The Alamo (1960 film)

The Alamo was released in 1960 by United Artists, starring John Wayne as Davy Crockett, Richard Widmark as Jim Bowie and Laurence Harvey as William B. Travis, and featuring Frankie Avalon, Chill Wills, Patrick Wayne, Linda Cristal, Joseph Calleia as Juan Seguin, Ruben Padilla as General Santa Anna, Richard Boone as Sam Houston, Ken Curtis, Hank Worden, and Denver Pyle. It was photographed in 70 mm Todd-AO by William H. Clothier. The subject of the movie is the 1836 Battle of the Alamo.


As early as 1945, John Wayne decided to make a movie about the 1836 Battle of the Alamo. Wayne hired James Edward Grant as scriptwriter, and the two began researching the battle and preparing a draft of the script. The two hired Pat Ford, son of John Ford, as a research assistant. As the script neared completion, however, Wayne and the president of Republic Pictures, Herbert Yates, clashed over the proposed $3 million budget. Wayne left Republic over the feud, but was unable to take his script with him. That script was later rewritten and made into the movie The Last Command.


After leaving Republic, Wayne and producer Robert Fellows formed their own production company, Batjac. As Wayne continued to develop his vision of what a movie about the Alamo should be, he concluded that he did not want to risk seeing that vision changed; he decided that he would produce and direct the movie himself. Wayne had hoped that he would do only this but he was unable to enlist financial support for the project without the presumptive box-office guarantee his on-screen appearance would provide. In 1956, he signed an agreement with United Artists; UA would contribute $2.5 million to the movie's development and would serve as distributor. In exchange, Batjac was expected to contribute an additional $1.5–2.5 million, and Wayne would star in the movie. Wayne secured the remainder of the financing from wealthy Texans who insisted that the movie be shot in Texas.


The movie set, now known as Alamo Village, was constructed near Brackettville, Texas, on the ranch of James T. Shahan. Chatto Rodriquez served as general contractor of the set. To prepare for the filmmaking, Rodriquez built of tarred roads so that there would be easy access to the set from Brackettville. His men also sank six wells, which could provide a total of 12,000 gallons of water each day, and laid miles of new sewage and water lines. They also built of horse corrals.

As the initial preparations were completed, Rodriquez worked with art designer Alfred Ybarra to create the set itself. Although the set was not perfect, historians Randy Roberts and James Olson describe it as "the most authentic set in the history of the movies". Hundreds of thousands of adobe bricks were formed by hand to create the walls of the former Alamo Mission. The set was an extensive three quarter-scale replica of the mission, and has since been used in over 100 other westerns, including other depictions of the 1836 battle. It took more than two years to construct the set of the Alamo.


Wayne chose to play the role of Davy Crockett. For the remaining lead roles, Wayne chose Academy Award-nominated actors Richard Widmark (as James Bowie) and Laurence Harvey (as William Barrett Travis). Harvey was chosen because Wayne admired British actors whose work had mainly been on the stage and he wanted some "British class". When production became tense, Harvey would entertain with lines from Shakespeare spoken in a Texan accent. Other roles went to family and close friends of Wayne, including his daughter Aissa Wayne. The future western songwriter and stuntman, Rudy Robbins, had a bit role in the film as one of the Tennessee Volunteers.

Sammy Davis, Jr. asked Wayne if he could have the part of the slave as he wanted to break out of song and dance comedy. Some of the producers blocked the move, apparently because Davis was then dating white actress May Britt.

Several days after filming began, Widmark complained that he had been miscast and tried to leave the movie. After threats of legal action, Widmark agreed to finish the picture.


Wayne's mentor John Ford showed up uninvited on the set and attempted to back-seat drive the film. Wayne sent him off to shoot second unit footage in order to maintain his own authority on the set. Virtually nothing of Ford's footage was used, but Ford is often erroneously described as an uncredited co-director. By all accounts from his cast and crew, Wayne was an intelligent and gifted director, despite a weakness for the long-winded dialog of his favorite screenwriter, James Edward Grant. Roberts and Olson describe his direction as "competent but not outstanding". Actors such as Widmark also complained that Wayne would try to tell them how to play their parts, which sometimes went against their interpretation of the characters.


Filming began on September 9, 1959. For the most part, the weather cooperated, although many of the native creatures did not. Some actors, notably Frankie Avalon, were intimidated by the numerous rattlesnakes. Crickets were everywhere, often ruining shots by jumping onto actors' shoulders or chirping loudly during dialog.

Various obstacles faced the production, most tragic of which was the murder of bit player LeJean Eldridge in a domestic dispute during the course of filming. Another mishap was when Harvey forgot the fact that a firing cannon has a recoil: during the scene in which, as Travis, he fires such a weapon at a Mexican messenger, the artillery piece came down on his foot, breaking it — he did however refrain from screaming out in pain until after Wayne had called "Cut!". Wayne described that as being "a professional."

Filming ended on December 15. A total of 560,000 feet of film was produced for 566 scenes. Despite the incredible scope of the filming, it lasted only 3 weeks longer than scheduled. By the end of development, the film had been edited to three hours and thirteen minutes.


Wayne hired Russell Birdwell to coordinate the media campaign for the movie's release. Birdwell believed that a successful media campaign was one that created news. He convinced seven states to declare an "Alamo Day" in the weeks leading up to the movie's release and sent information to elementary schools around the United States to assist in teaching about the Alamo.


Historical accuracy

The film does very little to explain the causes of the Texas Revolution or the reasons why the battle took place. Although Grant and Wayne had done significant research, according to Alamo historian Timothy Todish, "there is not a single scene in The Alamo which corresponds to an historically verifiable incident". Historians J. Frank Dobie and Lon Tinkle demanded that their names be removed from the credits as historical advisors.


Wayne's daughter Aissa later wrote, "I think making The Alamo became my father's own form of combat. More than an obsession, it was the most intensely personal project in his career." Many of Wayne's associates agreed that the film served as a political platform for Wayne. Many of the statements that his character made were indicative of Wayne's own views. Roberts and Olson point to an overwhelming theme of republicanism, veering closely towards libertarianism. They point to a scene in which Wayne, as Crockett, remarks; "Republic. I like that word. Means that 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 film draws many elements from the Cold War environment in which it was produced. According to Roberts and Olson, "the script evokes parallels between Santa Anna's Mexico and Khruschchev's Soviet Union, as well as Hitler's Germany. All three demanded lines in the sand and resistance to death."


Though the film had a large box office take, its cost kept it from being considered a success, and Wayne lost his sizable personal investment. He sold his rights in the film to United Artists, which had released it, and ultimately it made back its money. The Alamo won the Academy Award for Sound and was nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Chill Wills), Best Cinematography, Color, Best Film Editing, Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture, Best Music, Song (Dimitri Tiomkin and Paul Francis Webster for The Green Leaves of Summer) and Best Picture.

Critical response was mixed, from the New York Herald-Tribune's four-star rated "A magnificent job...Visually and dramatically, The Alamo is top-flight," to Time Magazine's "flat as Texas. Leonard Maltin criticized the script as being "full of historical name-dropping and speechifying," but praised the climactic battle scene.

The film is thought to have been denied more awards than the one it got due to an overblown campaign that alienated Academy voters, including one Variety ad that stated, in effect, that the film's cast was praying harder for Chill Wills to win his award than the defenders of the Alamo themselves prayed the night before the battle. The ad, placed by Wills personally, reportedly angered Wayne, who took out an ad of his own deploring Wills's tastelessness. In response to Wills's ad, claiming that all the voters were his "Alamo Cousins," Groucho Marx took out a small ad which simply said, "Dear Mr. Wills, I am delighted to be your Alamo cousin, but I voted for Sal Mineo," (Wills's rival nominee for Exodus).

The film's cost, more than poor attendance, was at the root of its initial presumed failure, and indeed, it has retained popularity with many people. The soundtrack album has been in print continuously for nearly fifty years. References to The Alamo show up with some frequency in various spoofs or homages. Mad Magazine did a spoof of the movie. The Alamo is mentioned by Vic Fontaine (James Darren) in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "Badda-Bing, Badda-Bang". The singer describes it as having great battle scenes and nice sets, but with an excessive running time. The movie An American Werewolf in London contains an extended bit of dialogue about The Alamo. The movie Viva Max!, shot at the actual Alamo in San Antonio, makes numerous comedic references to the Wayne film with the Reynold Brown film poster painting featured.

Wayne provided a clip of the film that was used in How the West Was Won.

Different versions

Like so many United Artists films of the 1960s, The Alamo was severely cut for wide release. The film premiered at its 70mm roadshow length of 202 minutes, including overture, intermission, and exit music. Following its L.A. premiere, UA re-edited the film to 167 minutes for general wide release. The 202 minute version was believed lost until a Canadian fan of the film, Bob Bryden, read about it and realized he had seen the full version in the 1970s. Working with Alamo collector Ashley Ward, he discovered what was believed to be the last surviving print of the 70mm premiere version in Toronto. . At the time, it was in pristine condition. MGM (UA's sister studio) used this print to make a digital video transfer of the roadshow version for VHS and LaserDisc release.

Following this issue, the print was taken apart and improperly stored in an archive. As a result, what was believed to be the only extant film footage of the missing scenes has now deteriorated. As of 2007, the once presumably lost celluloid footage is again unavailable in any useful form. MGM therefore chose to release the shorter General Release Version for DVD. In the meantime, the only existing version of the original uncut roadshow release is on digital video only. It is the source for recent cable television broadcasts on Turner Classic Movies. The best available actual film elements are of the 35mm negatives of the General Release version.

The musical score includes an overture and musical intermission included in the film; both are usually omitted from TV broadcasts.



Additional Reading

  • Clark, Donald, & Christopher P. Andersen. John Wayne's The Alamo: The Making of the Epic Film (New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1995) ISBN 0-8065-1625-9
  • Farnsworth, Rodney. "John Wayne's Epic of Contradictions: The Aesthetic and Rhetoric of Way and Diversity in The Alamo" Film Quarterly, Vol. 52, No. 2 (Winter 1998-1999), p. 24 - 34
  • "Dust to Dust" by Robert Wilonsky. Dallas Observer, August 9, 2001

See also

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