Grade: DAlamo, The (1960)

Director: John Wayne

Stars: John Wayne, Richard Widmark, Laurence Harvey

Release Company: MGM/UA

MPAA Rating: NR

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John Wayne: The Alamo


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Building Lit Up at Night, Alamo, San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, San Antonio, TX, USA
Building Lit Up at Night, Alamo, San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, San Antonio, TX, USA Photographic Print
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The fact that The Alamo received seven Academy Award nominations in 1961 (including Best Picture) only solidifies the notion that the Academy honors films based on political/sociological content without regard to artistic merit. Distinguished only by its vaulted folklore status, the story behind a courageous handful of Texans that staved off Santa Anna's 7,000 troops for 13 days serves as source material for John Wayne's pedestrian epic. It's downright un-American not to get teary-eyed over cries of "Remember the Alamo" and images of Colonel Travis "drawing the line" (only here, Wayne inexplicably leaves off that touch). But Wayne's ponderous buildup is more likely to act as Sominex for unsuspecting viewers popping in the special edition DVD.

After thirty years of acting, Wayne wanted to try out the director's chair but ran into initial resistance from the studio, who wanted an experienced director like John Ford for such an extensive project. Relentlessly, Wayne doggedly pursued the idea and produced it himself together with screenwriter James Edward Grant and his son Michael. Considering that the only other movie that Wayne directed on his own was his idealized 1968 take on Vietnam, The Green Berets, and you get the idea that The Alamo was a patriotic project dear to his heart. Unfortunately, no matter how sincere the Duke was about presenting the legend, it does not ensure a quality product.

Wayne recreates some historical tidbits admirably. Originally planning to shoot the film in Mexico to save on expenses, that idea was vetoed for political reasons. Told that no right-thinking Texan would ever watch a film about the Alamo filmed south of the Rio Grande, Wayne found an agreeable Texas landowner to lend his vast ranchland. He hired set designers to recreate the old San Antonio mission, meticulously detailed from original blueprints. Also, the narrative clearly emphasizes the true significance of the Alamo in the grand scheme of things—that Colonel Travis (Laurence Harvey) and his subordinate Jim Bowie (Richard Widmark) must delay Santa Anna's troops to give General Sam Houston (Richard Boone) time to gather and train troops for future battle. Essentially a known suicide mission from the get-go, Travis counts on troop reinforcements, but even those 500 men would stand little chance against the whole Mexican army.

You can easily find traces of John Ford's influence all over this project. Wayne does know where to point the camera and captures action shots competently, and structures his film along the same lines as Ford's western dramas—even including the same type of comic relief actors and anecdotal scenes that Ford was noted for. One actor was selected as a Tennesseean simply because Wayne got a kick out of how he said "it do" (and repeated the line numerous times in the script for laughs). Most obvious is Wayne's selection of character actor Hank Worden as the Parson for more comic relief—the same type of role he plays in The Searchers. But you can't fault Wayne for using actors from his past pictures or for copying what he could from the master director.

Without Wayne's backing and dogged determination, The Alamo would have never made the big screen in the sixties. However, John Wayne is also the biggest reason that the film simply doesn't work. No one can play John Wayne like John Wayne. He's a unique icon who swaggers through every heroic role the same way—never bothering to change into another character. He's a damn movie star, and people pay good money to see John Wayne movies. This time, he casts himself in another larger than life legend by transforming himself into Davy Crockett, but his stocky version of Davy still talks and moves exactly . . . like John Wayne. Of course, the Duke stands for red-blooded patriotism through and through, and Davy gets most of those all-American sentiments delivered as only Wayne can:

"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. Some words give you a feeling. Republic is one of those words that makes me tight in the throat - the same tightness a man gets when his baby takes his first step or his first baby shaves and makes his first sound as a man. Some words can give you a feeling that makes your heart warm. Republic is one of those words."
Wayne likes those moments that get to the courageous heart of the American spirit, and his film pours on the sentimental syrup the final night before the denouement, as his heroes all contemplate their short time left on earth.

Could Wayne have crafted a better film if he only tried his hand at directing, instead of putting on the hero's mantle as well? Doubtful. As Hank Worden explains on the making of documentary, Wayne simply was an unimpressive director with no idea of how to work with actors. He'd try to get them all to do John Wayne gestures. Unlike Chaplin, who understood various nuances of a wide variety of characters, the Duke was clueless about mere mortals. He only understood good ol' American values and how to carry himself in such roles, so most of his characters come across as flat stereotypes. Only veteran actor Richard Widmark comes across with any traces of real humanity, as he considers his options. The rest just hit their heroic marks on cue in one of the most wooden hero epics ever filmed. As Davy says, "There's right and there's wrong," so we can't criticize the Duke for wanting to preserve this Texas legend on film stock. But Wayne was plainly wrong by choosing to direct this film himself. It would have been a far stronger film under John Ford, John Huston, or practically any director of note.
 


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