ of the Alamo were scandalized and forbade the making of a film of the heretical novel inside ‘their’ building. They tried to do the same outside but slightly overlooked the fact that the space outside was a public plaza not owned by them and they lost their case. So shooting happened (to the delight of the crowd) and the film makers constructed a set at Cinecittà in Rome for the interiors.  The lady president of these worthy dames lamented, “Why can’t they make a nice movie like John Wayne?” The star of Viva Max, Peter Ustinov, said, “I am astonished to find out the cradle of Texas independence still has so many babies in it.”

 

Generalissimo Ustinov

 

According to Frank Thompson, author of Alamo Movies, the film turned out to be only moderately funny, with the satirical aspect of the book suppressed to the point of blandness. It was directed by Jerry Paris (dentist/neighbor Jerry Helper on The Dick Van Dyke Show).

 

But all the brouhaha helped encourage ticket sales of the movie. And as Thompson says, “Ironically, those who feared that Viva Max would ridicule the Alamo and the men who died there were completely mistaken. The film is a tribute to unity and bravery; an enthusiastic confirmation of the spirit and meaning of the Alamo.”

 

If I do watch it I’ll tell you more another day.

 

But really it was back to TV for the next portrayal of the famous story, when NBC screened The Alamo: Thirteen Days to Glory, a two-part miniseries with a total runtime of 140 or 167 minutes (depending where you lived), in 1987.

 

 

This I have seen and I can tell you a bit about it.

 

Dallas-born producer Stockton Briggle, who had studied under the Texas historian Lon Tinkle and greatly admired Tinkle’s 1958 book Thirteen Days to Glory: The Siege of the Alamo, longed to make a film of the story.

 

 

A lifelong Alamo obsessive, Briggle had in fact “run away from home” to become an extra on Wayne’s movie, and Tinkle had been engaged by Wayne as a consultant on that picture, but the many historical sins of James Edward Grant’s script caused Tinkle to ask for his name to be removed from the credits (which it was).

 

Prof Tinkle rather shocked

 

Briggle said, “With all due respect to John Wayne, I did not want his movie to be the last word on the subject.” And the approaching sesquicentennial celebrations in 1986 seemed to right moment to make one (though it eventually came out a year late).

 

Stockton’s pet project

 

Briggle aimed to make the definitive Alamo picture, historically correct in every way. He talked of Wayne’s “inaccurate movie, glorifying the great white hero while all the little brown guys are the bad guys.” An admirable ambition, perhaps, historical fidelity, and the picture’s authenticity and accuracy were often and loudly trumpeted. Yet the final result was almost as fictional as Wayne’s. This was not just in matters of detail – experts say the uniforms and weapons are all wrong – but in the many completely invented episodes.

 

There were budgetary limitations responsible for this, of course, and I am sure the desire/need to make a TV-friendly drama, but as with Wayne’s picture, much of the reason for the film’s eventual tomfoolery was down to the writing. Two screenplay writers were credited, Clyde Ware and Norman Morrill. Director/writer Ware is probably best known for writing 17 episodes of Gunsmoke and other TV shows, though in one capacity or the other he contributed to the occasional feature, such as the Civil War drama No Drums, No Bugles in 1972 and the Western Bad Jim in 1990, while Morrill was a TV guy who only ever wrote one Western/war-film/history, this one. Much of the script was pretty clunky.

 

Ware did he get his history?

 

Briggle’s crew moved into the Alamo Village (as the remnants of John Wayne’s set in Brackettville had become known) just as the people from the wrapping Sam Houston biopic Houston: The Legend of Texas (which we reviewed the other day) were leaving. Briggle had wanted to shoot in Mexico, the peso/dollar exchange rate at the time being extremely favorable, but the Mexican government wouldn’t grant permission. So Brackettville it was.

 

Briggle had $5m to work with, less than half what Wayne spent a quarter of a century before. He certainly couldn’t afford thousands of extras. The producer wanted to pad his picture with battle scenes from The Alamo and he even put a broken cross atop the mission so the shooting would match, but he couldn’t get the rights so instead he went with footage from The Last Command. Unfortunately, the color of that film had significantly faded and the scenes didn’t match at all, but with 1980s technology an attempt was made to blend the two parts into one whole.

 

Burt Kennedy was brought in to direct. I always thought Kennedy was a better writer of Westerns than a director of them, though there is no denying his experience. But the limitations of the project were evident. Most of the battle scenes (many shot by second unit director David Cass) were unconvincing, and not enough film was shot, so that many scenes had to be used more than once. This leads to some glaringly obvious moments with actors and extras obviously repeating the same moves. Travis on the wall fires his pistol, killing one soldier, and stabbing another with a sword. Then he does it again. The Mexicans blow a hole in the hospital wall twice. How many hospitals did the Alamo have? Every time the scene shifts to Santa Anna’s camp we get the same footage. The film makers decided to copy Wayne’s (entirely fictional) sallies behind enemy lines to spike their cannon but botched it entirely, so that it looks ridiculous, and the botched scenes were repeated. The whole thing appears extremely amateur.

 

Burt with a pal

 

Another problem occurred with the casting.

 

Top of the bill was James Arness, the actor who was to have been Houston in Wayne’s picture but stood Duke up and was replaced by Richard Boone. He became Bowie, who is the principal character in this version. The problem was he was well into his sixties whereas the real Bowie was 39. At least he was tall.

 

Crockett and Bowie

 

The real Davy Crockett was 49, so that was better, but Brian Keith playing him in this one was even older than Arness. Briggle had first wanted that excellent actor Rip Torn as Crockett, then, when he was unavailable, Andy Griffith (that might have been good) but Keith did a good job as a rather urbane Crockett (he’s no hick backwoodsman and there’s no sign of a coonskin cap).

 

As for Houston, that part was taken by Lorne Greene, in his final film, looking every day of his 73 years (the real Houston was 43).

 

He also seemed not all there

 

They tried with make-up and gauze over the lens to disguise the actors’ age as best they could, but…

 

At least the Travis was the right age, played by the up-and-coming Alec Baldwin, third-billed. Of course Travis has to draw the famous line on the sand with his saber. Legendary or not, that had to be in. Surprisingly, Laurence Harvey hadn’t done it in 1960 but nearly all Alamo movies included it.

 

Alec was Travis

 

Travis dies at the end of the battle, bayoneted in the hip. That’s wrong too. He was shot in the head, early on. And the bayonets flap in the breeze.

 

The holy trinity (1987 version)

 

The picture does at least show some characters that other Alamo films ignored, such as Colonel Fannin (Thomas Callaway) at Goliad, Juan Seguin and Travis’s slave Joe, as well as the fate of the survivors, and Moses Rose (though unnamed) asking to leave after Travis draws the line in the sand.

 

Col Fannin

 

Seguin

 

I suppose in order to appeal to younger viewers, the screenplay invents a rather silly subplot about a young Mexican girl in love with one of the Anglo defenders of the Alamo. There always had to be a bit of love interest. One critic said of this romance, “It’s pretty dreadfully presented, with the young lovers looking like they’d be more suitable for The Breakfast Club gang than the besieged Texas mission.”

 

The inevitable romance

 

Dramatic mishandling combines with historical nonsense when Santa Anna delays his assault till his brother-in-law General Cos arrives. He blames Cos for the original loss of the Alamo. But all this build-up peters out when it is casually announced that Cos (whom we never see) has been killed on the Alamo walls (he wasn’t).

 

Thompson: “The Alamo: Thirteen Days to Glory started out with high hopes and high-flown talk about its unrelenting dependence on the facts. Finally, however, it remains a botched opportunity, filled with moments of great promise, a few scenes of some power, and a lot of television-movie-level banality.”

 

It didn’t even do well on TV, ranking #32 in the top 66 TV shows of the week. USA Today said, “Remember the Alamo but forget this movie.” Later there was an obscure VHS release as part of a double feature with High Noon II: The Return of Will Kane. Encore shows it and recently the picture was streamed on Amazon Prime. It’s on YouTube, which is probably the best way to see it as it’s not worth buying. Anyway, there’s no DVD as far as I know.

 

Only two years later there’d be yet another Alamo movie. Another one? Jeez, what is it about this event?

 

 

10 Responses

    1. Thanks!
      I thought that release was only on VHS but fine. It’s probably worth one watch, though a purchase doubtful!

      1. Excellent review. Seen the film over the years and find it a mess. However Baldwin as Travis and Julia as Santa were good and well cast. I suppose the others were a salute to the old Western stars but they were all wrongly cast and were not believable as the real life vital figures they played. Heard of the DVD but never bit. Too bad you couldn’t review the IMAX Alamo film that was suppose to be first rate from around the same time.

        1. Actually I’ll be mentioning the IMAX one in The Celluloid Alamo: 9 but I haven’t seen it. I’m not sure it’s still on, even in San Antonio.

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