In 1959 John Wayne realized his longtime dream of making a movie about the Alamo. For him, the defining moment in Texas’ history was nothing less than the story of America.
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When John Wayne died, in 1979, an Austin TV news anchor called me to get my thoughts on Wayne as a Texan. I said he wasn’t any more a Texan than Davy Crockett was, but later I reconsidered. Davy Crockett became a Texan by dying at the Alamo, and John Wayne became a Texan by making The Alamo, the biggest film ever about the fateful battle. “Big” was the word from the start. The year they shot the film, 1959, Texas needed to be reminded of its outsized history because, on January 3, Alaska had entered the Union.
It was Texas chauvinism that got the film made here in the first place. The shocking truth is that Wayne, who had been interested in filming the Alamo story as far back as 1945, had searched for locations in South America and Mexico. At one point he was close to settling on Panama, which had San Antonio-like scenery and cheap labor. Later he seriously considered Durango, Mexico, a site that John Huston would use for The Unforgiven the same year Wayne made The Alamo. Alarmed at the thought of the state’s mythic battle being reenacted in Mexico, prominent Texans—including Bob O’Donnell, who owned a chain of movie theaters—said no way, José, and let it be known that they wouldn’t permit the film to be distributed in the state if it was shot in Mexico.
Wayne got the message. Fortunately, a site was waiting for him: James T. “Happy” Shahan’s 22,000-acre ranch, located north of Brackettville in the spare brush country 130 miles west of San Antonio and 40 miles from the border. Shahan, an eager-beaver rancher-turned-promoter, had already lured one film company to Brackettville. In 1955 Wayne’s old studio, Republic, had come to town to shoot The Last Command, starring Sterling Hayden as a wooden Jim Bowie and Arthur Hunnicutt as a grizzled-old-coot Davy Crockett. TV’s bland Richard (I Led Three Lives) Carlson played Colonel Travis.
The Last Command was the film Wayne had wanted to make when he was under contract to Republic—even hiring his pal James Edward Grant to write a script in 1950—but studio head Herbert Yates kept putting him off. John Ford, the great director who in 1939 had lifted Wayne out of the doldrums of B shoot-‘em-ups to star in Stagecoach and then had made him the centerpiece of his cavalry trilogy (Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and Rio Grande), had been in line to direct Wayne in the Alamo film at Republic. But Yates stalled, and in 1951 Wayne left and formed his own production company. Yates held on to the Grant script, however, and the film he signed off on, The Last Command, appears to be a rewrite of it. According to several Wayne biographers, Yates made The Last Command as much to get back at him for deserting Republic as anything else.
In 1957 Happy Shahan invited Wayne to Texas to scout the Brackettville location. Wayne brought along his art designer, Al Ybarra, and they both liked what they saw. Wayne wanted a lot of empty space around the Alamo, and the real site, in the heart of downtown San Antonio, wouldn’t work at all. Here, however, were miles and miles of empty Texas hardscrabble just waiting for a Hollywood makeover.
The decision to shoot at Brackettville meant that Wayne’s longstanding desire to direct a film about the Alamo was finally going to be realized. No one is sure when the actor first fell under the sway of the Alamo story, the foundation narrative so central to Texas history. He may have heard about it from John Ford’s brother Francis, who had starred in the first Alamo movie, The Immortal Alamo, filmed in San Antonio in 1911, or perhaps from Bob Steele, a friend who had been in the 1926 silent Davy Crockett at the Fall of the Alamo. In any event, for Wayne the story of the 180 or more Texians who, in late February and early March of 1836, had held out for thirteen days against overwhelming odds and sacrificed their lives for Texas contained themes that went far beyond those of local interest. To Wayne the story of the Alamo was nothing less than the story of America, of the nation’s absolute commitment to freedom. According to a 1958 article in the San Antonio Light, he considered it “the greatest piece of folklore ever brought down through history. The Alamo is real Americana. Those fellas were real heroes.”
Once again, Wayne turned to his old friend James Edward Grant to write a script that would breathe life into those heroes. Finally, after more than a decade of worrying about The Alamo—the first film he would direct—the project was under way. It was truly a Texas-size undertaking. In late 1957 construction began on the false-front Alamo and the town of San Antonio de Béxar, which eventually boasted nineteen buildings. Workers from Mexico were brought in to make adobe bricks, and things went well until a twenty-inch rainfall destroyed 32,000 bricks and almost washed away the little make-believe town. Engineers went to work and built a drainage system to prevent future such disasters.
The quest for authenticity became a theme of the movie’s press releases, which would exhibit a pattern of PR deception and exaggeration that would culminate in the over-the-top rhetoric of the Oscars campaign. A typical example: It was reported that Ybarra wanted the Alamo to be so historically accurate that he traveled to Spain to research the original architectural plans. Ybarra didn’t go to Spain, of course, but he did do a good job of constructing the Alamo’s facade, although one of Wayne’s last-minute touches violated the historical record in favor of “art.” Wayne ordered Ybarra to take down a small cross on top of the chapel and “gimme something allegorical,” a larger cross. Ybarra did, and went Wayne one better by tilting it on its side, a fallen cross. The effect was striking. The film is full of crosses, a bit of iconography Wayne probably learned from the Catholic Ford. Historical authenticity apparently wasn’t as crucial when it came to building the fake town of San Antonio. Bearing no resemblance at all to the real San Antonio, it looked instead like the conventional Western town of a thousand movies, probably because Happy Shahan wanted a generic town for all the films that might be shot on his ranch in the future.
In all, it took two years to get everything built, and ongoing problems with financing added to the delays. But Wayne kept busy during 1958, shooting The Barbarian and the Geisha, Rio Bravo, and The Horse Soldiers—and he was constantly on the phone, working on The Alamo long distance.
Finally, on September 9, 1959, shooting officially commenced. Things got off to a good start, but then, at the end of the first week, Happy Shahan’s daughter was seriously injured in a head-on collision with some crew members from Wayne’s production company, Batjac, who were returning from Del Rio. She eventually recovered, but a few weeks later real tragedy struck. A young actress named Lagene Ethridge, a member of a traveling stock company called the Hollywood Starlight Players, gave a reading for a small part and so impressed Wayne that he signed her up to play a frontier woman. This looked like Ethridge’s big break. She and the rest of her company, including her boyfriend, Chester Harvey Smith, were staying in Spofford, a little south of Brackettville. When Ethridge’s role required her to move to Fort Clark in Brackettville for two weeks, Smith wasn’t happy. They had a fight about it, and as she was preparing to leave, he plunged a twelve-inch butcher knife into her abdomen, killing her.
Saddened over the death of the promising young actress and harassed by reporters trying to exploit the story, Wayne was alarmed to learn that Smith’s lawyer had subpoenaed him to testify at a hearing. Wayne had state troopers set up roadblocks in South Texas to find the lawyer, and when they did, inquired why on earth he was being asked to testify. Because he was Ethridge’s employer, the lawyer said. The film was costing approximately $60,000 a day, and to avoid further delays, Wayne gave a deposition in Brackettville. He was angry about the death and angry about being tied up in the proceedings. He told the press he thought Smith should be executed, but the killer got twenty years instead.
After the flood, the near-fatal accident, and the murder, the Fort Clark offices of Batjac and the movie’s publicity staff caught on fire, destroying a lot of promotional materials and records. Other problems popped up. Texas critters abounded in the wild country where they were filming, and rattlesnakes proved the most populous and persistent. A cannon rolled over Laurence Harvey’s foot. Eighty percent of the cast and crew came down with the flu.
Then there were the visitors who had to be looked after and who took up valuable time. John Ford’s arrival created nothing but problems for Wayne. It is certain that Wayne didn’t want Ford on the set looking over his shoulder. This was Wayne’s film, not Ford’s. Wayne couldn’t bring himself to order the great man off the set, so he came up with a plan: He gave Ford some second-unit action sequences to film and sent him off to do it out of sight. Ford filmed several scenes but later stated pointedly that none of them appeared in the film. Wayne didn’t want anybody later saying that Ford was the real director of The Alamo.
Another famous visitor was J. Frank Dobie, the state’s resident authority on everything Texan. Accompanied by his future biographer, Lon Tinkle, himself the author of a stirring Alamo book (Thirteen Days to Glory), Dobie happened to be present when Wayne was filming the arrival of a herd of three hundred Texas Longhorns. Bill Daniel, the brother of Governor Price Daniel, had gone to considerable effort to find so many of the storied breed, and Dobie was greatly moved at the sight. Wayne, who saw a tear on the old man’s face, asked him what was the matter, and Dobie replied, “We’ll never see the great Longhorns again in number like this.”
There were other visitors. Laurence Harvey’s wife, British actress Margaret Leighton, spent a few days in Brackettville. When Harvey had told her that he was going to make the film, she had asked, “Darling, what’s an Alamo?” The officers of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, the official custodians of the real Alamo, visited Duke on the set and had their photograph taken with him. Another day, eight winners of a “Remember the Alamo” radio contest dropped by. Governor Daniel also visited the set. The greatest Longhorn of them all, Coach Darrell Royal, along with twelve fellow gridiron gurus, landed on the set’s airstrip in a private plane and spent part of a day looking around. Then, in late December, after 83 days of shooting, the film was completed.
Wayne had made the most expensive movie in motion picture history up to that point, costing an estimated $10 million to $12 million. Now came the selling of The Alamo, and for a big job like that Wayne called on Russell Birdwell, a native Texan PR maven whose slogan was “I can make anyone famous—for the right fee.” Birdwell, who had made his reputation plugging Gone With the Wind and The Outlaw, plunged into the campaign at warp speed and never let up. One of the first things he did was to write United Artists, the film’s distributor, claiming that the Battle of the Alamo was “the greatest single event, perhaps, that has transpired since they nailed Christ to the cross.”
One of Birdwell’s projects was a press kit that was so big—184 pages—it was promptly dubbed “the bible.” The bible specialized in stats, reporting trivia as though it bore some revelatory meaning. During the 83 days of filming, for example, the cast and crew consumed 192,509 “savory meals” and gulped down 510,000 cups of coffee, 900 gallons of ice cream, 53,000 steaks, and 12,500 pounds of “miscellaneous meat” (road kill?). The list went on. Birdwell was a chronicler of so-what facts and measurements: The production set required 10 miles of underground wiring, 14 miles of new roads, 6 deep wells that pumped forth 25,000 gallons of pure artesian water each day, 40 miles of reinforced construction steel, 12 miles of water pipes, 30,000 square feet of imported Spanish tile, and—probably the most important detail of all, considering the place and time, Texas in September—$75,000 worth of portable air conditioning equipment. If it could be quantified, Birdwell counted it. If it could be exaggerated, Birdwell did.
Before the film’s world premiere, held in San Antonio on October 24, 1960, Birdwell made waves in the political world, prompted perhaps by Wayne’s insistence on the film’s transcendent relevance to world affairs. Wayne conceived of The Alamo as a cold war anthem of American resolve. “I don’t think it belongs to Texans alone,” he declared in Birdwell’s monumental press kit. “It belongs to people everywhere who value the priceless treasure of freedom.” In his book John Wayne’s America, Garry Wills goes so far as to say that “the closest Wayne came to having a real religion, one for which he would sacrifice himself, was his devotion to the Alamo.”
Birdwell’s ambitions for the film knew no bounds. He tried to get Congress to award the Congressional Medal of Honor to all of the defenders of the Alamo. Even more grandiosely, he wrote the president of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, urging that the leaders of France, the Soviet Union, England, and the U.S. hold their next summit meeting in the Alamo. Governor Daniel put the kibosh on that plan, writing Birdwell that he should drop the summit idea because “you won’t find many people who would like for Khrushchev to visit our State—much less attend a meeting in the Alamo.” In the same letter, the governor also wanted to make sure that his brother, Bill, received screen credit for a few on-camera lines delivered early in the film.
Undeterred, the irrepressible Birdwell had another nifty idea, this time for the souvenir program to be handed out at the world premiere, and to that end he wrote Sir Winston Churchill requesting that he write a hundred-word foreword, with an appropriate fee to be awarded to a charity of Churchill’s choosing. The former prime minister of Great Britain and Nobel prize winner declined.
After the premiere of The Alamo, Birdwell trained his guns on securing Academy awards for the movie, a campaign in which the publicist outdid himself in overreaching and wretched excess. The film had garnered seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture (though not Best Director). With Wayne in Africa shooting Hatari, Birdwell flew wild and free. In a controversial move he sent letters to Academy members implying that it would be unpatriotic to vote for any other film. Journalists mocked Birdwell’s heavy-handed tactics, and Wayne returned in time to help suppress the firestorm of criticism.
Then along came Chill Wills, who had received a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his portrayal of Beekeeper, a fictional character who pals around with Wayne’s Crockett in the film. Wills got a bad case of Oscar fever. In a clumsy attempt to influence the voting, his publicist, W. S. “Bow Wow” Wojciechowicz, placed ads in the Hollywood trades listing hundreds of Academy members and referring to them, in Wills’s cornball fashion, as the actor’s “cousins.” Groucho Marx took out a retaliatory ad in Variety: “Dear Mr. Chill Wills, I Am Delighted to Be Your Cousin, but I Voted for Sal Mineo.” (Mineo was nominated for his role in Exodus.) The ad that drove John Wayne into a fury appeared in the Hollywood Reporter: “We of the Alamo cast are praying harder—than the real Texans prayed for their lives in the Alamo—for Chill Wills to win the Oscar.” Wayne himself placed an ad in the Reporter denouncing the tactics of the Wills camp.
After all that, The Alamo took home one Oscar—for Best Sound. But it was by no means the commercial or critical disaster it has sometimes been called. It was the number seven top grosser the year of its release, earning $8 million, and it did especially well in Japan, England, and other foreign markets. It won several film awards from such organizations as Good Housekeeping magazine, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, and the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center in Oklahoma City.
While native sons and daughters were able to work up a lot of patriotic enthusiasm for the film, the more discerning among them were also amused by its ridiculous errors. James Edward Grant, who always stressed his commitment to historical accuracy, bragged that he’d read everything about the Alamo. Maybe so, but why then did he place it on the banks of the Rio Grande instead of where it belongs, on the San Antonio River, a mischarting of some two hundred miles? Nearly all of the film’s geography is screwy. At one point help is said to be coming from Goliad in the north, but Goliad, of course, is southeast of San Antonio. There are many other inaccuracies as well. Davy Crockett, for example, is given a completely made-up love interest—Flaca, played by Linda Cristal—and the death of James Bowie’s wife is reported in the movie when in fact she died three years before the battle.
But in the end, none of that mattered. The Alamo wasn’t history; it was a sentimental ballad or, better yet, a sermon about freedom, the cold war, the concept of a republic, and a bunch of other Big Ideas that are in there somewhere. As Duke put it years later, “There’s more to that movie than my damn conservative attitude.”