Alamo, The (1960): John Wayne Directs Oscar-Nominated Historical Epic

Made in 1960, The Alamo reflected John Wayne’s personal politics more than any other of his movies to date. He had worked on the movie intermittently for at least fourteen years.

The project began with research conducted in Texas in 1946. Then, with the support of Republic’s Herbert J. Yates, Wayne scouted locations in Panama in 1949. When Yates withdrew his support, he was extremely disappointed. Nonetheless, Wayne was so committed to the idea that he decided to produce and direct the movie himself.

Our grade: B- (** out of *****)

There have been other movies on the Alamo, such as D.W. Griffith’s “Martyrs of the Alamo,” which he did not direct, the first historical Western to deal with the topic, or Republic’s “Man of Conquest,” in 1939, an interesting chronicle of the heroic Sam Houston.

However, up to 1960, the Alamo’s story had not been treated with the dedication, scope, and grandeur that marked Wayne’s honorable intent.

Wayne was initially going to play a small part, so that he could devote his time and energies to the production. However, United Artists, which distributed the film, agreed to back the project only if he starred in it. They felt, with good reason, that it was too much of a risk without Wayne, as the budget of the film was around $12 million.

Wayne played Davy Crockett, the former member of the House of Representatives from Tennessee, who turned up at the Alamo with twenty-three patriots, and later died for the idea of a free Texas.

Earlier, he had considered playing Sam Houston (played by Richard Boone) and, later, he regretted not playing Colonel Travis (played by Laurence Harvey), who commanded a Texas force that was completely destroyed by Santa Anna’s Mexican army.

At the time, however, Wayne’s identification with Davy Crockett was complete. Asked if there were any particular historical figure he might have liked to be, his immediate response was, “David Crockett.”

In this picture, Wayne views Texas’s struggle for independence, not only as one of the most heroic moments in American history, but also as a metaphor of America. Wayne said that he wanted to “show the world the sort of spirit and indomitable will for freedom that I think still dominates the thinking of Americans, despite this contaminated celluloid, which is the exception, not the rule, of Hollywood.”

There is an abundance of value statements–long speeches–in The Alamo about patriotism, democracy, sacredness of life and death, and even religion. Hence, following the death of one of his men, Davy Crockett addresses a long entreaty to God, whom he calls Sir. In another scene, Davy expresses Wayne’s personal views: “Republic. I like the sound of the word. It’s one of those words that makes me tight in the throat.”

While the battle and action scenes were singled out by the critics for their energy and visual excitement, inevitable comparisons were made to the work of John Ford. There are contradictory reports as to what exactly Ford did on the picture; some claim he only oversaw second-unit work (which was never used in the final cut).  No doubt, as director, Wayne was found lacking his master Ford’s agility, sharpness, and visual style.

The preachy dialogue, credited to James Lee Grant, was another weak aspect of the film, which was replete with blatant statements and sentiments about patriotism and religion, home and country. The script’s juvenile and homespun quality irritated some critics who described it “silly and banal.”  (It’s noteworthy that, despite 7 Oscar nominations, The Alamo did not receive a writing nod)

The theatrical release of The Alamo was neatly timed for the Presidential Election year, opening in California in July 1960 and in New York in October, a few weeks prior to the National Elections (in which Democrat John F. Kennedy would defeat Republican Richard Nixon).

Oscar Context:

At the annual Oscar Awards show, The Alamo turned out to be a big loser, demonstrating not only that it was just mediocre picture, but that its ad campaign might have been effective in the nomination process, but not in the final balloting.

It was a weak year, artistically: Wayne’s saga was up against Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, which won Best Picture, Elmer Gantry, Sons and Lovers, and The Sundowners.

The Alamo won only one technical award: Best Sound for Gordon E. Sawyer and Fred Hynes.

The Alamo became Wayne’s most ambitious project to date, in which he was involved in every minor aspect of the production. The lukewarm audience response was disappointing, because he had intended the picture to be a blockbuster. The budget was high and the production costly and timely. It took almost two years to build the replica of the Alamo in Bracketsville, Texas, and location shooting lasted over four months.

In the end, The Alamo grossed a little over $7 million in the U.S., though it was more successful abroad, and later in its various screenings on TV and Cable.

Lines to Remember:

John Wayne’s Col. David Crockett, on Texas becoming an independent republic: “Republic. I like the sound of the word.”

Cast:

Colonel David Crockett (John Wayne)

Col. James Bowie (Richard Widmark)

Co. William Travis (Laurence Harvey)

Smitty (Frankie Avalon) Capt. James Butler Bonham (Patrick Wayne)

Flaca (Linda Cristal)

Mrs. Dickinson (Joan O’Brien)

Beekeeper (Chill Wills)

Juan Seuin (Joseph Calleia)

Capt. Almeron Dickinson (Ken Curtis)

Different Versions

The Alamo premiered at its 70 mm roadshow length of 202 minutes, including overture, intermission, and exit music.  It was then severely cut, when distributor United Artists re-edited it to 167 minutes for the wide release.

A Canadian fan named Bob Bryden and Alamo collector Ashley Ward discovered a print of the 70 mm version in Toronto, and MGM used it to make digital video transfer for the VHS.  MGM used the shorter, general release version for subsequent DVD releases.  The best available elements are the 35mm negatives of the wide release, which is used by TCM in its telecasts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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