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