Sunday 22 September 2019

Movie Review: The Alamo (1960)

A cinematic recounting of the famous battle, The Alamo is a well-staged but bloated western. Historical events are used as a faint foundation for mainly fictional heroics.

It's 1836 in a Texas conceivably controlled by Mexico, with the army of General Santa Anna sweeping through the countryside to consolidate his rule. Ramshackle pro-independent Texas forces are militarily disorganized but united in opposition to Santa Anna. General Sam Houston (Richard Boone) is the leader of the fledgling Texas Army and to gain precious time to recruit and train troops, he appoints Colonel Travis (Laurence Harvey) to make a stand at the abandoned Alamo mission compound.

Travis has only a few dozen men under his command, and a strained relationship with fellow Colonel Jim Bowie (Richard Widmark), an adventurer who commands his own small contingent. The two men can barely stand each other but join forces to cobble together a defensive plan. They are eventually joined by former Tennessee congressman and legendary maverick Colonel Davy Crockett (John Wayne), who adds his band of two dozen men into the ranks. Altogether about 200 men prepare to defend the Alamo against an army of more than 1,800.

A passion project for director and producer John Wayne, The Alamo is a grand western with elaborate sets, thousands of extras, mythological themes of heroism, nation building and sacrifice, and rousing battle scenes, including the climactic final assault. The film certainly does not lack ambition, but features enough misplaced bombast to also aggravate.

The film extends to close to three hours, and the fat surfaces in errant emphasis. The James Edward Grant script barely provides any context to the Texas Revolution. Instead an entire pre-siege sub-plot featuring a fledgling relationship between Crockett and Mexican widow Maria de Lopez (Linda Cristal) and her unwanted suitor drops in seemingly from another movie, and is then unceremoniously scrubbed out of the narrative. Hit-and-run raids by the mission defenders to sabotage a Mexican cannon and then steal heads of cattle are fictional enhancements and serve as juvenile distractions to introduce action and prolong the adventure.

Wayne injects a few soap-box soliloquies about freedom and his love of republics, and these land in the gap between rousing and cringe-inducing. Better are the inter-character dynamics, and here Wayne does invest welcome time is defining and building upon the tension between Travis and Bowie. Travis is a top-down by-the-book authoritarian, Bowie is an instinctive freewheeling and adventurous leader. They cannot reconcile their contradictory styles but both are effective, and the best moments of the film are drawn from the evolution of the barbed dynamic between them.

The cast is large, although not many secondary characters are provided an opportunity to shine. Heartthrob singer Frankie Avalon appears as a young soldier to attract the teenage demographic to the theatres. Chill Wills as a Tennessean known as Beekeeper, Ken Curtis as the loyal Captain Dickinson and Joan O'Brien as his resolute wife Sue get a few perfunctory scenes.

The Alamo ends with the Mexican army deploying overwhelming force in a final push to dislodge the dogged defenders. The combat is suitably spirited, bustling, daring and a bit bloody, another case where the western legend is perhaps more important than the more mundane facts.

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