The Alamo
directed by John Wayne
(MGM, 1960)

Every schoolchild learns about the Alamo in the same idealistic way that much of America's rich history is taught. In other words, the characters involved and the actions that occurred are polished to a glossy sheen, creating heroes and legends but not, in many cases, an accurate portrayal of actual events.

The Alamo, starring, directed by and produced by John Wayne, takes a similar approach, romanticizing many of the details to the point that, while it makes an epic movie, it distorts history.

The basics are there: 186 men, including regulars commanded by Col. William Travis, "Texican" volunteers led by Jim Bowie and a group of ornery Tennesseeans, fight and die against vastly superior Mexican forces in 1836. The 13-day siege delayed the advance of Mexican dictator Santa Anna (Ruben Padilla), giving Sam Houston (Richard Boone) time to muster his forces up north.

Wayne, as living legend Davy Crockett, is the strongest actor among the cast, but he obviously needed the strong hand of John Ford to smooth out his rough edges and tone down his patriotic pontification. Wayne infuses the role with wit, wisdom and romance, but much of Crockett's dialogue is misplaced in the broader context of the film.

Richard Widmark and Laurence Harvey both give good service in their roles -- Widmark as the mulish Bowie and Harvey as the brave but unlikable Travis -- but the bickering between them dominates far too much screen time. Other cast members include Frankie Avalon as young Smitty, Linda Cristal as the fiery Mexican widow Flaca, Ken Curtis as Capt. Dickinson and Joan O'Brien as his courageous wife, Jester Hairston as the noble slave Jethro, Hank Worden as Parson, Chill Wills as Beekeeper and Denver Pyle as Thumblerig.

The pacing of the movie is terribly slow at times, focusing on the battle itself only in the last half hour or so of a 160-minute film. (The DVD version I watched is the short version, chopping down the 190-minute full-length cut.) The battle scenes feel rushed, despite the undeniable drama, which leaves you wondering why so much time was spent on chatter, in-fighting and minor incidents like a cattle raid and sabotage mission.

On the other hand, the film deserves major kudos for its massive recreation of the Alamo itself, built specifically for the film. The set is impressive and realistic. The scope and vision are magnificent, and it's hard not to feel a swell of patriotic pride as you watch the final courageous moments of these heroic characters. Unfortunately, the execution of this film needed a firmer hand.

Also included on the DVD is a 40-minute documentary detailing the ambitious production. Many of the people interviewed for the documentary candidly admit Wayne was in over his head on this project -- refreshing if surprising honesty.

[ by Tom Knapp ]
Rambles: 22 October 2002

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