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.

Over the Top (1987) review



Sylvester Stallone (Lincoln Hawks), Robert Loggia (Jason Cutler), David Mendenhall (Michael Cutler), Rick Zumwalt (Bull Hurley), Susan Blakely (Christina Cutler), Terry Funk (Ruker), Magic Schwarz (Smasher), Bruce Way (Grizzly), Randy Raney (Mad Dog Madison), Paul Sullivan (Carl Adams), Jack Wright (Big Bill Larson), Sam Scarber (Bosco)

Directed by Menahem Golan

"I'm gonna give you a world o' hurt, little man!"

The Short Version: Armwrestling has long been a staple of action films as macho window dressing, but for one strange moment in history, an entire movie was built around it (and a real life armwrestling tourney). Not since the Italian sword and sandal movies of the 1950s and 1960s has their been so much grunting, groaning, and mountains of sweat rolling off of biceps. Hell, one hairy man drinks a can of Valvoline before a match. It's ROCKY without boxing gloves. And a ring. It's a feel-good movie drenched in kitsch and 80s power ballad overload. There's an honest to goodness message suffocating underneath all that testosterone and outrageous "dialog" that often puts this minor league macho movie Over the Top.

Lincoln Hawk is a truck driver priming himself and pumping his right arm for a big armwrestling tournament in Las Vegas while trying to reconnect with his son, Mike after years of absence. Learning that his dying ex-wife's father has been instrumental in keeping Hawk out of touch with his kid, Hawk is determined to gain custody of Michael by any means necessary, and hopefully win the big prize in Las Vegas. Also dogging Lincoln is Bull Hurley, a big and bad man undefeated on the pulling circuit.

Sylvester Stallone was still riding the crest of his popularity by the time OVER THE TOP hit theaters in February of 1987. This was his second Cannon film after the gritty brutality of COBRA (1986), the actors second 'Tough Cop' role after 1981s obscure STREET HAWKS co-starring Billy Dee Williams. Directed by co-head of Cannon, the late Menahem Golan, OVER THE TOP is the polar opposite of COBRA, and essentially an arm wrestling version of ROCKY (1976). Stallone co-wrote the screenplay, and, considering his status as an action hero of the day, there's very little brawling; but there's lots of sweating. And grunting. And power ballads.

There's also a lot of potential here, and much of it is wasted on a head-scratching premise that ultimately ends up being a lot of fun for all the wrong reasons; many of those reasons revolve around uproarious, emphatically delivered tough guy dialog, and Stallone's facial squinting. Had this been WHITE LINE FEVER (1975) with arm wrestling, we'd have an epic macho movie; instead what we have is a trucker movie with a heart -- reminding us every ten minutes or so with Kenny Loggins's 'Meet Me Halfway'.

"Are you Hawk? I'm Smasher!" 

Armwrestling as an organized sport had been around since the early 1950s. The original story for OVER THE TOP was written as far back as 1979 by Gary Conway. Upon learning the film was finally becoming a reality, promoters, in collaboration with an energetic Menahem Golan, created the International Double Elimination Over The Top Armwrestling Tournament. 

The event began in August of 1985, and the finals, an 18 hour event with over 800 competitors, were held in July of 1986. Competition was a global one, with events taking place in Europe, Israel, and Japan. Footage shot at the finals in Las Vegas was integrated into the film, OVER THE TOP. Many of the real arm wrestlers -- male and female -- were seen in the picture, and one of the most famous, John Brzenk (whom Stallone based his character), has a brief cameo during the tourney. 

Sylvester Stallone and his then wife Brigitte Nielsen were at the New York event, as was martial arts legend and action movie star Chuck Norris.

Additionally, UFC, PRIDE Fighting, and K-1 martial artist Gary "Big Daddy" Goodridge was among the arm wrestlers in the finals, but didn't make it onscreen, losing his first bout of the finals, and again later in the tournament to Rick Vardell. Goodridge is one of the few pullers to beat Brzenk, named the Guinness World Record Greatest Arm Wrestler of All Time. Brzenk won in the Truckers Class in the finals taking home the big rig prize worth $250,000. The truck was used to promote the movie.

The arm wrestler seen breaking his arm during a match was real (see above). Only 4 tables were seen at one time onscreen, but 8 to 10 were used to get all the matches squeezed into the 18 hour time frame. All the scenes with Stallone's matches were shot the following day after the tournament was over. 

According to the late Rick Zumwalt, he was in and out of the film; then the 6'7" 465lb puller legend, Cleve Dean was slated to be Stallone's nemesis, but he was swapped out with 6'10" pro wrestler Big John Stud. Reportedly, Vince McMahon decided against the idea, and 6'4" Rick Zumwalt was back in again as the main bad guy.

In addition to helping put the sport of armwrestling in the limelight, OVER THE TOP (1987) inspired Gary Gallo, Sr. and Jr., a real-life father and son armwrestling duo from New York.

"My whole body is an engine and this is the fire plug, and I'm gonna light him up!"

Golan's movie revels in its story of a musclebound truck driver trying to rekindle a relationship with his son, impeded by the father of his dying ex-wife. Again, lots of opportunity to turn this into the Monster Truck of 18 wheeler cinema, but the filmmakers jack-knife down the road a ways making this one of the more awkward movies on the Italian Stallion's resume. 

Trucker movies had left their appeal behind in the previous decade, so this movie, and the more violent actioner, ROLLING VENGEANCE (released later that year) felt like throwbacks. If only Stallone had pushed for a more atypical approach to the material, we might of had a minor classic to look back on. Still, OVER THE TOP is a valiant, if failed experiment with a big rig load of entertainment value.

"I drive a truck, break arms, and arm wrestle. It's what I love to do, and it's what I do best... being number one is everything, there is no second place. Second sucks." 

The last 40+ minutes is where the films machismo goes into overdrive with an onslaught of muscles, facial and back hair, sweat, and big burly men communicating in some long lost caveman lingo. You'd swear some of these guys were having a baby. The champion of cornball comes in the form of main antagonist Bull Hurley (real life arm wrestler, Zumwalt). Spouting off a litany of chest-beating mockery, Bull is the more colorful truck stop version of Ivan Drago. Bull competes not just against Stallone in the climactic arm wrestling tourney, but against Stallone's array of facial contortions that would make Sonny Chiba very, very proud. Below is a sampling of Bull's brand of recalcitrance.

  • "GET IN HERE!!"
  • "Come on, chicken shit!"
  • "I'm gonna rip yer shittin' arm off, boy!"

Friendly fellow, ain't he? 

As silly as Golan's movie is, there's no denying the films message; and a message that nearly drowns in all the heavily perspiring beefcake. This was the 1980s after all, and the mantra of standing on your own two feet, and giving it all you've got whether win or lose was as strong in this movie as it was in so many others. Unfortunately, this sort of mindset is all but extinct nowadays; where winning is, or doing your best to succeed is frowned upon. 

The soundtrack, made up of a bunch of fist-pumpin' anthems and power ballads, even has some good ole American patriotism laid over it. Robin Zander (lead singer of Cheap Trick) belts out one helluva spirited rock song, 'In This Country'. It's played over the open credits amid some sweeping camerwork. It definitely gets the movie started right.

That air of determination is alive and well within Stallone's character, Lincoln Hawk (or Hawks; the dialog can't make up its mind). Once he finally begins to break through that impenetrable wall put up by his son, he begins instilling his spirited views of perseverance into the boy. This is exemplified in a silly scene where Lincoln gets Michael to accept an arm wrestling challenge with a bully and his distracting mullet. Michael loses the first time, but wins the second and third. By the films conclusion, the son turns this around on his father once he himself begins to doubt his own abilities after he's defeated (two losses and you're out) by a neanderthal who drinks a can of Valvoline before a match. 

Sylvester Stallone is/was often chided for his acting ability; but as has been said elsewhere, he, like Charles Bronson, was a much better actor than he gets credit for. He's good here, too; although it's difficult to come to his defense during the above-mentioned last half of the movie. The almost indescribable faces he makes during the hernia convention cum armwrestling tournament are so over-reaching, Stallone looks more like he's desperately trying to pass a kidney stone, as opposed to putting a man's arm down. Buckets of adrenaline and testosterone were spent that day.

"What I do, is I, I just try to take my hat and I turn it around... and it's like a switch that goes on... and when the switch goes on, I feel like another person, I feel, I don't know, I feel... like a truck, a machine."

Aside from Stallone's constipational facial tics, there's this section of the film where it reverts to a pre-reality show type segment where some of the arm-wrasslers are interviewed. Stallone tells the cameraman he likes turning his hat around backwards because it makes him feel like he's transforming into a different person. OVER THE TOP is quite possibly the only macho action movie to feature a hero with a possible case of multiple personality disorder.

Robert Loggia is along for the ride playing what is supposed to be one of, if not the main antagonist; slightly more villainous than a character in an After School Special, but a bad guy just the same. His contribution is choked out by Zumwalt's Bull Hurley and his macho mastery of insults and emotional beat-downs.

OVER THE TOP wants to be a dramatic action movie; and in some ways, it is. The rest of the time, it's a comedy of the unintentional sort. However, the film is very important to those partial to the armwrestling circuit. Stallone would headline comedies in the early 1990s, but in 1987, he gave it a dry run; even if a comedy isn't what was intended, it's what we got. There's some good things tucked away in Menahem Golan's movie; but unfortunately, the bad things refuse to meet them halfway.

***Assorted armwrestling sites were sources for this review***

This review is representative of the Warner Brothers DVD.

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