Friday, February 17, 2012

The Alamo (1960) - John Wayne

The defense of the Alamo mission in 1836 by a small band of Texians against superior forces under Mexican General Santa Anna has been brought to the scene numerous times, but none so famous as John Wayne's 1960 directorial debut. The battle was a pivotal moment in the Texas Revolution, one that over time evolved into one of America's greatest myths. Wayne, at the time America's biggest star, was the perfect man to take on the role of the myth's biggest hero, Davy Crockett. He did so, only after financial backers insisted the popular star assume one of the major roles.

Though it has faults, the final film is exciting and a rousing tale, one that captures the spirit of the times, the heroic nature of the men, and the ideals that Wayne embraced in this very personal project. All in all, he had ample reason to be proud of the film, particularly considering the number of hats he was wearing: producer, director, actor, and financial backer.

Wayne kept the story's basic structure, with three equally-stressed leads. Besides his own Crockett, Richard Widmark appears as Jim Bowie, and Lawrence Harvey as Colonel Travis. Thanks in part to the script, Wayne comes off best. As Crockett he gets the best speeches, the first with Travis in a cantina. Harvey's right for his role of a martinet. He always strikes me as somewhat unpleasant, bordering on obnoxious, a little full of himself and self-righteous. The character of Travis comes off similarly, so it works. Travis wonders if Crockett and his men will join the fight to free Texas. Crockett explains his motives:

Crockett: Republic. I like the sound of the word. It means 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 same tightness a man gets when his baby takes his first step or his first baby shaves and makes his first sound as a man. Some words can give you a feeling that makes your heart warm. Republic is one of those words.

Widmark as Bowie and Harvey as Travis.

Later, there's a beautiful scene with Crockett and Flaca (Linda Cristal), a native Mexican woman from San Antonio. They talk beside a small stream beneath a majestic tree. Crockett expands on his reasons for coming to the territory.
Crockett: It was like I was empty. Well, I'm not empty anymore. That's what's important, to feel useful in this old world, to hit a lick against what's wrong for what's right even though you get walloped for saying that word. Now I may sound like a Bible beater yelling up a revival at a river crossing camp meeting, but that don't change the truth none. There's right and there's wrong. You got to do one or the other. You do the one and you're living. You do the other and you may be walking around, but you're dead as a beaver hat.
Wayne as Crockett and Linda Crystal as Flaca. 
Cristal, who doesn't have much to do except look beautiful, is only in a few scenes before the action takes off. Her character could have been excised from the film for pacing purposes, but I'm glad Wayne left her in. The only other time I've seen her is in the 1960's television Western The High Chapparral. She's lovely.

Sometimes Widmark's performance seems slightly strained. In the film, as in real life, Bowie severely injures his leg before the final battle. Bowie also suffered from consumption. Perhaps Widmark tried too hard to infuse his character with what he perceived must have been the man's sour mood. Either that, or Widmark felt slighted knowing he was playing third fiddle in the film.

He does get my favorite line in the film though. The Mexicans have arrived and Santa Anna sends out an officer under a flag of truce to suggest the defenders capitulate. As the man reads the message, Travis gives his answer by touching the end of his cigar to ignite the fuse of a cannon. It fires, interrupting the man's speech. Bowie, who up to this point has found nothing to like in the arrogant Travis, turns to Crockett: "I'd hate to say anything good about that long-winded jackanapes, but he does know the short way to start a war."

The actual battle is well directed, though depicted in full daylight instead of pre-dawn darkness as actually happened. The physical layout of the Alamo complex helps. You get a real sense of its weakness as a defensive position. Clearly, Wayne strove for authenticity here, having built a close replica, purportedly from surviving blueprints. It begins with martial music punctuated by drummers as long lines of infantry and cavalry take their positions. There's plenty of courage from both sides. Cannon and gunsmoke and the sounds of battle work to enhance the viewers' feel of desperation for the heavily out-numbered defenders, and several impressive stunt sequences include riders and horses falling, and exploding adobe walls that send defenders flying through the air.

This is the best part of the film, demonstrating that, as director, Wayne was more adept at action than the buildup.

The most valid knock against the film is its length, evidence that Wayne as a director had difficulty exercising restraint when it came to editing. It takes nearly 80 minutes before the Mexican army arrives on scene. Wayne mimics his mentor John Ford and includes a few moments of forced humor--supporting actor Chill Wills doesn't help matters--and there is a long sequence that precedes the battle where Crockett and some of his men tussle with a local merchant who's trying to manipulate Flaca into marriage. It's not needed, other than to show that the Texas population included both supporters and opponents of Santa Anna.

And the film has its historical inaccuracies, one of the most glaring being the timing of the death of Jim Bowie's wife--it happened well before the events shown in the film. Wayne placed it during the siege and has Bowie read the news in a letter, one of the film's most dramatic moments. It's also Widmark's finest moment.

Still, Wayne wanted to make a film about ideas--that it takes courage to fight against all odds for something you believe in--and in that he succeeded wonderfully.

More importantly, he gets one of the most essential facts right. If not prominently displayed, Wayne doesn't shy away from the fact that Sam Houston, Travis, Bowie and men of their ilk were rebels, seeking through violence to break away from what they perceived was a despotic leader. And when Wayne includes the fabricated sequence of Crockett composing a letter, supposedly from Santa Anna, to trick his men into joining the Alamo defenders, he calls the Tennesseans "interlopers," arguing this isn't their fight. It is an accurate description.     

The film earned 7 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. The music by 16-time Oscar nominee Dimitri Tiomkin is one of his best scores.

Cinematographer William Clothier, best known for Westerns, did spectacular work in certain scenes: the men from Tennessee riding through the tall grass, the lone sentinel atop the church at dusk, the grand scale of the final attack. There's also some nice scenes of the Mexican army's march through the harsh countryside. It includes thousands of extras, looking resplendent in their colorful uniforms.

A beautiful composition by cameraman William Clothier.

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