Tuesday, June 21, 2011

#61 - The Alamo

BACK-STORY: “The Alamo” is a war movie released in 1960 about the famous siege of 1836. It was directed and produced by John Wayne. He did not intend to star in his directorial debut, but the studio refused to back the project without Wayne starring. Wayne deserves a lot of credit for overcoming every obstacle to finish a project that was obviously important to him. He assembled a good cast and did a competent job as director. He also put a lot of his own money into it and did not recoup his investment. The movie did not do particularly well at the box office but did get Oscar nominations for Sound, Cinematography, Editing, Score, and Song. The money does show up on the screen with the recreation of the Alamo from the ground up at Alamo Village in Bracketville near the actual site in San Antonio. The set took two years to construct and looks more authentic than the original. Rumor has it that the fake Alamo has a basement.

OPENING: Introductory text implies that Santa Anna is marching into Texas to bring tyranny. The Texans “now faced the decision that all men in all times must face…the eternal choice of all man… to endure oppression or to resist.” Sam Houston (Richard Boone) arrives in San Antonio. He puts William Travis (Laurence Harvey) in command and orders him to delay Santa Anna while Houston creates an army. He asks Travis to put up with Jim Bowie (Richard Widmark) even though he is an alcoholic.

BFFs - Bowie and Travis

SUMMARY: When Travis and Bowie meet sparks fly immediately. Bowie calls Travis a “jackanape” which I’m pretty sure is an insult. Their personalities and strategic visions clash. Harvey plays Travis as a pompous ass who is not above lying to the men about the actual odds against them. He insists on being in command and holding the Alamo as a strategic point. Widmark does a convincing portrayal of a hard drinking frontiersmen who likes to have his large knife do his talking. He feels the Alamo should be abandoned. Into this power struggle comes Davy Crockett (Wayne) with his motley crew of Tennessean hunters. The group includes several recognizable faces who have provided comic relief in other Wayne films. It also includes teen idol Frankie Avalon for the teenage girl demographic. (Shockingly, Avalon, unlike Ricky Nelson in “Rio Bravo”, is not given a song to sing by the Duke.) They head immediately to the local cantina, naturally. Crockett gets on his soap box to make a speech about “republicanism”. “Republic. I like the sound of the word. It means people can live free, talk free, go or come, buy or sell, be drunk or sober, however they choose.” Gag! Save it for the Oscar acceptance speech. 

     This being a 1960 movie, you have to have a romance so Crockett makes the acquaintance of a Mexican senorita and saves her from the advances of a caddish gringo. Wayne’s stunt double beats up six lackeys with the help of Bowie. They bond over some whiskey which gives Bowie the opportunity to laud the Mexican people. It’s Santa Anna alone who is the villain. The movie is laudably sympathetic toward the Mexicans (at least they are not Indians).

     Crockett takes on the role of peacemaker between Travis and Bowie, who is threatening to leave now that Santa Anna’s large army is just down the road. He’s not the only one who is having second thoughts. Crockett’s solution (he was a politician) is to read an inflammatory forged letter to the men to get them riled up. Mission accomplished and even when Crockett reveals the authorship (why?), they still want to stay and fight. With the battle imminent, Crockett sends away the senorita. If you think they will reunite and live happily ever after, please retake American History.

     A surrender demand by Santa Anna is answered with a cannon shot by Travis. Game on. That night Crockett and Bowie disobey orders to raid the Mexican camp to disable le grande cannon. Relations with Travis worsen and Bowie plans to leave with his men, but Crockett gets him drunk and he changes his mind (what passed for therapy back then). With the Mexican army arrayed outside, Travis accepts Santa Anna’s offer to let the women folk leave. Mrs. Dickinson refuses to go because she is a soldier’s wife. We are treated to this gem: “Ma’am, I ain’t got no woman to say goodbye to, can I say goodbye to you?” To top that, a blind wife insists her husband stay. He then proceeds to hide in the wagon since she can’t see him, just kidding.

     The siege opens with an artillery duel and then an infantry assault resulting in many old school bloodless deaths of the Mexican sheep, I mean soldiers. One of the Texans proclaims “Even when I was killing them, I was proud of them.” Travis is wounded in the leg, but the Mexicans are thrown back by the remarkably accurate rifle fire.

     Word arrives that reinforcements will not be coming, so Crockett and Bowie get ready to lead their men out. Travis gives a speech thanking them and basically telling them they should not feel that they are cowards. No man is going to tell them they are cowards by insisting that they are not, dag nabbit! (What passed for reverse psychology back then.) They decide to stay. During the last night’s reflections there is time for a debate about God. God wins. Bowie sets his slave free, but he insists on spending his first and last day of freedom dying with his ex-master and new best buddy. Take that Civil Rights Movement.

CLOSING: Spoiler alert, do not read the rest of this paragraph if you do not want to find out if any of the Texans get killed (and please retake American History). The climactic battle opens with a single cannon volley and then the human toy soldiers are sent into the maelstrom. We get plenty of explosions and gunfire and Crockett knocks over a horse with his hands (but he does not punch him like Mongo did in “Blazing Saddles”). Travis is shot while sword fighting. Crockett is stabbed but manages to set off the gunpowder. Bowie is bedridden, but meets his executioners with a multi-barreled gun. He is bayoneted in spite of his ex-slave shielding his body with his own. Mrs. Dickinson rides off into the sunset.


Action - 7/10

Acting – C

Accuracy – D

Realism – C-

Plot - D

Overall – D

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? Probably. The action is not intense or graphic. The leads are charismatic. There is a lot of talking – women can relate to that, right? There is a chaste romantic subplot. Of course, it must be admitted that the female characters are not exactly icons of feminism.

ACCURACY: The movie stumbles right out the gate with the false implication that the Texas Rebellion was brought on by tyranny. In actuality, the Americans who had settled into Texas were reacting to Santa Anna exerting more centralized control over the province of Texas. The Texicans had gotten spoiled with federalism which had allowed them to violate the laws against slavery and Protestantism. Santa Anna was more like a parent cracking down on spoiled brats than an evil tyrant.

     Sam Houston never came to San Antonio. He actually sent Bowie to the Alamo to evacuate the untenable position. The current commander talked Bowie into holding the fort. When Travis arrived, he pulled rank on Bowie. Eventually they agreed to share command. They did not disagree about the necessity of staying. The film is accurate in depicting the personality conflict. Two men could not have been more different. The movie does a bit of polishing of their images. Travis had abandoned his family. Bowie had been drinking heavily for about two years, ever since the death of his wife and kids to cholera (the movie has them dying shortly before the battle). The two men agreed to share command after Bowie won a vote of the men, but then he proceeded to lead a drunken debauchery that sullied his victory and resulted in the shared command.

     Crockett and his crew are supposedly in Texas to hunt, but actually they had come to settle. Crockett was looking for a new start after his political career had ended in the states. The romance was obviously fictional. There is also no evidence that he played peacemaker between Travis and Bowie.

     The arrival of Santa Anna’s army is fairly accurate. The surrender demand came in the form of a red flag signifying “no quarter”. Travis did respond with a cannon shot, but the film omits that Travis and Bowie tried to negotiate an honorable surrender and it was due to Santa Anna’s insistence on unconditional surrender that the siege continued.

     There were some raids outside the fort, but not like in the film. A cow herd was brought in, but this happened when the Mexicans first arrived and they were not stolen. There was no raid to disable a giant cannon because Santa Anna had only standard size field pieces.

     Bowie was not bedridden by a wound. He was actually out of action much earlier due to typhoid (or a drunken fall) and did not participate in the battle until the very end.

     In a movie that chose myth over reality, there is one curious exception. The movie has Travis addressing the ready-to-depart men and thanking them for staying that long. In most versions of the story, Travis is much more patriotic and sacrifice-encouraging. Shockingly, the movie omits the famous “line in the sand” moment where the men (led by the stretcher-bound Bowie) decide to stay. Why would you go with an inferior fictionalized version?!

     The final assault is pretty accurate, although there were actually three and they were pre-dawn. The Mexicans did swarm over the walls taking significant casualties. What we do not see is the two weeks of constant bombardment that led up to it. The deaths are a mixed batch. Travis actually was killed early in the battle while wielding a shotgun on the wall. Bowie probably died in the bed taking a couple of Mexicans with him by way of pistols. There was no multi-barreled gun and his slave Joe actually survived the battle. Crockett’s death allows some play because it is still under much dispute (some historians even have him being executed after surrendering!). However, we do know he did not set off the gunpowder – that was a different defender and he was killed before he could accomplish it. You don’t think Hollywood was going to forgo an explosion in lieu of the truth did you?

     Susanna Dickinson and her daughter were the only white survivors.

     By the way, the historical consultants (J. Frank Dobie and Lon Tinkle) demanded their names be removed from the credits.

CRITIQUE: "This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend". Ironically this famous line was from a John Wayne western that came out two years after “The Alamo” (“Who Shot Liberty Valance?”). It could fit Wayne’s handling of the Battle of the Alamo. He made a movie about what people wanted to have happened at the Alamo, not what actually happened. This makes the movie a classic example of the age old question of whether a filmmaker has a responsibility to stay reasonably close to the facts. My position is that a filmmaker should not substantially alter history, especially when the real story is compelling to begin with. As you can see above, the revision of history that takes place does not add enough entertainment to justify the changes. It is especially egregious when the revision comes to sell a viewpoint.

     Wayne was being a Cold Warrior when he made the movie. The arch-conservative Duke was using the Alamo to represent America under siege by communism. His message was that we should be ready to die for democracy. Freedom or Death. I would argue that if you have that kind of agenda, either choose an event that more clearly exemplifies that idea or make a totally fictional movie like “Red Dawn”.

     The film is entertaining in an old school epic kind of way. The setting is grand and the Alamo itself is very authentic. You are transported back in time. In fact, the site remains a popular tourist attraction and was used for the filming of numerous other Westerns. The action sequences are well done, if a bit tame by current standards. The final assault is justifiably well regarded. The pageantry is Hollywood at its best with Wayne using 7,000 extras as Mexican soldiers, 1,500 horses and 400 longhorns. The score adds to the flavor of the film and a big hit came from the song “The Green Leaves of Summer”.

Oscar, please!
     The acting is spotty. Wayne does a fine John Wayne as Crockett. Harvey catches the essence of the tight-ass Travis. (At one point during the filming of a cannon shot, the recoiling gun broke Harvey’s foot. He stayed in character until Wayne yelled “cut”.) Widmark chews the scenery a bit, but someone has to in a movie like this. The supporting cast (including Wayne’s son Patrick) probably were entertaining when the cameras weren’t rolling, but were less than stellar on camera. It is unbelievable that Chill Wills was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar (and then proceeded to shamelessly campaign for it).

CONCLUSION: If the 100 Greatest list was compiled in 1961, “The Alamo” would belong on the list. But time passes and what was good then is not necessarily good any more. “The Alamo” pales in comparison to more modern epics that are unbelievably ranked lower in the rankings. You cannot seriously argue that this movie is superior to similar epics like “The Big Red One” (71), “Battle of Britain” (90), “Midway” (92) “A Bridge Too Far” (94), or “The Last of the Mohicans” (95). For that matter, I’ll be a little radical and argue that a similarly themed movie called “300” is superior. Regardless, “The Alamo” does not belong in the Top 100.

WHAT ABOUT THE 2004 VERSION? I followed up this review with a first viewing of the 2004 version to answer the question “is newer better?” The answer is maybe. The acting (Billy Bob Thornton as Crockett, Jason Patric as Bowie, and Patrick Wilson as Travis) is better overall and the men are portrayed closer to their actual personalities. Crockett in particular is a morose individual who uses humor and comradeship to cover the stress of being a legend. This is the revisionist Crockett. Santa Anna has a much bigger role and Sam Houston (Dennis Quaid doing the scene chewing) allows the movie to have more background and also close with the Battle of San Jacinto. This version has a happy ending!

      The set is outstanding, including the local town. It was the largest and most expensive set ever built in America. It is a more accurate recreation than in the original movie. The pageantry is similar with a comparable number of extras. No CGis. Some of the Mexican soldiers are given stories. The movie is much more balanced than the original. Travis’ and Bowie’s slaves are also prominent with one of them taking the opportunity to evacuate and the other staying with his master.

     The 2004 version’s big advantage is in accuracy. It is not perfect, but it definitely is closer to the truth. It is obvious the screenwriters consciously tried to avoid the myth. The climactic battle is outstanding. It is one of the best I have seen. It’s a shame few people have seen it (the movie was a huge bomb). Any teacher covering the siege would do well to show just that part in class. The fact that the assault takes place pre-dawn shows that often the best entertainment comes from sticking to the historical facts. I believe it also shows that modern movies have an advantage in technology. Wayne probably could not have shot the battle effectively in darkness.  (However, there is not a chance in Hell that he would have eschewed daylight anyway.) The deaths of the big three are laudably accurate with Crockett being executed as the sole survivor.

     So why is the answer “maybe”. Because 2004 is not as entertaining. The attempts to balance the dry historical facts with Hollywood moments come across as hokum. For instance, Crockett accompanies the Mexican band playing “De Guello” on his fiddle which awes the Mexicans into not bombarding them that night. Wait, what? Also, let’s face it. Billy Bob Thornton is not John Wayne and Jason Patric is no Richard Widmark. And who the hell is Patrick Wilson?!


  1. I found the entertainment factor of this movie zero. It's too corny for my taste and it has some of the worst dialogue I've ever heard. If the new one is only "maybe" better I'm certainly not tempted. Some serious cutting would have done this movie a lot of good. There are some elements one could appreciate in it but the overall exprience was spoilt because of some bad moments.

  2. the war movie buffJune 22, 2011 at 8:30 PM

    I think your analysis is spot on.

    I do not think you would like the 2006 version, but you certainly would like it better.

  3. I greatly prefer the 2006 version, and I like the fact that the lead actors do not ooze charisma because it shows that their characters were out of their depth. In fact, I honestly think that it is one of the better historical movies that I have seen, and I agree that it is a serious shame that so few people have actually watched it.
    I am stunned that the 1960 original was ranked among the top 100. I suspect that it was a typo, and the editors meant the 2006 version.

  4. the war movie buffJune 26, 2011 at 1:53 PM

    I agree with your analysis of the 2004 version. I think the reason it did so poorly was there just was no demand for it. I remember seeing commercials for it and saying - who wants to see this? Maybe Texans, but they would have been turned off by the movie sticking to facts instead of the myth. I like the comment that the characters were "out of their depth". The movie makes it clear that Crockett would not have come to the Alamo if he knew the true situation (and would have left if it wasn't for his reputation). But I wonder if this is an accurate protrayal of the real Crockett. I can see that with his political career over, he might have wanted to go down in flames and cement his place in history (which is exactly what happened).

    I was blown away (no pun intended) by the battle. The film has the best recreation of cannister that I have seen. It was better than "Glory"s final battle.

  5. It seems a theme in Hollywood in defending American war adventure to call its enemies tyrannists as in the War of independance.The John Wayne film though is great entertainment.

  6. I like both versions. The Dennis Quaid film is truer to the history and has a smoother flow, but the Wayne version is more operatic, showcasing the feelings and the heroism of the defenders of the Alamo.

    I would disagree with you on Santa Anna - I think he was an evil tyrant. Part of the reason that the Republic of Texas won and kept its independence from Mexico is that several other Mexican states also rebelled against Mexico's central government after Santa Anna declared himself dictator and annulled the Federal Constitution and threatened the rights to self-government that it had guaranteed. Santa Anna's brutal punishment of the rebel state of Zacatecas no doubt encouraged support for rebellion in Texas, and other rebellions kept him from returning with full force against the new Texas Republic. The Texans were admittedly not saints but they did have legitimate reasons to oppose the Santa Anna government and seek independence.

  7. It is far from "clear" that WB Travis "abandoned" his family. What is known for certain is that Travis immigrated to Texas in order to find a better life, being that he was heavily in debt. This was quite common in the 17th & 18th centuries. We in the 21st century tend to think of our ancestors as being born in one place, living, working, never travelling more than a few miles from home, then dying & being buried in the same place they were born. In most cases, this is probably true, however many people moved about frequently, in search of better economic opportunity. Travis, Bowie, Crockett, Daniel Boone, Jefferson Davis, John Bell Hood, just to name a few historical figures. Often, family members would be left behind (sometime for years). Actually, at least according to letters he wrote, Travis cared deeply for his family, especially his son Charles. In one account I have read, Charles was left in the care of Travis' law partner. He would later be commissioned a 2nd Lt. in the US Army (and be subsequently court martialed). He died from TB, young IN 1860.
    Joe the slave, far from being the elderly "Uncle Remus" like character in the film was actually quite young, somewhere between 16-19 years old. From most accounts he remained next to Travis on the wall until Travis was killed, very early in the assault. He then made his way to one of the inner rooms in the interior area. Joe apparently "surrendered" (if that is the right term) to the Mexicans. Being a slave he was spared, & allowed to leave. Joe disappears from history sometime in the 1880s.
    The Texas revolution is a prime example of one mans devil is another mans saint. It was far from the black/white, good vs. evil issue portrayed in Wayne's film. Texas at that time was part of Mexico, a sovereign state, with laws, rules & reg's. etc., etc. Just as the US 25 YRS. later would not tolerate armed succession, neither would Mexico. It is quite understandable that Mexico would respond the way it did. Remember as well, a sizeable number of Tejano's or Mexicans native to Texas,, people like the powerful Seguin family, sided with as well as made essential contributions to the Anglo/Texan cause. At the same time, Santa Anna was not as a previous commenter pointed out, of sterling character himself. He trashed the constitution of 1824, ruthlessly crushed rebellion in Zacatecas, & would betray an ally at the drop of a hat. In modern day Mexico, he is far, far from beloved. Strangely enough, Santa Annas most notable contribution (probably) to history is chewing gum. Yep, in a $ making scheme Santa Anna was one of the 1st promoters of chicum, an example of which he had bought to America, long after the Alamo episode, not for use as chewing gum, but as a sealer to repair cracks. Like most wars or historical events, the Texas Revolution is a prime example of 2 sides to the same story.

    1. Thanks. I take your point about Travis, but I presented the consensus of historians.


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