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Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Alamo (1960) review


John Wayne (Colonel David Crockett), Richard Widmark (Jim Bowie), Laurence Harvey (Colonel William Travis), Frankie Avalon (Smitty), Patrick Wayne (Captain James Butler Bonham), Linda Cristal (Graciela), Richard Boone (Sam Houston), Joan O'Brien (Sue Dickinson), Chill Wills (Beekeeper), Joseph Calleia (Juan Seguin), Ken Curtis (Captain Almeron Dickinson), Carlos Arruza (Lieutenant Reyes), Jester Hairston (Jethro), Ruben Padillo (Generalissimo Santa Anna)

Directed by John Wayne

The Short Version: The battle for a free and independent Texas from tyranny is captured in grandly opulent style via John Wayne's astonishingly adept direction. Nearly every frame screams epic culminating in a surprisingly bloody finish that explodes onscreen. Packed with big names, larger than life characters and patriotic speeches, THE ALAMO is as big and boisterous as Texas itself, and as purely American of a film as you're gonna get.

"Republic. I like the sound of the word. Means people can live free. Talk free. Go or come, buy or sell, be drunk or sober, however they choose. Some words give ya' a feeling. Republic is one of those words that makes me tight in the throat. Same tightness a man gets when his baby take his first step, or his first baby shaves, makes his first sound like a man. Some words can give ya' a feeling that make your heart warm. Republic is one of those words." -- one of the numerous patriotic speeches heard throughout THE ALAMO (1960).

The time is 1836. Texas is under Mexican rule. General Sam Houston, in the hopes of building a strong military force to repel the tyrannical Generalissimo Santa Anna, entrusts Colonel William Travis with leading a stand at the Alamo, a former mission. Knowing greater numbers are needed to defend the fort, Travis seeks out volunteers to fight for Texas's independence; these include Colonel David Crockett and Jim Bowie. With approximately 190 brave men against an army of thousands, the Battle of the Alamo was soon to begin.  

John Wayne made his directorial debut with this massive $12,000,000 epic (sources say the final tally was $14,000,000) about the events leading up to the Battle of the Alamo, and the resultant skirmish. Factual in places, and fictional in others, historical sticklers may be irked at some of the events that are rearranged, or highly dramatized; it makes for a fantastic entertainment just the same; and at 162 minutes, that's a lot of bang for your buck. Fifteen years in the making, filming began in September of 1959, lasting 83 days, wrapping up in December. Director Wayne did an impressive job directing himself and countless others; especially for an actor stepping behind the camera for the first time, and it being such a massive production.

Just like Texas, everything is big in THE ALAMO (1960). The main set designed by Chatto Rodriquez is meticulous down to the most minute of details; this including miles of horse corrals and water lines. The final assault on the Texas landmark lasts approximately 15 minutes, and it's edited exceptionally well with a mounting tension and encroaching sense of hopelessness the closer the vast Mexican forces get to the fort. Wayne's epic clicked with this reviewer in another way -- it recalled themes populating the movies of one of my favorite Asian directors.

Hong Kong's godfather of action cinema, Chang Cheh, and his colleague Cheng Kang must have been fans of this movie (or John Wayne in general), and others like it. Some of their own epics contain sequences that feel like homages to THE ALAMO. Hong Kong movies, particularly those from the Shaw Brothers, were hugely influenced by Hollywood pictures of this era. John Wayne was an especially epochal figure in that part of the world. The scene where Crockett, Bowie and their men sneak into the Mexican encampment to steal food is reminiscent of a similar scene in Cheng Kang's sprawling classic THE 14 AMAZONS (1972). 

The valor displayed by the heroes at the end -- facing insurmountable odds, and an assured death became a staple of Chang's films; and one in which he magnified ten-fold with over the top violence and bloodshed. 

For a 1960 production, the battle at the title mission is unexpectedly grim replete with men trampled by horses, blown up, or impaled on swords and bayonets. William H. Clothier's photography captures this gorily glorious last stand from every angle imaginable. As the battle reaches its apex, and the heroes numbers dwindle further, the screen fills with more violence, more Mexican soldiers as they finally manage to overrun the Alamo. Dimitri Tiomkin's music soars throughout, reaching its crescendo with the last two acts of courage that end with gruesome finality. The extremely busy poster design from the amazing Reynold Brown is visualized to perfection in Wayne's movie.

The handful of patriotic speeches permeating THE ALAMO were utilized in a similar fashion in Chang's work, too. John Wayne, Laurence Harvey, and Richard Boone (in an extended cameo) all give macho, jingoistic oration centered around freedom from oppression; in this case, despotism wrought by Santa Anna. In Chang's work, there was usually always at least one chest-thumping address minutes before the good guys went to their doom. This strong element of nationalism extends to the concept of 'one against many'. In Wayne's movie, this small band of warriors know death awaits them, but they prefer to stand for something than die for nothing. 

Much like the true story of the Alamo, and the woefully one-sided odds, Chang Cheh did a similar picture that was also based on a true story; even down to duplicating how some of the heroes die. Titled SEVEN MAN ARMY (1976), the titular seven were tasked with defending a lone fortress from relentless waves of Japanese and Mongolian forces for seven days and nights before fatigue and loss of resources spelled doom for the heroes. 

Machoism is the glue that holds THE ALAMO (and other John Wayne pictures) together. Respect and admiration among men finds its way into the script, sometimes from the unlikeliest of places; and Wayne projects this onto the Silver Screen. For example, the Mexicans aren't perceived as bloodthirsty animals. There's no question they are the villains, but in a surprise move, Santa Anna and his army are afforded some noble qualities. Despite this enemy out to kill them, the Alamo fighters feel reverence for the bravery of their attackers, and this comes through in some of the dialog exchanges.

The women, too, are unusually strong considering the western is most often seen as a masculine landscape. Some of the female characters are just as stoic and stubborn as the men. The script covers so many bases. Hell, there's even discussion of the afterlife by the men just prior to the last stand at the Alamo.

Jethro, the slave to Jim Bowie, is given his freedom just before the big attack at the end. Bowie tells him there's no need to stay and die, but to get out and make a life for himself. In a show of loyalty and respect, Jethro decides to stay at the fort, and fight alongside Crockett, Bowie, and the rest. Wayne's movie taps into a humanist fellowship that stretches beyond race, sex, and borders.

THE ALAMO isn't all about bravery and jingoism. There's a healthy dose of humor in James Edward Grant's script. In fact, the picture is fairly light-hearted a good portion of the time. Much of this involves Wayne and his fighting Tennesseans. When Colonel Travis (Harvey) seeks out Colonel Crockett for volunteers against Santa Anna, he doesn't quite expect the burly drunkards he encounters. Both Crockett and Travis are very different men, and this extends to the third man in this arc, Jim Bowie. Both the unwaveringly serious Travis and the man named after the Bowie Knife regularly butt heads; which leaves Crockett as the voice of reason. Their first meeting is a doozy, and rife with quick-witted humor. Sources state that, ironically, Wayne and Richard Widmark had a very real rivalry going on during the filming, yet their camaraderie onscreen belies that. 

Laurence Harvey is quite possibly the most impressive of the three main leads. His Colonel Travis is Shakespeare if he were ever a military commander. Wholly unlikable, his integrity and valorous personality keep him in good stead with those he doesn't necessarily get along with. In virtually every scene he's in, Harvey oozes cool. He follows chain of command, but this is tinted with attitude, and he takes none. Easily one of the most memorable aspects of the picture.

Richard Widmark is Jim Bowie, lover of alcohol and a knack for battle strategy. He doesn't much like Travis, and Travis doesn't much like him. Bowie does things the opposite in nearly every way. Bowie is more of a rule-breaker than a rule-follower. And that leaves us with....

The big man himself, The Duke, John Wayne as the coonskin cap wearin' Tennessean rifleman, Davy Crockett. He's the most level-headed, fun-lovin' of this old west trifecta. Crockett's a learned man despite his roughhousing ways and spirited sense of humor. Wise beyond his years, his congeniality keeps the peace between Travis and Bowie. The Duke gets the best send-off at the end. It's quite a shock moment, but one that's not without one last act of heroism. 

Amidst all the manly posturing, there's time for some romance; or hints of it, more accurately. Love is in the air, but it's smell is evaporated by all the fightin', shootin', yellin' and heavy drinkin'. In particular is the attraction between "Mr. Tall American" and Graciela. Played by Linda Cristal, love interest of Charles Bronson in MR. MAJESTYK (1974), her scenes are played with elegance, even if there's no real chemistry between her and Wayne. She exits the picture about 70 minutes into the film. Since this is the TITANIC of westerns, we already know how it ends, and that there will be no lasting relationship between Davey Crockett and a beautiful Hispanic lady.

Over 40 years later, a remake of Wayne's classic was mounted. Initially with Ron Howard at the helm, the picture was to have been a bloodier affair with the intention of an 'R' rating. The studio balked at both the rating and the bloated budget. Some of the original cast backed out and Howard ended up producing instead. Much like the valiant souls that fought at the famed locale, the new film fell at the box office becoming one of the big all-time flops. Suffice to say, nobody remembers THE ALAMO remake from 2004. 

Packed with Hollywood heavyweights, John Wayne's THE ALAMO (1960) was a motion picture near and dear to the Duke's heart. He pulled it off admirably. Originally running over 200 minutes in length, it lost approximately 35 minutes for its wide release. It made $7,910,000 its first year in release, and a worldwide total in excess of 28,000,000. It was one of the top ten grossers for 1960. Additionally, it was nominated for seven academy awards (including Best Picture), and won for Best Sound. 

A picturesque and awe-inspiring story of frontiersmen seeking freedom from oppression, Wayne's THE ALAMO is a grand, entertaining epic filled to the rafters with grandiose elocutions and resplendent performances. The Europeans may have changed the face of the western in 1964, but they never replicated the wide-open splendor of such pure examples of old west Americana such as this. Bringing together a fantastic cast, it's a monumental production both in front of, and behind the screen. In the history of westerns, and or action cinema, always remember THE ALAMO (1960).

This review is representative of the MGM DVD.


Dick said...

Excellent write up Brian. The laser disc of Wayne’s directors cut is one of the few I’ve held on to over the years. Wayne was looking at easing into retirement after THE ALAMO, but had sunk so much of his personal fortune in the making of it that he was forced to keep working steadily for years afterwards. The 200 minute version has some interesting stuff, but also some sequences that stop the momentum dead in its tracks (like the birthday party for the Dickinson’s daughter).
There are also some great stories of John Ford hanging around the set and Wayne having to create second unit stuff for him to go off and shoot to keep him away.
When MGM went to put out the long cut the only version they could find was in the hands of a private collector in Canada. After the work was done something got screwed up and the elements deteriorated, which leaves it highly in doubt to whether we’ll ever see a nice DVD/Blu release (let alone a full restoration).

Samuel Wilson said...

Thanks for writing about a gravely underrated film, and especially for the comparisons with Shaw Bros. cinema. Wayne's Alamo is authentically epic in concept and execution, from its generous attitude toward Mexico to its willingness to indulge in political and religious debates along the way. Tiomkin's soundtrack is a contender in an awesome year for Hollywood movie music. The long (and still incomplete?) version is the one to see because it has more of the idiosyncracies that make it a personal epic.

venoms5 said...

@ Dick: Thanks, bud. I've heard about the LD, but not sure what all has been cut out. I read about Ford trying to "intrude" on the film, lol. I do hope the film is restored, or at least the version available gets a blu release.

@ Sam: You're welcome, my friend, and thanks for your input. I've not seen any other version but this one, but am curious about the cut footage and how it changes, or improves the mood overall.

Unknown said...

I saw The Alamo in its first year of release in UK when I was ten years old. It's impression was so intense that I had to keep revisiting it again and again in the years that followed. Over the years I began to discover profound psychological treasures buried in this near masterpiece. The director's passion comes through every frame with great sensitivity belying the notion that Wayne was just a successful fanatical right wing movie star. Although not immediately obvious the core of this film is a quiet celebration of spiritual values and of Love in the deepest sense. As I am now seventy years old it is heartwarming to read such a constructive review of Wayne's Alamo written by someone from a different generation. History apart, a film like this one celebrates who we could be rather than who we often are and themes of this nature are relevant for all generations in all times. Great write up. Thank you.

venoms5 said...

Thank you for sharing your memory of experiencing the film upon its release, sir; and for the overall response itself. It's much appreciated.

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