Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in March of 2010.
I must not have been much older than three when I first saw John Wayne’s The Alamo (1960).
It was impressive to say the least. More than likely, my father took me to see it, since he was the one who always took me to the “guy movies,” films with fighting and war and, well, lots of men. (Mom, on the other hand, got the assignment for Jerry Lewis, Disney and Doris Day movies, while Grandmom was my musicals connection.)
But from the beginning The Alamo was special to me. I am almost positive I saw it at least three times in the theaters, going again after it was reissued following its original release.
No doubt the character of Davy Crockett was a big draw. He was a big deal in my household before The Alamo, portrayed by Fess Parker in installments on Walt Disney’s weekly series Disneyland. While the exploits of “The King of the Wild Frontier” and sidekick George Russell (limned by a pre-Jed Clampett Buddy Ebsen) offered stirring adventure for any youngster—whether it be bear wrassling or battling river pirates—it was the sequences set at the Alamo and the Texans’ struggle for freedom that really got to me at an early age. So engaged I was in the myth of Crockett, that I donned a coonskin cap—like scores of other youngsters at the time—to take in Davy tackling the Goliaths in rerun after rerun on the new deluxe-size Zenith television set my parents had just purchased.
“Born on a mountaintop in Tennessee, sweetest place in the land of the free…”
When The Alamo was released, however, there was confusion. After all, this Davy Crockett was not Fess Parker. It was a new guy—at least to me—who seemed older than the other Davy Crockett. He spoke differently, in a deliberate style; walked differently, now with a gait; and didn’t remind me much of the Davy I’ve come to know and love. It took a while to accept him as Crockett, but what choice did I have? John Wayne replaced the image of Davy Crockett I’d come to know and love, whether I liked it or not.
But with The Alamo, there wasn’t a whole lot not to like for a new but awe-inspired moviegoer like myself. There the new incarnation of Davy Crockett was, several stories high on the big screen, battling Santa Ana’s Mexican forces. Dimitri Tiomkin’s wonderful score rattled the theater along with the gun blasts. And when “Old Betsy,” his trusted rifle, ran out of ammo, Davy took it by the barrel, smacking the bad guys with its handle. Of course, I eventually had one of those, too, courtesy of my grandmother, a gift on my sixth birthday.
But Davy Crockett wasn’t the only character one could root for in The Alamo. Other characters, also introduced earlier in the Disney version, arrived bigger-than-life as well. Among them: Jim Bowie, played by the always steely Richard Widmark, inventor of the Bowie knife, who uses his nifty invention while bed-ridden on an enemy interloper; Laurence Harvey’s dashing Col. William Travis with his wide-brimmed hat; and Chill Wills as “Beekeeper,” Buddy Ebsen’s replacement as Crockett’s (now whiskey-guzzling) sidekick.
To a youngster, The Alamo went on forever, 202 minutes to be precise, in its original release form. There was an overture and intermission, and the final battle sequence was really long. But it didn’t matter.
As the years went on, I read more and more about the making of The Alamo and the actual battle itself. Not surprisingly, I learned the movie has little to do with the truth and neglects most of the historical back story, despite its lengthy running time. I also discovered that John Wayne put over $1 million of his own money into the film, was forced to sell the finished movie to United Artists, and allowed mentor John Ford to shoot second unit on the production.
There are great stories about how veteran character actor Chill Wills self-promoted his way into getting an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor—against Wayne’s wishes. Wills and his publicist took out trade ads stating “We of The Alamo cast are praying harder than real Texans prayed for their lives at the Alamo for Chill Wills to win the Oscar.” Yet another ad read “Win, lose or draw. You’re still my cousins and I love you all.” Groucho Marx reportedly sent a letter to Wills, stating: “Dear Mr. Wills, I am delighted to be your cousin. But I’m voting for Sal Mineo (who was nominated for Exodus).”
I also learned that the ultra-conservative Wayne intended his version of The Alamo to work as an allegory for U.S./Russian relations at the time, and that the production was a tough one, nearly three months in length, its troubles compounded by Wayne’s insistence on complete control of the project.
Ironically, The Alamo was radically cut for its “roadshow “engagement in neighborhood theaters. The Duke was on location working on another film at the time, and one of his sons assisted in the editing process.
The original versions of The Alamo exist only on old VHS tapes and on laserdisc. The discarded parts, totaling close to a half-hour, were once thought to be lost. They have been located, but need serious restoration, and rumors abound about bringing The Alamo back to its original form for DVD and Blu-ray, and maybe even a limited theatrical release. It is currently controlled by MGM, a company currently on the sales block (again), so the reported 50-year anniversary reissue scheduled seems purely a pipe dream at this point (Editor’s note: The rights to The Alamo, as of mid-2015, lie with 20th Century-Fox, who still have yet to re-release it as a single film on DVD or on Blu-ray. How about a 55th anniversary edition, Fox?).
Still, The Alamo is with us, in whatever form. Quentin Tarantino, a Texas native, used its haunting Oscar-nominated song “The Green Leaves of Summer” as the theme to Inglourious Basterds. And its memories remain indelible to the kid in the tenth row of the Philadelphia movie theater, wearing a coonskin cap, and sitting next to his dad, awestruck as the spectacle of the Texas battle for independence unfolded before him.
What’s your favorite John Wayne war movie? Vote in our poll here.