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Monday, March 4, 2019

March 4, 2019: Remembering the Alamo: The Two Films

[On March 6th, 1836 the Alamo, a San Antonio fort and part of the newly independent Texan Republic, fell to Mexican forces. That battle became a rallying cry for the remainder of the war between Texas and Mexico, and so this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of the ways the Alamo has been remembered. Leading up to a special weekend post on Tejano culture and legacies!]
On what separates the 1960 and 2004 films, and a telling shared detail.
The 1960 film The Alamo was almost literally a lifelong pet project for one of the world’s biggest movie stars. John Wayne had been hoping to make a historical film about the 1836 battle since at least 1945, and had been working with both a screenwriter (his friend James Edward Grant) and a famous research assistant (director John Ford’s son Pat) on the project. Battles over the proposed $3 million budget led to Wayne leaving Republic Pictures, forming his own production company (Batjac), and eventually signing with United Artists in 1956 with an express goal of finally making his Alamo film. Make it he did, but only by promising to direct as well as star in it as Davy Crockett (by this time he was hoping for the smaller role of Sam Houston, which went instead to guest star Richard Boone) and investing more than $1.5 million of his own money. The production was famously troubled—John Ford showed up and tried to force his way into the director’s chair; Wayne sent him to shoot second unit sequences that were mostly unused in the final cut—and Wayne never recouped his personal investment, although it broke even sufficiently for UA to come out okay.
2004’s The Alamo began in a much more conventional Hollywood way, as a carefully planned studio brainchild. Imagine Entertainment came up with the idea of making a 21st century film version of the battle, with Imagine partners Ron Howard as director and Brian Grazer as producer. Imagine teamed up with Disney to get the film financed, and so of course there were various cross-studio debates and challenges, including Howard getting replaced by John Lee Hancock as director (Howard stayed on as a producer alongside Grazer) and various casting shifts (Billy Bob Thornton as Davy Crockett remained a constant throughout). But this more studio-centered process did result in a vastly different from the 1960 version, not only in terms of a smoother and more trouble-free production but also and more importantly in terms of an impressively revisionist final product. The film includes the stories and perspectives of a number of Mexican soldiers (not only Santa Anna, who is more or less the only Mexican presence in the 1960 version), humanizes figures like Crockett and Jim Bowie, and generally captures historical complexities in a way the epic 1960 film never intended to. I’m sure an adaptation of John Sayles’ rejected script would have been more revisionist still, but for Hollywood historical films, the 2004 Alamo ain’t half bad.
Unfortunately, and perhaps not unrelatedly, the film’s box office take was all bad: it made just over $25 million worldwide, against a budget of $107 million, and is considered one of the biggest box office bombs in history. In some ways, as that hyperlinked article argues, the revisionism itself might have kept certain jingoistic audiences away; but at the same time, Wayne’s uber-jingoistic film was far from a box office juggernaut itself, and again lost Wayne his personal investment. And I would say a telling linked detail indicates a similarly misguided emphasis between these two distinct films: the 1960 film’s Alamo set was among the largest ever constructed at that point (and remained a tourist attraction until just last year), using 14 miles of newly built roads, 12,000 gallons of water a day, and 5000 acres of horse corrals (among other extremes); and the 2004 film’s Alamo set claimed the title of the largest set ever built in North America, clocking 51 acres of new construction (all unfortunately lost in a fire later that year). Perhaps it was necessary in each case to devote such extreme attention to the set, but I would argue that this emphasis reflects a shared and false sense that it is the fort, the place, on which this story focuses. Place matters a great deal to history to be sure, never more so than border histories—but it is the setting for the stories that take place there, and perhaps both these films lost sight of that ultimate emphasis in their literally spectacular productions.
Next Alamo memory tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?

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