Alamo, The (1960): John Wayne’s Epic–Ideological Propaganda or CinematicArt

The Alamo, an ambitious movie project on many levels, reflected John Wayne’s personal politics more than any other of his pictures, before or after 1960.

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He worked on the movie intermittently for fourteen years. The project began with research conducted in Texas in 1946. Then, with the support of Republic’s head Herbert J. Yates, Wayne scouted locations in Panama in 1949.

The picture had been Wayne’s dream for years, and 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 by himself.

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.

But the Alamo’s story had never been treated with the dedication, scope, and grandeur that marked Wayne’s approach.

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.

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

The Alamo” became Wayne’s most ambitious project, in which he involved himself in every aspect of the production. Wayne believed that it was “the big American story that I don’t think anyone could do better than I.” “It’s the first time in my life,” he proudly stated, “that I’ve been able to express what I feel about people.” To that goal, Wayne said he gambled “all my money and my soul.” He hoped the risk would pay off, “and I don’t mean just in money.” Wayne hoped that “something more than profits will result from The Alamo,” that “the battle fought there will remind people today that the price of liberty and freedom is not cheap.”

Making “The Alamo,” Wayne said, “has given me the privilege of feeling useful in this world. If there is anything better than that, I don’t know what it is.” There was a tremendous sense of pride in playing “a part in bringing this picture to the world.”

Wayne wrote his own publicity for the movie: “We wanted to recreate a moment in history which will show to this living generation of Americans what their country really stands for, and to put it in front of their eyes the bloody truth of what some of their fore-bearers went through to win what they had to have or die liberty for liberty and freedom.”

He intended it to be at once a message film, “it’s America, a segment of history,” and “an entertainment.” The motive behind making it was his lack of patience with “those pseudo-sophisticates, the people who belittle honor, courage, cleanliness.” These are “perilous times,” he felt, “when the eyes of the world are on us,” and “we must sell America to countries threatened with Communist domination.” His greatest wish was that the cry, “Remember the Alamo,” would “put new heart and new faith into all the world’s free people,” that the movie would “shake hell out of the world.”

The picture was supposed to demonstrate the value that “in order to live decently, one must be prepared to die decently.” The Alamo” appeal was aimed at “all who have an interest in a thing called freedom,” because “I think we’ve all been going soft, taking freedom for granted.” He viewed Texas’s struggle for independence, not only as “one of the most heroic moments in American history,” but also as a “metaphor of America.” He wanted the film 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 in “The Alamo” about patriotism, democracy, sacredness of life and death, and even religion. Following the death of one of his men, Wayne’s Davy addresses a long entreaty to God, whom he calls Sir. In another scene, Davy expresses Wayne’s personal view: “Republic. I like the sound of the word. It’s one of those words that makes me tight in the throat.”