I watched the Alamo two nights ago, as many have pointed out there is an undeniable nostalgia in it for me. I first watched it on video when I was a kid, I was a big fan of Davy Crockett back then as I am today, and also John Wayne. This time I watched it knowing I would write about it. Just a short assembly of thoughts of the movie as a motion picture, rather than out of enjoyment. These are my findings.
The Alamo is an undeniably sad movie, I have always thought so, the battles are exciting and the characters easy to get attached to, which is of course why I always feel terribly sombre at the end. Davy I think was a childhood hero, his death scene always kinda gets me as a result.
John Ford's influence on Wayne's directing is obvious, every defender except for Travis' men ride a horse, Ford regulars easily slip into the supporting roles, creating the band of brothers feel. There is the by the book soldier, the rebel and the cool headed hero, buckskin pervades, Wayne's Crockett wardrobe is a mix of things but the Wayne cowboy style isn't very far away. The women are fairly stock western types, soldiers wives and damsels in distress, all strong willed and independent. The cinematography likewise shows a sweeping Fordian style.
I feel that it is sort of a mix of movies. One is a conventional western. Yes I know it isn't really a western but the elements of one are there. Indeed all of it right up to the cattle roundup scene could be described in this sense. Troubled town, threatened by enemies, newcomers come into town, persuaded to fight for it, clash of personalities amongst the leading men, a dash of romance, spiced generously with humour, plenty of action, a bar fight etc. However from the moment Santa Anna's main force arrives the Alamo story itself begins to creep in. This is the second movie, which is essentially a war movie, the enemy isn't an evil sheriff or any ordinary bad guy but a dictator leading an army. Individualism doesn't count as much here as the collective team vital to holding off the superior numbers of the enemy, earlier there's a commando raid to destroy a "secret weapon". Spectacle appears in the form of sweeping battle scenes with large numbers of extras, the first battle, deriving from the cannon escapade is a superbly choreographed action sequence. Even if at points the Mexican cavalry are absurdly slow to engage Dickinson's screening Texans. (Travis' command always reminds me of a Ford Cavalry unit). All culminating in the final battle where the Mexicans finally break through the North wall, killing Travis who goes out in fine heroic style, showing not for the first time he's a real fighter.
This mix of western and war movie, is interspersed yet more by Wayne's patriotic message and the historical aspects of the story that need to be told. The speeches and discussions for which Sam Houston is useful, and the newcomer Tennesseans unacquainted with the situation also. Travis really holds the history together and is often used to explain what is going on, and why people need to do this and why they need to do that, why they can't do the other etc. Meanwhile everyone with a speaking part is given a chance to participate in some way with the the message of self sacrifice for a greater cause.
An impressive part of the movie that I noticed, which I now realise I'd been subconsciously aware of for years but never payed attention was the respect Wayne gave to the Mexican soldiers. Although his Santa Anna is placed as the antagonist, he is also painted as a gallant and fairly honourable soldier. The Ambiguity of this role allowing a more favourable light to be shed on him. The part where the Tennesseans watch the main Mexican army come up, one points out although they are wearing uniforms they were all fighting men. Not quite true but an admirable thought, when most other depictions of them represented a cowed horde of merciless cowards. True we must remember that to make the stand at the Alamo epic, the enemy need to be seen as almost invincible, yet there is real feeling after the first attack (comparable in history as a much expanded version of the early skirmishes), when the women move amongst the bodies and the defenders talk sombrely about how many brave men they killed and how they were proud of them. That's a nice touch.
Historically we really shouldn't look too closely, the Mexican uniforms, the large amount of buckskin, all those fur hats, the mounted Texans, what on earth is Sam Houston wearing at the end?! Seguín is too old. The slave Jethro is only revealed to be a slave at the last moment. The course of the siege in general, we could go on for pages about what went wrong, but the tone I feel is right. True I think some of the deleted scenes could have been included, having seen some and guessing where they fitted in they'd have deepened things and tied up ends substantially. And the first part May, just may start to drag a little. The lengths gone to in order to cut corners can be seen, when we first see the Mexican cavalry lead by Carlos Aruzza riding up the river. In the foreground there is a water bowl floating in the water, look to the right and we can see a small girl hiding behind the tree. Surely this scene was meant to begin with the girl gathering water and then running to hide?
I think critics at the time were overly harsh on Wayne's direction, and he played "his" Crockett so well and subtly, especially during the siege part, that I'd not criticise his acting except to say it's not the historical Crockett, but then is it meant to be, after all back in those days entertainment was valued more than history, and Wayne's Crockett is an excellent character. Bowie isn't really as shady as he was, or as ill, Travis is far too professional, the point is that the story called for allot of set pieces, and prized character development over authenticity, but where the script moves from the facts, it takes us to a different authenticity because I tend to believe what these people say and think.
It's fairly well demonstrated here. A standout moment this time around for me was the homage to Singer Sargent when Bowie and Crockett are wading through the river to get to the big gun. Some dancers are putting on a show for the Mexicans in the camp, the initial pose is an exact reproduction of El Jaleo. Forget that this painting depicts a Spanish gypsy, and evokes Castilian rather than Mexican culture, it is a very artful inclusion, one of many, all those sunsets and campfires, that adds an undeniable depth to the movie.
What makes the Alamo a great movie? Because it is storytelling on multiple levels, set to an epic tune, (literally and figuratively, the score is great), it evokes the idea of the Alamo, and the hope that we are not so removed from the nobility of the legend as we sometimes think. After watching this movie as a kid, I literally wanted to be Davy Crockett, Wayne's Crockett, and given the things he stood for in the movie that can be no bad thing.