The Duke's Mission to Save The Alamo
John Wayne's "The Alamo" is what I refer to as a cheeky western, an adventure movie which takes its lead from the history books but embellishes the fact with fiction to create a movie which blends action, with drama and a touch of comedy. As such whilst the overall story of "The Alamo" is the legendary battle where a small group of men and militia including Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett did their best to stop the much larger army of General Santa Anna what we get making up this story is various episodes some fact, some fiction. And it basically works because whilst you do get the basis of the legendary battle, the dislike of Col. William Travis for being a man of military procedures and the wait in hope of reinforcements you then get adventure such as Bowie and Crockett leading a night time assault to destroy one of Santa Anna's huge cannons. All of which is good and whilst it maybe cliche with the various episodic adventures be it the boozing, the brawls and the romances which all occur before we get the main action it delivers that western scenes which you expect. But sadly "The Alamo" is blighted by John Wayne working as director trying to make a point, deliver some sort of religious or political message which comes across as so forced it's painful.
The year is 1836 and General Santa Anna (Ruben Padilla) and his Mexican forces are making their way across Texas. In order to stop them, General Sam Houston (Richard Boone) needs more time to recruit men and form a larger force. In order to do so he orders Colonel William Travis (Laurence Harvey - Expresso Bongo) to defend the Alamo Mission at all costs even if he and his small band of men are seriously out numbers. Even with the help of Jim Bowie (Richard Widmark - Warlock) and Davy Crockett (John Wayne - The Horse Soldiers) and their loyal men they are still vastly out numbered and everyone knows that if they stay and fight their chances of survival are slim.
So as already mentioned the basis of "The Alamo" unsurprisingly comes from the history books as we have a retelling of the legendary battle. Now I am no expert on American history but I do know that in the telling of the story there has been some poetic licence used in the order of events and to what exactly happened. But it works because on one level it delivers this tribute to the bravery of the men who fought to save Texas from General Santa Anna whilst also filling you with a desire to know more, know what was fact and what was fiction. It doesn't quite capture what I would imagine it felt like, the desperation of those men who knew they were going to die, whose rations were running short long before battle commenced but it still makes you aware of the difficulties and their bravery.
But the actual battle of the Alamo is only part of the movie because on the other hand it is what you could call a cliche western although cheeky western adventure movie sounds better. You get all those elements which became engrained in the western genre especially those which John Wayne starred in. There is the drunken rabble rousing, the brawls with a touch of slapstick, the pretty women who add a touch of romance as well as moments of daring do and of course some minor humour. But none of this cheapens "The Alamo", it doesn't take anything away from the powerful story it just makes it a fun adventure which in a cliche way gets you cheering for the good guys and booing at the bad guys.
But John Wayne's "The Alamo" is not perfect and part of the issue is that it was to be a labour of love for Wayne, putting him into debt to make. Part of the issue is that coming in at over 2 and a half hours it is the length of an epic but this is by no means an epic movie. Whilst all the build up, the ambiguity of romance between Crockett and Flaca helps establish character as do other scenes it also ends up stretching things out much longer than needed. And so whilst "The Alamo" is an entertaining movie you do come to a point where you wish that the focus would stay on the brave men defending the Alamo rather than all the other fictitious things.
And that is not the only issue when it comes to John Wayne's "The Alamo" because he also mishandles things when it comes to delivering a moral message. A scene which sticks out like a sore thumb is when the men are discussing death the night before they know they will most likely die, it is so forced so scripted and manufactured that sadly it borders on the cheesy. It spoils what otherwise is a good movie, a good mix of fact and fiction.
Now when it comes to direction you have to say that John Wayne delivers a movie which has a touch of the John Ford about it on a visual level. He captures the impressiveness of the location and the sheer size of General Santa Anna's armies quite brilliantly whilst also sneaking in that touch of humour. But I am sure he was helped by having a strong cast who could deliver character without direction, who knew what was expected and delivered it. As such Richard Widmark is solid as John Bowie delivering a character who is very much a hero, a man who will fight and drink like any other man, whilst Laurence Harvey gets across the pomposity of Col. William Travis, a man who lives life by military rule. And then there is John Wayne himself as Davy Crockett playing the former congressman in a similar way to many a character he played in his career, the down to earth hero whose equal treatment of one and all brings him respect and loyalty.
What this all boils down to is that John Wayne's "The Alamo" is a good but also flawed movie. The mix of fact and fiction works nicely so whilst you do get the story of the brave men who fought at the Alamo you also get the various fictitious western elements which deliver fun and adventure. But it is overly long and sadly John Wayne's handling of the moral message side of the movie is so forced it ends up cheapening it.