"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Thursday, June 9, 2016

The Alamo (United Artists, 1960)

Maybe better not to remember this Alamo

Poor John Wayne. He tried so hard and invested so much in The Alamo – not just pretty well all his worldly wealth but his heart and soul. All his professional life he had been wanting 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 Batjac didn’t seem to understand that 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 a 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 (although other Alamo movies, of which there were many, didn’t do badly). In any case, inventing 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.

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’. Editor Stuart Gilmore 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 just implausible, it’s boring – the cardinal sin of the Western.

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 they are they 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 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; in a world that seemed to give up on heroes and patriotism (in Wayne’s view), the tale of noble self-sacrifice and holding off a vastly more numerous ‘foreign’ enemy for 13 days had a lot to teach us, he thought. But teach us, and only entertain us by the way.

Back in the late 1940s Wayne made some serious efforts to sell The Alamo to Republic but studio boss Herb Yates, whom Wayne called a son of a bitch who knew nothing about making films, shied away from such a costly project. Wayne scouted locations around San Antonio and later in Mexico with Pat Ford, John Ford’s son, and Pat Ford 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.
Herb Yates of Republic

Finally Wayne and Yates got into a shouting match. Wayne left Republic and said he would never make another picture with them, though he had been there since the studio was born. Then Yates did something frankly reprehensible: he took the idea, commissioned a new screenplay and produced a knockoff entitled The Last Command which plugged into the Crockett-mania then raging because of Disney’s Fess Parker shows. Actually, I don’t mind The Last Command as a movie but you can imagine what Wayne thought of it. He never spoke to Yates again.

In 1952 Wayne formed a company with producer Robert Fellows, Wayne-Fellows Productions (which became Batjac in 1954) and once more The Alamo was on the agenda. But Fellows was little more enthusiastic about the project than Yates had been.

In 1953 Wayne made some very successful pictures for Warner Bros, including Hondo, and this replenished Batjac’s coffers, so he floated The Alamo to Jack Warner. No go.

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 finally The Alamo became a realistic project. 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 near Fort Clark, TX. A stone Alamo was built. 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.
Cast of thousands
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.”

Wayne decided to shoot the film in very costly 70mm. James Edward Grant had produced his twelfth rewrite of the script - which was still prolix. 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.”

There were problems. UA wanted to cut funding mid-shoot. A ‘flu virus hit large numbers 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.

Wayne himself had hired every actor and even every stuntman (there were 27 stuntmen, on a thousand dollars a week each). Of the cast, Chill Wills is about the best, as the crusty old-timer Beekeeper. 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. In fact the film only garnered one Academy award, for Best Sound, which was rather damning with faint praise.
Chill makes the most of it
Of the principals, Wayne had originally wanted only a cameo as Sam Houston but had to take a star 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. 
Wayne as Crockett
Richard Widmark was 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 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. 
Widmark chose the part of 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.” 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.
Laurence Harvey as Travis
Travis as Travis
Wayne had penciled in his friend and 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 was Houston, not Arness

Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams is an Irish lieutenant, Olive Carey has a small part as a noble woman, Chuck Roberson is billed as simply ‘Tennesseean’. Wayne’s daughter Aissa is there too. Joseph Calleia (I like him). 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 Smitty.

Teen idol had to be included

Other Ford/Wayne stock company regulars appear, such as Hank Worden, Denver Pyle and Ken Curtis. Curtis is alright as the adjutant of Harvey but 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

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.
John Ford turned up, expecting to be kowtowed to

The music (Dimitri Tiomkin) is like the curate’s egg, good in parts. It is often disfigured by Hollywood angels and soppiness. The photography is by William Clothier and pretty classy. 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).

Wayne, Tiomkin, Grant
Wayne knew that The Alamo needed to gross $17 million to make any money. It made $8m. With later sales abroad, and TV rights, it did eventually just about break even but by then Batjac had sold its interest to pay debts and Wayne reaped no financial reward. The film is not a total turkey, just a bloated dirigible.



  1. Yeah.... one SO wants to like this, mainly because it lays bare Duke's heart and soul. When a project has someone behind it who believe in it that much, it has 'something.' And The Alamo does; but it still doesn't add up to a good movie.

    One could cut this and maybe get a really decent 90 or 100 minutes out of it. Keep most of the siege; keep the Boone stuff (though God knows there's little of that already); keep much of Widmark and cut lots of Harvey; and fill throughout with Duke, and you might have something really good. But, as you say, the length and bloat kills it....

    1. Yes, I agree whole-heartedly.

  2. To be honest I always loved this movie despite it's heroism, maybe just because of it's heroism. Just yesterday I watched it again (I'm in my Wayne-fase). After seeing a western I always read your comment on the movie, hence my reaction. Wayne, Widmark... there are no more movie stars like them...I also like the melancholic score of Tiomkin.
    Bart (from Belgium)

    1. Hi Bart
      Yes, and I think a lot of people still admire this film.
      I'm afraid I'm not one of them, though I do agree it has its moments.
      Thanks for your comment.

    2. This is a masterpiece in my opinion. That's because this was the first John Wayne film that I remember seeing and my late Grandpa saw it with me. We were both huge John Wayne fans, his dad looked and sounded like John Wayne but was a couple inches shorter. I just love this film and my sewwtheart is from Texas, so when I ask her out for the 1st time, I'll show her this film. John Wayne's best film. He deserved an Oscar for this! Good review Jeff, even though I disagree about the rating that you gave it. I would give it 6 revolvers if that was possible.