Alamo, The (1960): Critical Vs. Popular Response to John Wayne’s Historical Epic

The theatrical release of The Alamo was neatly and shrewdly timed for the Presidential Election year, opening in California in July 1960, and in New York in October, a few weeks prior to the Elections, in which John F. Kennedy vied for the position with Richard Nixon.

Most reviews were at best lukewarm, though the critics did not speak with one voice. “How this complete rearrangement of frontier iconography is likely to hit that generation of youngsters,” wrote Bosley Crowther in the N.Y. Times, “is a speculation that scares us. Is the whole war and weft of their belief in American history likely to be shredded” “For all its bigness– and big and long it certainly is!” Crowther noted, “It is but another beleaguered blockhouse Western.”

The battle and action scenes were praised by the N.Y. Herald Tribune for their “energy” and “visual excitement,” but its critic found Wayne to lack “John Ford’s agility and pointedness as a director.” He also criticized the dialogue, which tended “to orate, to spell out in paragraphs certain sentiments of patriotism and religion that one feels would have been better seen than heard.”

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Of all the movie’s elements, the screenplay came under the severest attack for its homespun quality, which some, like the Newsweek reviewer, found “silly and banal.” “The history book was a great deal better,” he wrote, finding the film “meandering and talking too much. (Newsweek, October 31, 1960).

The N.Y. Post’s Archer Winston also focused on the script, which “sinks almost to the juvenile levels at its worst and rises only to heavy educational speeches at best.

The critics reaction to The Alamo on the West Coast was once again more favorable than that of its Eastern counterpart. “Wayne realized his dream of many years,” wrote the Los Angeles Times Philip Schewer, and “if he failed, he still would have deserved an A for effort.” Although “it may not be the last word on the subject, it will stand, particularly in its several battle sequences, as the definitive one for a long time to come.”

The Alamo” is a well-timed new movie spectacular, wrote the L.A. Mirror in an overall praising review, arriving during a period “when a wary America is in the mood for a rousing patriotic shot in the arm.” This critic, Dick Williams, liked the film’s boost, “with a Fourth of July cannon-cracker which is likely to move many viewers emotionally.”

Since Wayne himself promoted “The Alamo” as a message film, comparisons with his other political films were inevitable. One critic felt that The Alamo’s message “exemplified that it was better to be dead than Mexican, similar in many ways to the message of Big Jim McLain” that it was better to be dead than ‘Red.'”

The film’s advertisement campaign was not only extensive, but also overly propagandistic. One ad compared the Alamo’s fighters with contemporary politicians: “There were no ghostwriters at the Alamo, only men.” The movie campaigned with the highest promotional drive, managing to receive seven Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture. One full-page ad read: “What will Oscar say this year to the world” with a small picture of the battered fortress below.

Wayne spent a huge amount of money on advertisement and his publicist, Russell Bidwell, was accused of “buying nominations” and later Academy votes. A whole controversy followed concerning the ethics of advertising movies and individual performers. One critic resented the fact that Oscar voters are being appealed to on a patriotic basis,” and the notion that “ones proud sense of Americanism may be suspected if one does not vote for The Alamo.” At Wayne’s request, Bidwell replied to this accusation, claiming that, “this is a gratuitous and erroneous conclusion.”

At the annual Oscar show, The Alamo” turned out to be a big loser, demonstrating not only the fact that it was not a great picture artistically, but that its ad campaign might have been effective in the nomination, but not in the winning.

Wayne’s epic saga was up against Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, which won the Best Picture; Richard Brooks’ Elmer Gantry, Jack Clayton’s Sons and Lovers, and Fred Zinnemann’s The Sundowners. It was not a particularly strong year for Hollywood movies, to say the least.

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

Audiences’ response was also disappointing, considering Wayne’s initial hopes for a home-run success, if not a blockbuster.

Highly priced, the movie relied on a budget of over $12 million, including immense pre-production costs. For one thing, it took almost two years to build the replica of the Alamo in Bracketsville, Texas, and location shooting lasted over four months.

Upon initial release, The Alamo grossed a little over $7 million in domestic rentals, though it was much more successful abroad.

Wayne went out of his way to deny reports that the film was a fiasco, but admitted that he didn’t make any money on it because he made a bad deal. He later sold his percentage to United Artists, which made some profits on subsequent rereleases, including TV airings.

The Alamo was still in some theaters, during the the beginning of the Kennedy Administration (in January 1961) and the birth of a new era in American politics.

Moreover, By 1960, seemingly, the relations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union had begun to improved, after a decade of Cold War. Wayne himself claimed that such a time was hardly propitious for his rallying call, “Remember the Alamo!”

However, there were some minor rewards that he treasured and made the experience more enjoyable.  A viewer’s letter to the L.A. Times (March 8, 1961) by Dr. Sven Wahlroos noted: “We were so moved by its message, that we feel we must write and urge all patriotic citizens to see this magnificent film.” “It has been at least 20 years,” he continued, “since movies were made as a tribute to gallantry, chivalry, and patriotism. We had lost hope of ever seeing such a movie from Hollywood again.” And he concluded: “My wife is a refugee from Hungary. She saw in the Alamo the siege of Budapest in 1944 and 1956. I am from Finland. I saw in this film a tribute to Finnish valor and to the fight for freedom of all people everywhere.”

This is precisely the kind of impact that Wayne was hoping for The Alamo to have on its viewers. Despite its lukewarm reception, Wayne continued to regard the film as the realization of his personal and political ambitions, and proceeded to defend its message for the rest of his life.

Once, on an Irv Kupcinet’s talk show in Chicago, Wayne clashed with Herman Finer, a University of Chicago professor. “We were talking about the picture and the definition of a hero,” he recalled, “and this professor started right out twisting words in my mouth and said that all the good traditions were just legends.” According to the star, Finer also said he was afraid to let his wife and daughters go out on the streets of Chicago. Wayne restrained himself while the show was on the air, but later attacked the professor: “The people who developed Chicago didn’t know whether they were going to be alive the next day, or whether their kids would be chopped by the Indians, or whether they could raise enough food to develop this place for you. And you are whining, sitting in your easy chair over at the university and teaching kids this philosophy”

Wayne felt that if The Alamo were re-released in 1963, during the crisis between the Soviet Union and the U.S., it “would have done better,” because “America’s mind is more intelligent now.”

Since its making, the film has been shown with great success on television, usually on the Fourth of July or other holidays.  And, with time, several critics have changed their minds about the movie. The New York Times critic Vincent Canby was one of them, holding that although The Alamo’s “drama is primitive, the characterizations far from subtle, and the politics questionable, the film has a visual sweep that lends grandeur to its concept of history.” “What’s important is not what he was saying,” Canby noted, “but how he was saying it. The Duke has style.”

In 1978, a year before he died, Wayne felt the mood of the country had changed and that The Alamo could be re-released to more positive effect. because.  He thereupon proudly claimed, “Even the liberals aren’t so blatantly against me anymore that they wouldn’t recognize there was something to that picture besides my terrible conservative attitude.”