The other weekend in San Antonio over 600 people gathered for the 50th anniversary re-premiere and celebration of one of the great American-themed epics of the early 1960s, John Wayne’s The Alamo. People came from far and wide to watch a director’s cut of the film on the River Center Imax screen and attend a dinner, concert and museum exhibit at the real Alamo featuring costumes, props and art work from this 1960 classic.
Seeing The Alamo on a big screen where it was meant to be experienced really emphasizes the powerful imagery that has helped this film endure for fifty years. Wayne’s Alamo defenders are as one biographer described, “…an undisciplined group of rugged individualist from Tennessee and Texas who love freedom and resent authority.” Sounds like a bunch of lovable Tea Party members to me. That innately American sense of unbridled freedom celebrated in The Alamo is one of the reasons the film still resonates so well with so many people here and even abroad.
Made during the heyday of widescreen roadshow epics like El Cid and Lawrence of Arabia, Wayne’s film has always been a highly popular DVD title for the financially ailing MGM/UA. The biggest movie star ever, Wayne directed, produced and starred in this uniquely American story. Nominated for seven Academy Awards, contrary to unsubstantiated claims of box-office failure the film was actually one of the top ten domestic grosser of 1960-61, but The Alamo‘s then huge $12,000,000 budget initially cut into its profit margin and could have bankrupted Wayne. The film set box-office records in London, Paris, Rome and Japan eventually earning a then $28,000,000 world-wide during its initial 1960-61 release.
Unfortunately Wayne sold United Artists his participation in the future profits of the film. He so believed in the power of the Alamo story that he had mortgaged his own home, other real estate and even his family cars and reluctantly agreed to star in the epic in order to bring it to the screen his way. At the time Wayne told the press, “I’ve gambled everything I own in this picture – all my money… and my soul.”
His daughter Aissa has reflected, “I think making The Alamo was my father’s own form of combat. More then an obsession, it was the most intensely personal film of his career.” The Alamo‘s beautiful female lead, Argentinean actress Linda Cristal once said, “John Wayne loved the Alamo like a man loves a woman once in a lifetime–passionately.”
Forty-something Christophe Lambert, who wasn’t yet born when The Alamo first hit movie screens, came all the way from France for the film’s new premiere and celebration. Former sergeant major of Britain’s famed 24th Regiment of Foot, Maurice Jones traveled from far off Wales where he runs The Alamo Film Forum, and there were a number of other British attendees. The Alamo is still very popular in Great Britain were it often plays at various retrospective film festivals. People also came from Germany, New Jersey, New York and not a few from California including Joe Musso, a highly respected storyboard and studio artist who has worked for everyone from Clint Eastwood to Alfred Hitchcock.
Other dedicated fans of this film cover a wide range of backgrounds from successful New Jersey radiologist Murray Weissmann, retired New York City Fire Captain and author Bill Groneman, professional musician Tony Pasqua, JPL technical writer Jerry Laing, history teacher Larry Grimsley and more then a few Texans of all stripes and persuasions. Youngest Wayne daughter Marisa and Duke’s granddaughter Anita LaCava Swift represented the family at the San Antonio event genuinely impressed by the incredible enthusiasm of the crowd. Like Wayne himself Marisa and Anita were always warm and receptive to The Alamo‘s numerous fans.
Unlike the 2004 failed politically correct film version of the battle where 189 American, Texan, European and Tejano (Texas Mexican) patriots sacrificed their lives fighting against brutal Mexican dictator Santa Anna’s thousands, Wayne’s version celebrates the bravery and dignity of the common frontier people who settled this country. Wayne’s The Alamo has endured with viewers because it speaks so well to the value of our own treasured legends that have a strong basis in reality. He evoked the spirit of the battle of the Alamo, not the often now disputed “facts” as “interpreted” by modern revisionist historians with a definite far-left bias who keep poisoning the minds of the impressionable and uninformed.
The Alamo really captured that essence of America’s frontier peoples and even celebrated the dignity of the opposing Mexican army. Wayne shot one wonderfully realized scene that takes place right after the first failed attack against the old mission where Mexican Army camp followers look amongst the dead for their husbands and loved ones. One of Davy Crockett’s Tennesseans comments quietly, “Speaks well that so many are willing to die fighting for what they believe is right.” As a high school student I once watched a reissue of the film amongst a primarily Hispanic audience in San Jose, California. You could have heard a pin drop in the theater when during the same scene a wonderfully wrinkled, elderly female extra knelt over a fallen Mexican infantryman and made the sign of the cross.
The Alamo includes a large number of these kinds of magnificent scenes, and still some of finest battle footage ever put on film by director of photography William Clothier, John Wayne as Davy Crockett, a stellar performance by Lawrence Harvey as the Alamo’s stiff necked but brave commander William Barrett Travis and a knockout score by Dimitri Tiomkin. The beautifully realized Alamo set was as much a star of the film as any of the actors and Wayne wisely filmed it as such. Unlike most war films today where bloody gore splatters the screen, Wayne’s The Alamo, while graphic for its’ time never uses the violence of combat for shock and exploitive effect.
Over my mantle hangs a framed letter John Wayne personally wrote to me about The Alamo two years before his death in 1979. As a college student and huge fan of the film, tired of seeing it butchered on television screens I had naively written to him care of his company offices inquiring if we would ever again get to see the film as he intended it to be seen. Part of Wayne’s answer still resonates today:
“Our damned liberal friends are screaming about violence to take our minds off of the pornographic bad taste that is being made in the motion picture business by their confreres.”
Several weekends ago in San Antonio John Wayne’s spirit must have been looking down from afar and grinning ear to ear as the audience laughed in all of the right spots, paused in awe at the magnificent visuals and tapped their toes to the wonderful musical score. Remember the real Alamo and remember John Wayne’s The Alamo, because both still live on.