Thursday, June 16, 2016

I Think We're Supposed to Remember This...

Film: The Alamo
Format: DVD from personal collection on rockin’ flatscreen.

I like John Wayne, although it’s entirely possible that I like the idea of John Wayne more than the actor. Actually, I don’t think that’s true at all. Wayne made a lot of movies that are pretty socially backward and Wayne is kind of a poster child for reasons for white guilt. The problem with John Wayne is that more often than not, he played John Wayne, or played at least the idea of John Wayne. He was actually a pretty good actor, and a lot of his performances are surprisingly nuanced once you get beyond the John Wayniness of them. The Alamo is particularly interesting not just because it stars the man but also because it’s one of five movies he directed and one of only two that he actually allowed himself to be credited on.

It shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that The Alamo is the story of the massacre at that building by the Santa Anna-led Mexican Army. The movie runs 162 minutes long and it’s more or less an exercise in waiting for the attack that’s going to end up killing everyone. Again, we know what’s going to happen going in. Everyone is going to get killed. There will be plenty of macho moments, a few victories, some arguments and fights, and then the main cast will die heroically and the credits will roll.

One of the reasons that the attack on the Alamo is such a legendary moment in American history, one of the reasons that people still remember it and think it’s worth making a movie about is that a few important people died there. Specifically, the men of myth and legend who died at the Alamo were Davy Crockett (played by John Wayne) and Jim Bowie (played by Richard Widmark). I don’t know how accurate the film is to the history, so I’m going to just relate the film here, assuming that at least the broad strokes are accurate.

Essentially, the idea is this. When the battle took place, Texas was a part of Mexico, but a number of Americans, former Americans, and wannabee Americans lived there. An increasingly problematic Mexican government caused a rebellion, with the goal of creating a republic in Texas as the ultimate goal. With Santa Anna’s army on the move, the old mission of the Alamo became a strategically important point on the map. Unable to pull out, the troops stationed there and groups of adventurers looking for action showed up and, because help couldn’t show up in time, were massacred.

That’s where we’re going here, but it’s going to take us a long time to get there. Initially, we’re going to deal with a number of problems within the fort. Primarily, this is a pissing contest between Jim Bowie and Colonel William Travis (Laurence Harvey). Bowie is there with a group looking to protect the interests of the Texans, while Travis’s job is to hold the fort against Santa Anna. The problem is that Travis is a by-the-book commander and Bowie and his men like to drink, fight, and aren’t much for discipline. Further, Bowie believes in sending out sorties and raiding parties to harass the approaching army while Travis thinks it’s better to reinforce and hole up as much as possible.

Enter Davy Crockett, who has arrived with a gang of Tennesseans looking to join in the fight. While Crockett is the dominant personality here, there are a few others that play a large role in the rest of the film. These are specifically Smitty (Frankie Avalon!), the youngest of Crockett’s crew and a young man both in awe of Crockett and proud just to be in his presence; Beekeeper (Chill Wills), a loud drunk and sometime comic relief; Thimblerig (Denver Pyle), who I include because he’s got a great name and wears a Mad Hatter-style hat; and Preacher (Hank Worden), who has an incredibly distinctive voice.

There’s a lot of politicking, moves to shore up the fort, disobedience in terms of Bowie and Crockett attacking Santa Anna’s approaching troops, and a great deal of drinking. To be honest, there’s a great deal of this that didn’t register a great deal with me because The Alamo is too damn long. This story didn’t need to be anything close to this length. It could have been easily trimmed down to two hours without losing much of anything.

It’s just the truth. I can’t say that I actually fell asleep while watching The Alamo but I had a great deal of difficult remaining focused on it. It’s a shame, too, because while I like John Wayne well enough, I really like both Richard Widmark and Laurence Harvey. It’s also a little surprising in that Chill Wills was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. He doesn’t do a great deal for me here, although he certainly is one of the most memorable characters from the film.

There’s a lot here that feels like red herring. For instance, in the first part of the film, a local Mexican woman named Flaca (Linda Cristal, who is actually Argentinian) is being harassed by a white man who wants to marry her. Flaca hates Santa Anna, though, and the man is a supporter of Santa Anna. Davy Crockett steps in and manages to get Flaca sent out of the area to keep her safe…and that’s it. She’s gone and that whole subplot gets wrapped up when we’ve still got the length of a more typical movie to go.

Ultimately, it’s all about the battle, which is pretty good. We’re really just waiting for that and waiting to see how everyone dies. Having to wait more than two hours to get there doesn’t seem really worth it, though.

I expected to like this more than I did.

Why to watch The Alamo: A legendary chunk of American history.
Why not to watch: Too long and it’s too easy to lose interest.


  1. Laurence Harvey is the by-the-rules stick-in-the-mud who ruffles everybody's feathers with his prima donna dictatorial manner. Richard Widmark is the hot-headed troublemaker who makes things worse with his undisciplined and insulting manner.

    John Wayne is the conciliatory freedom-loving man of the people who is always right. (I like a lot of John Wayne's movies, but he is rather smug in this one.)

    By a strange coincidence, I saw this just a few days ago, I DVRed it off ThisTV. I have rather mixed seeing about it. I watched the whole thing without getting bored, but I wasn't particularly impressed.

    Part of my problem is probably that I know a lot about the Alamo and the people involved. When I was working on a master's degree in history, I was in the Natchez, Mississippi, region a lot and I came across a bunch of documents relating to Bowie (he lived across the river in Louisiana for a while) including court documents and property documents, and also a diary where the writer mentioned Bowie coming over to play cards a lot. And I found a newspaper article about the sandbar fight (1829, I think). And newspapers of the time had a bunch of material about Crockett when he was a congressman.

    I eventually got curious enough about them all that I read Three Roads to the Alamo, a great book with mini-biographies of Bowie, Crockett and Travis, and then the last half of the book is devoted to the Alamo.

    And the reality is so much more interesting than the movie that Wayne made about it.

    I liked Chill Wills and Richard Boone a lot though.

    1. For as impressive as this is supposed to be, it ends up not being very impressive. It's a shame, too, because I really like the cast. In fact, I liked the cast enough that I bought the damn thing in the hopes that it would be a movie I really liked.

      Ah, well. Live and learn.

  2. Ya this is one I expected to love because it hit so many sweet spots, early American history, adventure, action, drama all topped off with one of my favorite actors Richard Widmark in a pivotal role, I even like the Duke by and large. Laurence Harvey you can have. But as it was entering what seemed like it's 25th hour with still no sign of the final confrontation in sight I was glazing over and by the time the fight began I had disengaged from the film. I still enjoyed Widmark but that was my only take away.

    1. I'm pretty much there with you. At one point, my wife walked into the room and I paused the film. She told me I didn't have to, but I needed a break from it.