Wednesday, November 24, 2010

"The Alamo" (1960) Music by Dimitri Tiomkin (John Wayne, Richard Widmark, Laurence Harvey)

Genre: Westerns
"Republic. I like the sound of the word. Means that people can live free, talk free, go or come, buy or sell, be drunk or sober, however they choose. Some words give you a feeling. Republic is one of those words that makes me tight in the throat."--John Wayne as "Davy Crockett" in "The Alamo".

You know what makes me tight in the throat? Movies like "The Alamo" that should be outstanding works, but instead wind up barely above average by the time all the cuts are made and its ready for the general release. Also heavy-handed messaging in a movie make me tight in the throat. Real tight.

(to the right, Richard Widmark and John Wayne share some rare downtime on the arduous shoot that was the making of "The Alamo".)
A long time ago I first saw John Wayne' epic retelling of the 12-day siege of The Alamo. Although it was not fought by an American Army, it has come down to this country as part of our folklore. Certainly part of Texas folklore.

General San Houston was the leader of the Texican rebels. They were mostly Americans who had started coming to Texas in the 1820's when it was a northern part of Mexico, having been invited to settle there as long as they became Roman Catholics and swore to be good citizens.

Mexico needed as many settlers in this area as they could, due in large part to the ferocity of the Comanche Indians, who had frequented the area for centuries and weren't interested in being part of any European-style government.

Over the years the first Anglo settlers to Texas got along reasonably well with this arrangement. Then the Mexican leaders became concerned there were too many Anglos settling in. Many cultural and political issues with the government in Mexico City came to be more of a problem ( the Americans brought slaves into the area, for instance, an institution that the Mexican government had ended in the 1820s after they liberated themselves from Spain.)

In late February and March of 1836, about 200 American settlers and their Mexican-America allies (the Te-janos) fought and were wiped out in a last stand by an army of three-four thousand soldiers led by the President-turned-dictator General Santa Anna.

John Wayne, a film star who became an out-sized American icon, was obsessed for many years with making this movie. After many false starts, he got his chance in the Fall of 1959. An exact replica of the Alamo and part of the old city of San Antonio was rebuilt near a small town in south Texas.

It was the first film Wayne directed and it became one of the most expensive films anyone had ever made. Wayne had worked with some great directors like Howard Hawks on "Red River" and John Ford on "The Searchers" and many other films. It's a very long and rather preachy movie, with a one-sided view of the conflict. In her memior about her father, his daughter Alissa (who played a small part in the film) said:
"I think making The Alamo became my father's own form of combat. More than an obsession, it was the most intensely personal project in his career."

The film has many pluses never the less--the performances of Richard Boone (as San Houston) and Laurence Harvey (as the Alabama-born Southern aristocrat leader of the rebels, William Travis) and Widmark as Jim Bowie are all quite capable.

Although I don't recommend this movie to anyone who doesn't like Westerns, I think the music score by Dimitri Tiomkin is fabulous. The action scenes in the film are enhanced by excellent photography and Tiomkin's score.

One of the main problems lies with Wayne the director not being able to get a good performance out of Wayne the actor. The dialogue is also long-winded and preachy, a reflection of the backdrop of a Cold War between Russian and the West that really misses the nuances that a real live historical event of its own time should be given.

I've seen this film a few more times since then. Oddly enough, altough I find Wayne's politics in general abhorrant and his delivery of lines a tad off, he had a great screen presence and feel he might have have this a great film given better material. I feel this movie could have been great. I always kept hoping it will get better somehow. There is something about standing and fighting against overwhelming odds that does seem the stuff of heroes, even ones whose princioles didn;t match their actions when it came to freedom for all men and women of any color.

If only Wayne had started his career as a director with a more modest film for a starter, and let Hawks or Ford helm this movie and rewrite or get others to trim his didactic messages. They might have contained the production from the cost overruns that eventually forced him to sell his share of the movie to United Artists and walk away from any profits the film might later earn.


  1. More great Tiomkin composing--the final assault of the Mexican Army on the mission/fortress, actually occurring on March 6, 1836. (The actual assault took place at night, but the camera technology in 1960 for a spectacle like this made the film look better shot in daylight.)

  2. If the Alamo was accurate, it would have been a great movie. I liked it to a certain extent, but because Wayne took so many liberties with historical accuracy, I have to give it a 1/2 star. Many of the assualts depicted as daytime in the movie took part at night. In the famous scene where Travis draws a line and asks the defenders of the fort to come to him and those that want to leave, one man didn't cross the line and was able to sneak out and carry the story for history.

    Travis's slave may or may not have been the man that Travis left Alabama for. Travis left because he could not stand the injustice of a black man accused of a crime he did not commit.

    If you want to see a historically accurate version of the story, there was a TV movie made a few years ago with Alec Baldwin as Travis and Raul Julia giving a chilling performance as Santa Anna.

  3. That's sounds like one version I'd like to see. An interesting bit of info on Travis.
    I agree with you on the accuracy issue.

    Thanks Stephen.

  4. As entertainment, I really enjoyed the movie. Although I've enjoyed many John Wayne movies, they weren't because of him but his costars. I've never been a big fan of his; I never thought he was a good actor! I do love westerns though, even if they aren't "historically correct". I watch movies to be entertained, not educated. The score is wonderful though.
    Have a terrific turkey day, Doug!

  5. I think you and I are of like minds on the Western genre. I grew up watching films like this and have a sentiment for ones that are done reasonably well.

    You too, Jacquie, Happy Thanksgiving!