Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
John Wayne gets two kinds of press, neither of which seems to be able to make up its mind about the quality of his filmmaking. As an actor's actor, Wayne had a limited range, but as a star, he developed and controlled his persona into the leading movie presence of 3 decades. Wayne had wanted to do this epic for Republic for over twelve years. They eventually made it as The Last Command with Sterling Hayden. Wayne directed movies twice, on this 1960 version, and The Green Berets. In this case he puts together a solid show, marred only by a tendency to preach at the audience, as if any fact issuing forth from the mouth of The Duke is going to be taken as gospel from on high. In The Alamo, the interminable speeches about 'republic' don't interfere too badly. Wayne himself is very likeable, and the gloss on his production is of A-1 caliber. Also, the saga of the Alamo is one of those stories that just can't be told badly: it knows where it's going and there's a whale of a battle when it gets there.
Roughly 180 volunteers man a wrecked church called the Alamo against the might of Santa Anna's enormous Mexican army. Colonel Davy Crockett (John Wayne) enlists the help of the local Rancheros through widow Flaca (Linda Cristal), and tries to keep co-commanders Colonel William Travis (Laurence Harvey) and loose cannon Jim Bowie (Richard Widmark) from coming to blows. The group holds together despite Travis' domineering stance. Initally committed just to wait for reinforcements, the group defiantly decides to hold the Alamo against Santa Anna even when defeat is imminent. The group is successful in pre-battle skirmishes, but finally is overrun and annihilated. But the stirring example of gallantry and patriotism in their sacrifice becomes a rallying cry for the rebellion.
Filmed on a private ranch in Texas, where duplicates of the Alamo and other buildings of old San Antonio were built from scratch, The Alamo is a massive, well-orchestrated epic, with acres of marching Mexican soldiers and battle action mastershots of incredible complexity. The stunt and second-unit work is without equal. Bolstered by Dimitri Tiomkin's great score, The Alamo is an eye-opener.
As drama, both Republic's The Last Command and Disney's cut-price TV version, Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier, fare better. The Alamo plays more like a pageant than a dramatic show. The script is mostly exposition about deadlines and timetables for the success of the rebellion, and Wayne's dialogue makes his Davy Crockett into an easygoing bore. The creekside lecture he gives 'Flaca' unfortunately epitomizes Wayne's tendency to patronize, while preaching 'freedom' and 'rights.' Wayne carries these speeches well, it must be said, even though the klunk factor in them is staggering: "You may be walkin' around, but without freedom you're deader than a beaver hat!" (paraphrase) Wayne's idea of freedom is that his anglo heroes are so noble, their black servants prefer to serve them even after emancipation.
The other major actors are fine, but they don't really mesh. Harvey sulks and looks unhappy, and Widmark chortles his way through half the movie. Most everyone else, including every Western bit player in the book, comes on like they're going for supporting actor nominations. Blowhard Chill Wills, always effective in other movies, got one. This lack of directorial control (or desire to shape performances) by the director, results in a patchwork of 'gift' bits that bogs the film down in the dialogue scenes.
Revisionists (or accurate historians?) paint a picture of Texas independence entirely different from the patriotic Lone Star version. Texans tend to be aggressive and hostile on the subject. (See the docu on the disc for ample evidence of this.) Politcally, this was about the time when Wayne began to represent the division between hawks and doves in American political life. When his film was promoted for Academy Awards, there was a mini-fracas in Hollywood over trade ads that implied that it was unpatriotic not to vote for it. Although the DVD docu assigns blame to a publicist, the attitude of that campaign is consistent with Wayne's own emphatic attitude: The Alamo defenders were noble martyrs for freedom, liberty, and the American Way, and no dissenting opinions are welcome.
From this viewpoint, the film's most tellingly immature moment is the inspirational 'cross the line and volunteer' scene, when the defenders choose to stay and face certain death with Laurence Harvey's Travis. First Richard Widmark crosses the line and stares nobly, screen left. Then a few more. Then Wayne and his men, and finally Laurence himself. When the noble gesture is done, and we are supposed to have tears of admiration in our eyes, we're left with the awkward spectacle of 200 men standing and staring off, at nothing at all, as if posing for a giant statue. They seem to be saying, 'We're on the right side of the line, where are you?"
In the end, what The Alamo does best is great action; the mayhem is grand and gory. Wayne and Widmark meet by cracking bad-guy heads together; male bonding is represented by getting drunk and clouting one another in 'punch-me' contests. Director Wayne dishes out a grandiose death scene for all of his cast. His own explosive exit, after being skewered on a lance, is too outrageous to criticize. Richard Widmark's is better, however, even though it's marred by that persistent black servant throwing himself, dog-like, as a shield for his master. Widmark's tongue-wagging squawk, with a dozen bayonets piercing him, has an Involuntary Squirm Factor of plus-7.
A minor note, already common knowledge among Western fans: Santa Anna's spokesman-Jinete, the handsome lieutenant who reads ultimata in such a good Spanish accent, rides and poses so gracefully that you'd think he was a matador. He is. He's Carlos Arruza, and his own cinematic story is a lulu. 1
MGM's DVD of The Alamo is a very good rendering of the general release version of the movie. The enhanced 70mm image is going to impress a lot of fans who've only seen it on flat television, and the sound, with Tiomkin's boiling battle music coming at you in 5.1, is a real treat (it sounds a little flat on small television speakers, though). There are grumblings out there over MGM's decision not to reproduce the longer roadshow version that came out on laserdisc eight years ago. Savant's information is that MGM needed a uniform version that could be released in multiple markets. The roadshow wouldn't work because no foreign language tracks could be found for its extended scenes. So diehards will want to keep their pricey lasers for now. Savant had no great love for the long version, which consisted mainly of more static speeches by Alamo defenders about how noble they are (no kidding). Even the stalwart Hank Worden (Mose from The Searchers) is given a showcase wake in the long version; a little girl (The "Lisa" of the soundtrack), is given an on-screen birthday party obviously meant to flatter Wayne relatives ... this stuff is just indulgent dross. What Savant really misses from the roadshow are Tiomkin's musical overture, intermission, and exit music, which play terrific on the laser ... and include the 1960 musical hits 'The Green Leaves of Summer' and 'The Ballad of the Alamo,' both winner tracks on the soundtrack album.
The docu on the disc, a cutdown of one made for the laser, is commendably informative and reasonably fair. Several of the interviewees touch on Wayne's shortcomings, even though most assert that working with The Duke in even the humblest capacity is a ticket into movie history heaven. Auteurists will be amused by the appearance of director John Ford, who is presented as a cantankerous interloper who just arrived on the set uninvited one day, and started directing! The MGM marketingspeak hailing the disc's insert as 'collectable' is the package's lowpoint, coming in just behind the cover artwork, which like too much of DVD packaging, runs a big star picture instead of anything expressing the nature of the movie inside. (Savant rashly gave away his original, spectacular one-sheet of The Alamo to Robert S. Birchard over 25 years ago. I hope he appreciated it!)
Wayne made a big and exciting movie in The Alamo, and was heartbroken when it was passed over by the Academy. 2 All in all, The Alamo on DVD is going to please almost all who purchase it, and totally dazzle those fans who've never seen those battle scenes in such widescreen clarity.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Alamo rates:
Video: Very good
Supplements: Documentary, trailer.
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: January 6, 2001
1. Noted Western director Budd Boetticher personally financed a documentary on Carlos Arruza that was filmed throughout the late '60s, following him from bullfight to bullfight. Although Arruza's death wish wasn't any more acute than the average Torero, the docu dragged on hoping for something to happen to Arruza to provide the docu with a conclusion: most matadors receive some kind of injury now and then. Boetticher took a short vacation from the project, and while he was back in the states, Arruza was killed in an auto accident, a development that pretty much robbed Boetticher of a climax. Arruza was completed in 1972 and given a microscopic release; it's a legendary warning to documentarians expecting events to cooperate with their preconceived plans. Return
2. In his own warped way, Savant imagines the warped, bitter Tom Doniphon of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance as representing the passed-over, bitter Wayne of The Alamo; just as critics have equated his Michael Donovan (Doniphon?) and Aloicious Gilhooley (Lee Marvin) of Donovan's Reef, as the Valanceantagonists retired and gone to heaven in the pacified, politically subdued South Seas. Return