Judge David Gutierrez wore his trusty coonskin hat while reviewing John Wayne's take on the basementless tourist attraction's history.
"I've been given command of the armies of Texas. But the fly in the buttermilk is there ain't no armies in Texas; a few good friends, some willing men. I'm gonna have to knock some of those men into an army and to do that I'm gonna need time. You people, you people right here on the Rio Grande, are going to have to buy me that time. You're going to have to keep Santa Anna off the back of my neck until I get in shape to fight him."—General Sam Houston (Richard Boone)
A labor of love for John Wayne, The Alamo continues to deliver the goods as one of the most well put together versions of the classic Texas tale.
Facts of the Case
Based on Texas's most famous battle, John Wayne's epic The Alamo continues to mythologize the last stand of some of the Lone Star state's favorite sons.
Set in the days when the Mexican flag flew over Texas, the movie begins in already dire circumstances. Jim Bowie (Richard Widmark), Davey Crockett (John Wayne), William Travis (Laurence Harvey), and a small volunteer militia must hold off Generalissimo Santa Anna's forces in order to buy General Samuel Houston some time to gather his forces.
Davey Crockett is a lost man who isn't quite sure what he's looking for—he just knows it's somewhere in Texas. Having completed two terms in Congress, Crockett retains his frontier spirit and leads a group of Tennessee volunteers into Texas. Once faced with having to make a stand, Crockett rises to the occasion and in a fiercely clever move manages to convince his men to convince him to stay and fight.
William Travis's methods differ. He believes that an order given is an order followed without room for question or exception. His rigid behavior stands out amongst a group of plainclothes brawlers that like getting drunk and gambling.
Jim Bowie is introduced as a surly drunk before he shows his face. Bowie is similar to Crockett, only he lacks Crockett's charisma and thinking skills. The Bowie seen here is not unlike a chained dog pulling at its leash until it can find something to sink its teeth into.
Bowie, Crockett, and Travis are all striving to make Texas a republic. Their reasons vary, but they all share the same vision of Texas independence. It is their common goal that manages to keep these three working together long enough to lead their men into death. Travis leads the men at the Alamo to their inevitable rendezvous with a violent death.
Everybody loves the underdog, which is probably why the stories of lost causes like the Alamo or the Spartans at Thermopylae are the stuff of legend. The thing about legends is that they are always subject to interpretation and dramatic license. John Wayne's The Alamo is no exception. This movie should never be mistaken for historical fact, but rather recognized as historical entertainment.
The film slowly builds to its inevitable explosive confrontation. The ongoing feuding between William Travis and Jim Bowie provided a nice counterweight and dramatic distraction for the much anticipated final battle. Nothing is ever harmonious and touchy-feely in this doomed group. Travis, a military man through and through, shows great disdain for the volunteer army he my lead. He thinks them too rugged and too undisciplined. He has no difficulty lying to his command about the how truly dire their situation is, bringing him into direct conflict with Bowie. In the film's best dramatic moment, Travis comes clean about the hopelessness of their situation and gives them the choice to stay or leave. It's no surprise what follows, but it's a great cinematic moment.
John "The Duke" Wayne (True Grit, The Quiet Man) channeled quintessential Western director John Ford (The Searchers, Stagecoach) when he took directorial reigns of this movie. Many of the shots are huge in scope and linger on action. I really miss this style of filmmaking, where things were allowed to happen at their own pace and not edited at a breakneck, MTV junkie speed. The film crept up like a siege, like a long and cautious wait for something to happen.
One of the film's great strengths is in its mysterious treatment of Santa Anna. Despite his depiction by actor Ruben Padilla, Santa Anna comes across less like a person and more like a force of a nature. Understandably, his is the strongest presence in the movie and what drives everything.
The performances are what one would expect from a film of its time. The Duke plays himself in his portrayal of American folk hero Davey Crockett. What plagues any John Wayne film is never seeing him as a character, but rather as the Duke in any random environment or situation. I never saw Davey Crockett, just John Wayne with a dead raccoon on his head. The Duke's best work in this film is definitely behind the camera. Richard Widmark (Madigan, Death of a Gunfighter) did an exceptional job portraying the oft surly and occasionally drunken knife wielder, Jim Bowie. At times (specifically for Bowie's death scene), Widmark could go a little over the top, but was best when acting opposite Laurence Harvey (The Manchurian Candidate) as William Travis. The "Ham-it-Up, Actors" quota that most films of this time suffer from only occurs toward the end of the movie: Travis manages to break his sword on his knee before being run through by Mexican soldiers, Bowie's death rattle as he is killed by Mexican soldiers, and The Duke manages to push over a soldier on his horse using only his bare hands.
Frankie Avalon of "Frankie and Annette" fame also has a small role. As Smitty, he infects the film with his usual brand of yuk-yuk from the school of comedic mugging. The less said, the better.
The best one to watch, albeit briefly, is Richard Boone as General Sam Houston. I completely believed that any of these men would follow him into hell if need be. A tip of the hat for Denver Pyle (The Dukes of Hazzard) as the gambler, Thimblerig. He's always been one of my favorite character actors and I miss the warmth he'd bring to his scenes. Also delivering a strong performance is Jester Hairston as the ex-slave Jethro. While I didn't for a second believe once give his freedom he'd stay to die, Hairston conveyed sympathy through his eyes. He's the last one I wanted to see dead.
I've heard many criticisms regarding the politics of The Alamo. No one should view this movie expecting historical revisionism or even historical accuracy. It's been contested that the fate Davey Crockett meets at film's end differs greatly than what actually happened. Fine, I say, it's a movie. Never trust movies to tell you the truth. The difference between the absolute truth and movie based on it is that absolute truth doesn't have on-set rewrites. I'd be wary of anyone who believed that William Travis could break a steel sword on his knee. Unless he's Kryptonian, it's impossible. It's just a movie.
Any fan of this movie should do himself a favor and view the documentary included on making of The Alamo. John Wayne's "The Alamo" provides some insight on The Duke's mission to complete this film and on how his cast and crew viewed him. For film historians, the featurette documents the unexpected arrival of director John Ford on the set. The Duke gave Ford a camera and had him film some second unit scenes, one of which I believe made the final cut. Also included are some facts on how The Duke would direct the actors to act as he would.
Overall, the film had a quality transfer with very little scratching. The sound mix was well equally well done. I expected this movie to have a good number of technical woes and am pleased to have underestimated the good folks at MGM behind this DVD.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The one thing that this film did not address is the existence of the rumored Alamo basement. This film should never replace actual research and reading on the Texas landmark and is a poor substitute to actually going. I should know; I was born nearby.
Regardless of how one may feel about The Duke or the politics of this film, it's worth watching. Personally, I'm not a fan of John Wayne. I love a good Western, but I'm a hard sell on The Duke and I still really got into this film. He did an incredible job behind the camera and deserves the acclaim this film has garnered. It's also worth booking a flight to San Antonio to see the landmark in person. Ozzy went there, but I wouldn't recommend doing what he did.
The Alamo is dismissed of all charges and free to go. Frankie Avalon will be held without bail forever.
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Scales of Justice
• "John Wayne's The Alamo" Documentary
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