Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

The Celluloid Alamo: 10

 

A round-up

 

We’ve looked, over the past few weeks, at big-screen (in the case of the 1988 IMAX film a very big screen) depictions of the defense and fall of the Alamo in 1836. The whole subject has attracted film makers since the earliest days. As we saw in The Celluloid Alamo 1, there was a silent movie made in 1911 by Gaston Méliès, brother of George, and there was another made in 1914, The Siege and Fall of the Alamo, made by and starring a certain Ray Myers, but these are now lost. According to Frank Thompson in his enjoyable and interesting 1991 book Alamo Movies, there was also a silent made in 1914 titled The Fall of the Alamo but I know nothing of this and it’s not mentioned on IMDb. It’s possible that it was the Myers one screened under another title – this happened a lot in the early days.

 

Gaston made one in 1911

 

Martyrs of the Alamo, ballyhooed as a DW Griffith picture but actually directed by Christy Cabanne, was the first Alamo movie that has survived, released in 1915. The last silent Alamo film came out in 1926, (With) Davy Crockett at the Fall of the Alamo, made by the company of Anthony Xydias, Sunset Productions. This we discussed in The Celluloid Alamo 2.

 

The subtitle bigger than the title, a deliberate reference to Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation

 

Once sound came in, Alamo movies started with Xydias’s talkie remake, Heroes of the Alamo (Sunset Productions, 1937 and Columbia, 1938). See The Celluloid Alamo 3 for that one.

 

 

After the war, in the 1950s, the tale regained popularity and Glenn Ford was The Man from the Alamo in Universal’s Budd Boetticher-directed picture, 1953. See out review in The Celluloid Alamo 4. That was only really a peripheral Alamo movie because most of the action took place away from the mission, though the siege does play an important part.

 

Glenn was The Man from the Alamo

 

In 1955 there were two Alamo films: Disney cobbled together some episodes of its TV show to make Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier, an Alamo yarn centered on Crockett (Fess Parker), cashing in on a Crockett craze (see The Celluloid Alamo 5) and Republic put out The Last Command (The Celluloid Alamo 6) with Sterling Hayden as Bowie, Arthur Hunnicutt as Crockett and Richard Carlson as Travis. It wasn’t bad, actually.

 

 

 

Probably the most famous Alamo movie of all was the John Wayne version, The Alamo, which was released in 1960, a labor of love for Duke and a massive undertaking but sadly neither a commercial nor a critical success. See The Celluloid Alamo 7.

 

Duke’s dream

 

The losses incurred by Wayne put movie-makers off the Alamo for a time but NBC screened a TV movie version, The Alamo: Thirteen Days to Glory in 1987 (see The Celluloid Alamo 8) and the following year IMAX made a 37-minute picture for screening in San Antonio, Alamo…The Price of Freedom, as a docudrama for visitors to the mission, as we saw in The Celluloid Alamo 9, while in the same article we went on to discuss the most recent big-screen version, Disney’s The Alamo in 2004. This treatment was perhaps the most nuanced of all of them, though even this one was, frankly, pretty one-dimensional, with the story being about (as always) brave white Americans fighting for freedom against an evil ‘foreign’ dictator, with little mention that Texas was then Mexican territory or of the question of slavery (which all versions either made a cursory nod to, moving swiftly on, or ignored entirely).

 

2004 version

 

So that makes close to a dozen movie treatments of the story so dear to Texan hearts, and indeed elevated almost into a religion – what Thompson calls Alamoism.

 

And that, it seems, is almost one of the problems with making a movie about the events of 1836. The heroism of the defense and the death of the ‘martyrs’ have become not just the orthodoxy, especially in Texas, but almost a patriotic touchstone. The heroic version, with all-American heroes fighting for liberty, is taught in schools, by law. Many people believe it, as an article of faith. And any ‘revisionist’ attempt to suggest that the facts might indicate otherwise is considered not just wrong but wicked. The 2021 book Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth by Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson et Jason Stanford, is very interesting on the subject.

 

 

True, various aspects of the story have been given more attention as each successive film version appears, such as the part played by the Tejanos, for example, and there have even been (mild) allusions to slavery – the fact that Mexico had abolished it while the Texians were fighting to defend what they euphemistically called “property”. But even suggestions by historians that Crockett may have been executed afterwards rather than going down fighting on the rampart, which a priori one would not have thought terribly heretical, are utterly condemned by the true believers, and no film version (to date) shows this as happening. Film makers have to walk on thin ice so as not to offend.

 

For example, in Harper’s magazine in the aftermath of the Disney Davy Crockett movie, the Texas-born John Fischer called the historical Crockett a “juvenile delinquent,” a deserter “who weaseled his way out of the army,” an “indolent and shiftless” farmer, “an unsuccessful politician; a hack writer” and king of nothing save maybe “the Tennessee Tall Tales and Bourbon Samplers Association.” Fischer even poured cold water on the Alamo siege. In one of the earliest-known examples of Alamo revisionism, he portrayed its defenders as drunken idiots too stupid to retreat from what became “the worst military blooper in American history, short of Pearl Harbor.” Their only defense is that “they died well.” But “From a military standpoint, that is about all that can be said for them; and it is the only solid fact about the Alamo which most Americans ever hear.” This provoked near-apoplectic outrage from the true believers.

 

What is absolutely certain is that the whole story has captured the imagination of (especially) the American public and entered into folklore.

 

As the ballad has it,

 

The storybooks tell they was all cut low

But the truth of it is, it just ain’t so

Their spirits’ll live and their legend grow

As long as we remember the Alamo.

 

The legend sure did grow. The song got that right.

 

Other nineteenth-century American heroes have suffered periods of debunking. George Armstrong Custer was a raving megalomaniac in Little Big Man, Wyatt Earp was a corrupt and cowardly crook in Doc, Buffalo Bill was a drunken charlatan in Buffalo Bill and the Indians, and so on. This hasn’t happened to the heroes of the Alamo. They remain demigods.

 

It might be worth mentioning before we leave the Alamo as a subject that it appears now and then in other films. For example, in the fun and quite big-budget 1945 Errol Flynn oater San Antonio, written by Alan Le May and WR Burnett, there’s an impressive replica of the mission, and a well-staged gunfight in the atmospheric moonlit ruins is the picture’s highlight. And more recently, the (non-Western) movie Last Night at the Alamo (1985) has a group of Texas good-ole-boys lamenting the closure of their favorite bar, The Alamo, and the picture contains many references.

 

Errol and Alexis (faute de Havilland) at the Alamo

 

And of course there were quite a few Alamos on the small screen, not only the TV movie mentioned above. There was the original Disney show, obviously, with Fess Parker, which grew into the 1955 feature, but there were many others.

 

Programs featuring the siege tended to be even more unhistorical than the big-screen versions. “Nearly all the Alamo-related television programs are fantastic in nature,” says Frank Thompson. The Time Tunnel and You Are There, for example.

 

Some were OK. The Wagon Train episode The José Morales Story (S4 E5) had Lon Chaney Jr as ‘Louis Roque’, in reality Moses Rose, a man haunted for thirty years by his decision not to cross Travis’s line and die with the others. It was quite a sympathetic treatment and it gave Moses a second chance of dying with honor: he perishes fighting side by side with José Morales (Lee Marvin), a former soldier of Santa Anna. It’s on YouTube and worth a look. Moses Rose also appeared in The Texicans, an episode of Frontier in 1956.

 

Lon was Moses

 

You’d think The Adventures of Jim Bowie would have featured the Alamo, and Scott Forbes as Bowie was occasionally paired with Houston and Crockett but the show didn’t deal with Bowie’s demise.

 

 

I’ll end with a remark by Frank Thompson: “The Alamo movies are intriguing mixtures of history, tomfoolery, legend, lies, inspiration and nonsense. But they are, individually and collectively, quite important. Because they determine how we remember the Alamo.”

 

 

 

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