The Alamo: Wayne's Reel Heroes

By Thompson, Frank | American Cinematographer, July 1990 | Go to article overview

The Alamo: Wayne's Reel Heroes


Thompson, Frank, American Cinematographer


"I think it's the greatest piece of folklore ever brought down through history. The Alamo is real Americana. Those fellas were real heroes, and if somebody doesn't like heroes they'd better not come see this picture."

John Wayne spoke these words in September, 1958, over a year before principal photography would begin on his giant, intensely personal epic The Alamo. The huge set, built a few miles outside Brackettville, Texas, was nearly complete. The film had not been cast, the script was not finished strictly speaking, it was never finished-and Wayne still had before him an arduous uphill battle in financing and producing this, his dream film. After nearly a decade in preparation, The Alamo was still nearly two years away from its premiere.

But John Wayne's words precisely described both his intentions for this film and the finished product. The Alamo was made to celebrate heroism, not history. In the Wayne biography "Shooting Star" author Maurice Zolotow, hilariously, calls James Edward Grant's script "... as accurate historically and psychologically as any historical epic film has ever been [!]. There would be those who would find The Alamo a fantasy, a lie, but to my knowledge they never cited any specific errors."

In fact, there isn't an instant in the film that corresponds to the historical event in any way, except coincidentally. Factually, the film is an endless stream of errors. But too many viewers and critics have so dwelt on what The Alamo isn't and ignore what it is. Wayne wanted his film to be a ballad, an ode to an heroic era, aimed at a generation that didn't seem to believe in heroes anymore.

In the process, he acted pretty heroically himself. Few filmmakers have ever fought so long and hard and against such overwhelming odds to put a personal vision on the screen. Over the course of some 15 years, The Alamo became John Wayne's obsession. To see it through, he would put his health, his fortune and his reputation on the line.

The Alamo's hold on John Wayne's imagination is not hard to understand; the story has cast its spell on generations of Americans. As a culture - possibly, as a species - we honor the glorious defeat. We hail our conquering heroes but deify our martyrs: the Greeks at Thermopolae, Custer at the Little Big Horn, the defenders of the Alamo.

The Alamo fell to the Mexican dictator General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna on March 6, 1836, after a 13 day siege. The conquering general called the battle "a small affair" but its historic ramifications were significant: the defeat led directly to Sam Houston's victory over Santa Anna at San Jacinto, Texas' independence from Mexico and, ultimately, statehood.

But because there were no survivors and because among the dead were such men as James Bowie and David Crockett, legends already, the Alamo quickly took on a mythic, symbolic aura that has nearly supplanted the actual event. When Wayne stressed the folkloric aspect of the story he aligned himself with nearly every author, poet, playwright and filmmaker who ever tackled the subject.

Wayne's Alamo was the biggest and, some say, best treatment of the battle on film but it was by no means the first. The cinematic possibilities of the Alamo were obvious from the earliest days of the cinema. Gaston Méliès, brother of pioneer filmmaker Georges, fumed the first version, The Immortal Alamo, in San Antonio in 1911. John Ford's brother Francis starred as Davy Crockett.

Other silent versions include The Martyrs of the Alamo (1915), directed by Christy Cabanne and supervised by D.W. Griffith, and Robert North Bradbury's Davy Crockett at the Fall of the Alamo (1926) supervised by Anthony J. Xydias.

Xydias also produced a cheapie programmer in 1937, Heroes of the Alamo, which liberally used footage from Davy Crockett for much-needed production value.

Republic Studios, where Wayne had been a contract player since 1935, produced Man of Conquest, the story of Sam Houston, in 1939. …

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