Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

The Celluloid Alamo: 9

 

The last big picture – for the moment

 

The next Alamo film in a long line was the 37-minute IMAX docudrama Alamo… The Price of Freedom, made in 1988, and shown exclusively in a new theater specially built for it in San Antonio. I can’t tell you much about it because I haven’t seen it, not having been to San Antonio lately (or actually ever) but I’ll just say a brief word on the subject after reading Frank Thompson on the subject in his book Alamo Movies.

 

 

“It was intended,” Thompson says, “to enhance a visit to the Alamo by presenting the story of the siege and fall in concise, yet spectacular terms.”

 

The picture was scripted by Texas amateur historian/teaching aids millionaire George McAlister. Director Kieth (I am assured that’s not a typo) Merrill had already won an Academy Award for his 1974 documentary The Great American Cowboy and in 1980 he’d made Windwalker, the first dramatic feature with entirely American Indian dialogue. He made two IMAX films before the Alamo one, about the Grand Canyon and Niagara. They must have been dizzying. I saw an IMAX film in Paris once and felt quite peculiar. I had to shut my eyes for bits of it.

 

The budget for the Alamo project was $7.2m but that had to include the price of building the theater. The film company went back to Happy Shahan and did a deal to use his Alamo set at Brackettville. It cost them $200,000 to do it up after the damage wrought by Wayne’s and the Thirteen Days to Glory pictures.

 

 

Thompson says, “Every Alamo movie has touted its rigid adherence to historical accuracy, but Alamo… The Price of Freedom is the only one of them to make serious attempt to get the facts right.”

 

It was decided not to cast ‘name’ actors. This would be cheaper and also the film would not ‘age’ so much as years passed. About 500 enthusiasts and re-enactors joined in.

 

In this one Travis (Casey Briggs) is the central character. He is a much less arrogant and abrasive Travis than in other movies. Thompson says that the performance of Merrill Connally (the Texas governor’s brother) is “among the film’s most convincing portrayals.” He is less complimentary about the picture’s Bowie (Steve Sandor).

 

Ow.

 

“The best performance of the film,” however, “is given by Enrique Sandino, a Columbian actor and dancer. Sandino’s Santa Anna is haughty and poised.”

 

Moses Rose opts not to cross the line but the film does not have the time to explain why. Travis draws his line in the sand and doesn’t die too early, and Crockett goes down fighting, so no controversy there. Heroic legend is maintained.

 

There was controversy, though, over how Tejanos were portrayed, “subservient”, “of loose morals” and “less heroic” than their white counterparts according to city council member Walter Martinez. Cuts were made by the producers as a consequence which reduced the planned length from 48 to 37 minutes.

 

Audiences were “impressed at this brief but moving re-telling of the Alamo saga. The critics liked it too.”

 

Because it has run continuously for so long, Alamo… The Price of Freedom is “perhaps the most influential of Alamo movies,” says Thompson.

 

I’d like to view it one day. Do please leave a comment if you’ve seen it.

 

The Alamo (Buena Vista, 2004)

 

Disney’s 2004 picture The Alamo, however, I have seen and I can tell you a bit more about that. Thompson’s book came out in 1991 so he doesn’t discuss it but dedicated Alamistas will certainly know it.

 

 

It was a Wayneishly huge picture, with a runtime of three hours plus (later cut down to a more manageable 137 minutes) and made on a budget of over $140m (there is a story that one of the reasons the budget was so high was that a pack of Doritos fell out of an extra’s pocket when he was ‘shot’ and the whole scene had to be redone; that extra may have not received his full salary that day). It was filmed in CinemaScope with Dolby digital sound. It was shot on location in Texas, with a 45-acre set of the Alamo and its courtyard built on a ranch west of Austin. With 70 structures on 51 acres, it was the largest free-standing movie set ever built in North America. A cheapie it wasn’t.

 

Impressive set

 

Designated director Ron Howard and star Russell Crowe (who was going to be Bowie) jumped ship early on – though Howard remained as co-producer; he went off to make the much better film The Missing – leaving John Lee Hancock in charge of what he may then have thought of as a sinking ship. Mr Hancock was chiefly a writer, working in the late 1990s on LA Doctors on TV, but came to prominence directing the sport drama The Rookie with Dennis Quaid in 2002. He wasn’t a rookie himself, at directing I mean, but he’s wasn’t a grizzled old hand either.

 

Hancock at the helm

 

Disney must have thought long and hard before embarking on this version of The Alamo. John Wayne had sunk 13 million 1960 dollars into his project and it had proved less commercially buoyant than the Titanic. By the nature of the beast a massive budget is required – all those Mexican soldiers, not to mention the set – and there can have been little guarantee of a good return for the 2004 one.

 

Still, the story is so very American and so very Hollywood – so damn heroic – that, as we have seen in our posts The Celluloid Alamo 1 thru 8 (see index), producer after producer and writer after writer couldn’t resist it. There are certain subjects, like Robin Hood, Zorro, the Three Musketeers and so on, which seemingly each generation has to have a go at. The Alamo is one. We’re probably overdue for another one.

 

All these versions, including the 2004 one, though this one is more nuanced, reinforced the popular myths about the Alamo and have brave all-American defenders fighting for freedom by resisting hordes of Mexicans led by the corrupt and evil dictator Santa Aña/Santa Anna. All the films center their stories on the holy trinity of Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie and William Travis, giving one or the other slightly more prominence.

 

The holy trinity of the Alamo religion

 

However, top billing in the 2004 picture went to Dennis Quaid as Sam Houston – that’s quite unusual for an Alamo film. As we have seen, Houston is usually relegated to pretty well a walk-on part, with maybe a San Jacinto coda. Quaid is an earnest and even tortured Houston, desperate to help the defenders at the Alamo but citing Wellington (a nice contrast to Santa Aña’s claim to be the Napoleon of the West) and plumping for a cautious holding strategy.

 

Sam is Wellington to Santa Anna’s Napoleon – and San Jacinto was his Waterloo

 

Of the holy trinity of Alamo defenders, Crockett, Bowie and Travis, Crockett steals most of the limelight in this one, played by probably the film’s best actor, second-billed Billy Bob Thornton. Jason Patric is an especially infirm Bowie, and Patrick Wilson gives us his rather ‘straight’ Travis.

 

Thornton is a colorful and winning Crockett, playing his fiddle on the ramparts to combat the Mexican military band blaring out el degüello. He has no coonskin cap and explains to Bowie that he only wore it in the coldest weather and because “that feller who was me in a play” wore one so he occasionally felt obliged to. It’s a nice little excursion into the idea of Western myth versus reality. Carla Meyer in the San Francisco Chronicle said, “Director Hancock recognizes Thornton as the film’s emotional center, composing shots of the actor as if he were Errol Flynn in a swashbuckling film.”

 

Billy Bob Crockett

 

Patric gives us a consumptive/malarial/pneumoniac Bowie coughing up blood into his spotless handkerchief. This Bowie was really very poorly. There is the slightest of hints that ‘other’ diseases were also involved. He struggles with Travis for command at first, as was traditional, but he is so sick that his challenge fades away.

 

A sick Bowie

 

Wilson’s Travis (Ethan Hawke had been talked of) is not bad and he has a vaguely Laurence Harvey look about him, though his hat isn’t as good. This Travis is a humorless and occasionally petulant patriot who strikes the men as too melodramatic. Travis was going for glory, no doubt about that, and Wilson does that side well.

 

Pretty good hat but…

 

All three of these figures, Crockett, Bowie and Travis, actually had soiled reputations needing a spot of burnishing, which maybe could have been made more of in the film, but then Alamo movie-makers have to be very careful not to commit sacrilege. Or the Texan faithful could be up in arms (assault rifles, probably).

 

Emilio Echevarria is a splendidly evil (if slightly elderly and rather cartoonish) Santa Anna. Some of his officers are more decent types (though not all). They all finish badly anyway. At least they speak subtitled Mexican Spanish and not pidgin English.

 

Cartoon villain

 

A role usually omitted entirely or if included made pretty inconsequential, that of Juan Seguin, was very well done in this picture, by Jordi Mollà. Marc Savlov in the Austin Chronicle, after praising Thornton, wrote, “The film’s other, and far more intense, performance arrives in the form of Spanish actor Jordi Mollà, who, with his drowsy eyes and brooding mien, manages to make the small and generally thankless role of Capt. Juan Seguin into a quietly smoldering bonfire of its own.” This movie paid more attention than others to the contribution of the Tejanos.

 

Seguin gets a decent part for once

 

The picture starts with the dead bodies of the defenders scattered across the mission compound, so there goes any suspense, but then I don’t think that there’s anyone on the planet who doesn’t know what happened to them, so I guess it’s fair enough.

 

I think they did the mounting tension/despair very well as the men wait for what they know to be an inevitable and grisly death. Roger Ebert, who liked the movie, wrote, “Here is a movie that captures the loneliness and dread of men waiting for two weeks for what they expect to be certain death, and it somehow succeeds in taking those pop-culture brand names like Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie and giving them human form.”

 

The battle scenes were well done, I thought, with few special effects and plenty intense without being over-gory.

 

But there is no questioning of the Americans’ God-given right to take Mexican land and be damned to the effrontery of the greasers for objecting. It’s not too easy these days to pull off a ‘manifest destiny’ plot, especially when a 21st century film like this one feels it has to give due weight to the various ethnic, linguistic and religious groups involved.

 

At least the 2004 movie has blacks preferring the Mexican side – slavery was illegal in Mexico and the Texians were defending their right to “property”. That is usually completely glossed over in Alamo films. But as the San Francisco Chronicle said, “All we glean is that these men were exercising their God-given right to take others’ land and not be messed with.”

 

But Disney did, to be fair, try hard to strip away the heroic and one-dimensional gloss that it gave to its earlier interpretation (see The Celluloid Alamo: 5)

 

And we had the Dickinsons

 

The Alamo cost over $140 million to make and it recouped about $25m worldwide in the two months after release. Oops. So commercially it sure flopped.

 

Critically, it had a mixed reception; some (like Ebert) really liked it while others were pretty damning. The New York Times, for example, opined that “The director John Lee Hancock … strains so mightily to bring a human aspect to the material that the movie limps as if it had a pulled muscle. Raising a cloud of dust from dragging an injured leg, the film can’t support the burden of delivering a drama with a mammoth running time, a climactic catastrophe that nearly every American knows and no women with major speaking roles.” And Derek Winnert said of it, “Director John Lee Hancock’s misjudged, murky-looking and mostly boring 2004 film is a totally unmemorable remake of the 1960 John Wayne movie The Alamo without any of its excitement or spectacle.”

 

Myself, I rather agree with Mr Savlov of the Austin Chronicle, who wrote, “Hancock’s film is a big, blustery, popcorn-revisionist history of the events that unfolded in 1836 San Antonio, rife with outsized characters and freighted with the full weight of Texas legend atop it. It’s loud – the cannon fire alone could wake the Alamo dead – and its sense of ballyhoo is pure Hollywood, but despite all the Sturm und Drang of this version of the 13-day siege and Gen. Sam Houston’s post-Alamo routing of Santa Anna’s army, the film lacks the emotional, doomed punch for which it’s so clearly striving.”

 

 

We’ll round up our (rather marathon) Alamo-on-film season next time, with The Celluloid Alamo: 10.

5 Responses

  1. I visited Alamo only once in the mid 1980s but preferred to focus on the site itself (sleeping at the Menger Hotel, open in 1859, one of the few downtown “historic hotels”), visiting the historic neighbourhoods and jesuit missions in the vicinity far less known than their California sisters.
    Not sure though if the IMAX film had been released (about IMAX, the Grand Canyon film shown at GCN is absolutely astonishing giving you the impression to be a member of Major Powell’s voyage).
    In Freedom, John Bonham is played by Don Swayze (Patrick’s brother).
    Your caption could have said “A sick Bowie for a thick Bowie”…
    “There’s anyone on the planet who doesn’t know what happened to them, so I guess it’s fair enough” makes me think of Little Big Horn… It could be an idea for a next “in celluloid” serie which you do so brilliantly…!

    1. I’ve done various articles on Custer, Custer in the early talkies, Custer on TV, and so on (see index), but not specifically about Little Big Horn. I’m not a great expert on the battle. I was however very taken with the site, which had a definite ‘atmosphere’.

  2. Another great article. I like the 2004 Alamo flaws and all. I always wanted to see the longer versions. Someone who saw them all back then said about it “At four hours they had an epic, at three hours they had a great movie, at two hours they had a movie”. I agree with you that the battle scenes are excellent. Plus I really like Thornton as Crockett. I also highly recommend the historian commentary as it is very good on the DVD.

    1. As with the Wayne picture, the longer versions of films are very soon cut, for commercial reasons, and subsequently become hard to see. Occasionally a restoration happens and we get back to the original as imagined by the film maker.

  3. Expanding the already draggy Wayne version does it no favor. We really didn’t need to see his daughter’s birthday party. But perhaps this film is different? I, too, would like to see the full version.

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