Sunday, January 27, 2013

Alamo (1960)

John Wayne’s The Alamo was a labor of love. Wayne spared no expense and he went to great lengths to make sure that it was grand and heroic as the legend itself. Released in 1960 the film garnered much attention and numerous awards including a nomination for Best Picture at the Oscars. It also got a reputation as a bloated vanity project and as many films of the time, was cut apart after its initial roadshow screenings into a more manageable form.

Wayne’s tale tells the story of the battle from the arrival of Davy Crockett until the bloody end. Its more legend than reality (for example it’s now known that many people including Crockett survived the battle and were executed by Santa Ana out of spite) it also only really deals with events surrounding the battle fleetingly, it’s isn’t concerned with the larger picture.

It’s a huge Hollywood epic that that is truly spectacular. Its full of big Hollywood stars (Laurence Harvey and Richard Widmark co-star) and great character actors (Chill Wills, Richard Boone, Patrick Wayne amongst others). It has epic battle scenes and small scale drama. It was filmed with the idea that this is the sort of film you would never get on TV.

I’m not going to lie. If you see the version that is generally run- the chopped down non-road show version- The film is a mess. Things seem to be missing---which they are. Close to an hour has been chopped out of the film from its full length version (203 minutes, the currentlly available one runs about 140). Anyone who saw the long version of the film bemoaned the chops. (and anyone who’s seen the long version finds it impossible to watch the shorter version)

For years it was believed that the full roadshow version was lost to the ages but sometime around 1990 a full version of the film turned up. At first no one could be sure despite the markings on the can so was going to have to be run. A screening was organized and according to the story cheers went up with the appearence each bit of “found” footage. That version was eventually restored and put out on laser disc in 1993 or so.

Sadly when it came time to put it out on DVD Warners decided to put out the general release version and not the roadshow one. If you buy the Alamo on DVD it’s the short one. I know that one of the reasons that the longer version was not put on DVD was that in the years since it was mastered for laser disc and when they thought to put it on DVD it fell into disrepair. Colors shifted and by all accounts it was in a sorry state. There were no funds to restore the film.

Thankfully someone decided to undertake a restoration and as far as I know a restoration is underway. Begun in the days before Kickstarter they had to be careful where they got funds and when I investigated sending them money I found that it could only come from corporations. Or businesses. I’m hoping that someday soon the newly restored version will come out… and with it I hope is the documentary that was included on the laser disc about the making of the film (That’s a 90 minute film about film worth watching even if you don’t like the Alamo)

Personally right now I’m between a rock and a hard place. I haven’t seen the full version in years. My laserdisc machine crapped out not long before I got a DVD recorder so I have an orphan copy of the film watching to be watched. I know that The Alamo appears on TCM and other outlets from time to time but it’s always the short version, which for me is completely unwatchable. Honestly I know in some circles The Alamo is still a joke. However I also know that most people who don’t like it haven’t seen the full version which has additional character development and incidents that deepen everything that happens. The film long, is not just the spectacle but a human story.

Is it a great film? In its way it is. It’s one of the last gasps of old Hollywood before the 60’s and TV really changed the way we saw and made films. Certainly it’s one of the last truly huge American epics about America- after this would come David Lean and others making films about Lawrence of Arabia, Ryan’s Daughter, and any number of English or biblical subjects. It’s a film that speaks the old world (Hollywood) vernacular before the new world (Europe) taught us how to speak. In its way it’s the last of the rough and tumble epics before the fine craftsmanship took over

When the film finally gets its release on DVD or Bluray it will behoove you to make an effort to see the film. For all the mixed feelings toward the film, it is ultimately a milestone in film, t’s the point where the old gave way to the new and how we felt toward film changed and became something more refined (at least for a brief period befor Jaws and Star Wars made it wholly about money.)

John Wayne’s The  Alamo is possibly the last great old school American epic.


  1. The uncut version of The Alamo is available on VHS. Typical tape quality, but still fun to see the entire film

  2. the MGM dvd I have is 2hrs 34 minutes? In my opinion the BEST film EVER made! I went to the premiere in London back in 1960 - I still have the programme! I have watched this film at least a hundred times and know the soundtrack by heart - yeah, pretty sad :) I went to San Antonio in 1999 to see the real Alamo - the film made that an even better experience.

  3. Keep an eye out for it on TCM. I've watched it a few times on there and it has always been the longer, uncut version that I have seen.

  4. Can someone please explain to me, in this digital age, why MGM can't make a new digital negative from the Laser disc and go from there.

    1. Supposedly a restoration is in the works. I know there was a question of funding- which couldn't come from the general public ala Kickstarter for some reason. There are some sort of weird legal issues involved as well (assuming I'm remembering it right. I think it was in an old Digital Bits column going back a bunch of years.

      I know there are technical problems of going from the laser to DVD or Bluray . I've been told it can be done but is more trouble than its worth