Magazine article American Cinematographer

Thirteen Days to Glory: The ALAMO

Magazine article American Cinematographer

Thirteen Days to Glory: The ALAMO

Article excerpt

In March of 1836 one of the great pages of American history was written. For 13 days, 187 valiant men held off 5,000 Mexican soldiers in defense of a decrepit old Franciscan mission known as the Alamo.

Since the inception of the motion picture, numerous films have been made about this historic event. The two most memorable were The Last Command (1955), with Sterling Hayden, and The Alamo (1960), with John Wayne.

In the spring of 1959, while working fora small indepen- dent film company out of San Antonio, Texas (where the remnants of the Alamo stand), I was looking at various locations for a projected film production. One of my stops was at Fort Clark, in Bracketville, Texas. While touring the old fort, I was advised that John Wayne was building a set just north of town for one of his movies. That set turned out to be the Alamo and the small village of San Antonio as they existed in 1836.

In the summer of 1986, I once again had the privilege of visiting this replica of Texas history. This trip was to last about six weeks, through the courtesy of producer Bill Finnegan, executive producer Stockton Briggle and director of photography John Elsenbach, ASC.

Those of us who were raised in small Texas towns knew the names of Travis, Bowie and Crockett long before we heard of Washington, Adams or Lincoln. It was, of course, a rare treat to be involved as second unit director of photography in making a new television version of the siege of the Alamo. This production is a threehour special feature for NBC-TV (airing January 26.)

As fate would have it, John Wayne's The Alamo was being shown on television while wc were encamped in various hotels in Del Rio and Bracketville. The hotel restaurants were devoid of any of our crew while the show was on the air, while room service couldn't keep up with the orders pouring out of our group. The movie, of course, gave rise to a question that was on everyone's mind: How could we expect our Alamo to have the production value of the theatrical version when Wayne had thousands of extras while we were lucky to round up a couple of hundred at best? In the Duke's movie there were a tremendous number of horses, cannons, rolling stock, uniforms and, of course, a lot more time and money. Without taking an actual count of the horses we had on hand, I would guess there were no more than 30 or 40. Cannons? - maybe a dozen. I asked Stockton Briggle why we were making another Alamo.

"During my college days at Southern Methodist University, in Dallas, my professor of literature was a gentleman named J. Lon Tinkle, who wrote the book, 'Thirteen Days to Glory,' " Briggle replied. "It is probably the most thoroughly researched book on the subject of the Alamo and its defenders. Lon Tinkle is no longer with us, but his wife, Maria, graciously consented to our use of the book as the basis for our movie. With this option in hand, I went to Hollywood and proceeded to try to get this project sold. We met rejections almost everywhere wc went. The same question kept coming up: 'Why another Alamo? "

It is a logical question. John Wayne's big theatrical version is shown from time to time on television and the video cassette is available for the home audience. How is the new film different?

"With all due respect to Wayne, I did not want his movie to be the final word on the subject," Briggle explained. "His is an inaccurate movie, glorifying the great white hero while all the little brown guys are the bad guys. In his film Santa Anna was the man who rode in on a white horse and that's all we ever saw of him. I felt there should be a way to tell the tale that would be a little more complete and accurate.

"We got a famous Western writer named Clyde Ware to write the script from Tinkle's book and from there we actively pursued getting this project made. It was a tough sell! I'm sure that my peristence and love of the story helped to overcome a lot of the rejections, but the biggest help of all was getting James Arness to do the part of James Bowie. …

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