The Alamo (1960)
Nominated for six Academy Awards, The Alamo (1960) was a dream that John Wayne had been harboring for over 15 years and he threw himself into developing the project after completing The Quiet Man in 1952. Initially proposed as a picture for Republic Studios with Herbert Yates producing, the deal eventually fell through with Yates going on to produce his own Alamo movie, The Last Command (1955). Wayne refused to abandon his original vision, however, and finally succeeded in striking a deal with United Artists in 1956. In order to direct the film and insure that creative control could not be taken from him, the Duke had to agree to play the part of Davy Crockett and sign a three-movie deal with the studio. As a result, Wayne exercised nepotism in assembling his cast and crew to make sure that his project would remain faithful to his ideals. His son Michael served as assistant producer, Wayne's brother Bob was the producer's aide, other sons and daughters were extras or had bit parts. Wayne's pal James Edward Grant wrote the screenplay. Good friend and mentor, director John Ford, came to the set to lend any help Wayne might need. And John Ford's son-in-law, Ken Curtis, played Captain Dickinson.
The story of the 187 Texans (including frontiersmen Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie) who held out against over 6,000 regular Mexican army troops for 13 days during the Texas Revolution embodied the idealistic elements that were closest to Wayne's heart. For the film's location, Wayne decided on Brackettville, Texas, and began building the sets in 1958 while he assembled his cast. Clark Gable was his first choice as William Travis and Burt Lancaster was considered for Jim Bowie, roles which would eventually be played by Laurence Harvey and Richard Widmark, respectively. Sammy Davis, Jr. campaigned vigorously for the part of Jethro, Jim Bowie's slave, but was passed over in favor of Jester Hairston, a less controversial choice (Davis's "Rat Pack" status and interracial romance with May Britt made him an unpopular choice with investors in the film). By the time production began, The Alamo had a cast and crew of 342 people, 1600 leased horses, and a catering staff of 45 which was a daily drain on the film's budget.
Historically there was a rivalry between Col. Travis and Jim Bowie, but on the set of The Alamo, the clash was between Richard Widmark and John Wayne. Widmark repeatedly challenged Wayne's direction in front of everyone and once they almost came to blows; thereafter the two remained professional but aloof. Other on-set aggravations were caused by the Texas location - scorpions, skunks and other critters were a constant nuisance. In the biography, John Wayne American by Randy Roberts and James S. Olson (University of Nebraska Press), co-star "Hank Worden remembered that "there were something like thousands of rattlesnakes every square mile." The heat was oppressive. In September the temperature was already 84 degrees by 10:00 a.m., and by 3:00 in the afternoon it was a blistering 98. The humidity was terrible, not at all the dry heat they had expected. Decked out in his costume and coonskin cap, Wayne poured sweat, sometimes so profusely that he had to change clothes before going in front of the camera."
Wayne also found that allowing John Ford to sit in on the set was a big mistake. His former director would constantly undermine Duke's direction, offering unsolicited advice or barking, "G*ddamnit, Duke, that's no way to play it," after scenes. Not wanting to appear disloyal to the man that had launched his career, Wayne assigned Ford some second unit action scenes which kept him busy while the Duke could work uninterrupted (he hardly used any of Ford's footage). On the other hand, some suggestions were heeded and Wayne decided to cast pop singer Frankie Avalon (recommended by Michael Wayne) in the role of Smitty, a part he once planned to play when he was younger and trying to launch the project. In addition, he also cast world famous matador Carlos Arruza as an aide to General Santa Anna. Both were obvious ploys to appeal to young audiences and Mexicans, respectively.
When Wayne first previewed the film in San Antonio, The Alamo ran 192 minutes and nearly everyone agreed that it was too long. Even after 40 minutes were cut for the general release, most critics were still unfavorable in their reviews. The public was more enthusiastic, making The Alamo the number five box office hit of the year. Even though it was also a huge success in Europe and Japan, it would take years for the film to turn a profit due to its runaway production costs. The Duke later remarked, "That picture lost so much money I can't buy a pack of chewing gum in Texas without a co-signer."
Despite its much-maligned reputation, however, The Alamo is an often impressive epic with several memorable set pieces and performances. The second half of the film, in particular, where the Mexican troops stage their final assault on the Alamo's defenders is genuinely stirring and the Dimitri Tiomkin score yielded a top forty radio hit, "The Green Leaves of Summer." Of the six Oscar nominations only one was a winner - Best Sound by Gordon E. Sawyer and Fred Hynes.
The only film John Wayne would ever direct, The Alamo proved to be more autobiographical than he possibly realized at the time. According to the authors of John Wayne American, John's daughter, "Aissa Wayne believed that the film had a great deal to do with her father's decision not to enlist in World War II. "I think making The Alamo became my father's own form of combat. More than an obsession, it was the most intensely personal project of his career." He used the film to explain himself - his Cold Warrior passions, lifestyle, failed marriages, and patriotism. The Alamo was Duke's confessional, an open letter to 150 million Americans. The film tells more about John Wayne than about Texas in 1836."