The Alamo MGM Home Entertainment
1960 / Color / 2:35 flat letterbox (since replaced with an anamorphic version)
Starring John Wayne, Laurence Harvey, Richard Widmark, Richard Boone, Linda Cristal, Frankie Avalon, Patrick Wayne, Joan O'Brien, Chill Wills, Ken Curtis, Carlos Arruza
Cinematography William Clothier
Art director Alfred Ybarra
Film Editor Stuart Gilmore
Original Music Dimitri Tiomkin
Second Unit and Assistant directors Cliff Lyons, Robert Relyea, Robert Saunders
Screenplay James Edward Grant
Produced and Directed by John Wayne
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 unhappily 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.) 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 each of his cast members. His own explosive exit, after being
skewered on a lance, is too outrageous to criticize. Richard Widmark's is better, 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.
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 audio track 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 terrifically 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 paper insert as 'collectable' is
the disc'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
Sound: 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 filming 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
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 Valance antagonists retired and
gone to heaven in the pacified, politically subdued South Seas. Return