Everybody remembers The Alamo. The 1960 John Wayne epic left a lasting legacy on our state (especially in Brackettville). And who could forget the 2004 Disney version, which cost over a hundred million dollars to make and absolutely tanked at the box office? Of course, these aren’t cinema’s only interpretations of the most notorious story in Texas history. And John Wayne and Billy Bob Thornton are not the only Davy Crocketts to have fought to their deaths upon the silver screen. You see, “Hollywood” has been making movies about the Alamo long before moviemakers even set up shop in Hollywood, California.
Way back in the spring of 1911, around the time early silent-film studios started abandoning New York for the more cost- and climate-friendly Southern California, the American arm of a French production company made the first known movie about the 1836 standoff between Mexican and Texian armies, filmed in San Antonio by a local production company named Star Film. The Immortal Alamo was only ten minutes long, but it was ambitious for its time, using elaborately painted backdrops and employing about a hundred cadets from the nearby Peacock Military Academy as extras. As one might expect, the story didn’t much veer from the Anglo-centric narrative of Mexicans as bloodthirsty villains and Texians as noble martyrs. If anything, The Immortal Alamo went above and beyond in its racism: in the film, it’s because a married white woman, the fictional Lucy Dickenson (based loosely on the real-life Susanna Dickinson), rebuffs the advances of a Mexican man, Navarre, that the Alamo is even sieged at all.
Like thousands of remnants of the silent film era, The Immortal Alamo in its entirety has been lost to history, existing now only as a handful of film stills and contemporary news items. Historian Frank Thompson pored over such documents for his 1996 book The Star Film Ranch: Texas’ First Picture Show. The film, wrote Thompson, was the company’s “most extravagant production,” and one of the first projects the Star Film company announced upon their arrival to the San Antonio area in January 1910.
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The Star Film Company was an enterprise of the Méliès brothers, the youngest of whom, Georges, had made the surname famous in 1902 with the way-ahead-of-its-time science-fiction short A Trip to the Moon. He sent his older brother Gaston to New York that same year, in an effort to keep American producers from copying Star Film’s work. Eight years later, Gaston made the decision to follow in the footsteps of the Nestor Film Company (which would eventually morph into Universal Pictures) and D.W. Griffith (who would eventually make the infamous The Birth of a Nation) and head west. Only the Star Film Company didn’t go to California. They went to Alamo City.
This change mostly stemmed from the need to get out of New York, where harsh winters limited production and litigious patent-holder Thomas Edison was a big thorn in every aspiring film company’s paw. Places like Southern California and Central Texas offered warmer climates, lower costs, and “exotic” scenery to shoot westerns, an increasingly popular genre. But company head Gaston Méliès and director Wallace McCutcheon specifically chose San Antonio for its military history, or at least they claimed to. According to Thompson’s research, within days of the company’s arrival in town, McCutcheon told a reporter: “There is at Fort Sam Houston a splendid opportunity for a series of brilliant pictures that must necessarily appeal to the American who has a martial spirit and is interested in this country’s arms.” McCutcheon also knew of another potentially “brilliant” story San Antonio had to offer, telling that same reporter they had an Alamo script in hand for what he said would be “one of the greatest films of the year, and one we believe will appeal to the masses.”
The Star Film Company wouldn’t get around to making their Alamo movie for another year, having by then shot at least sixty other movies on their Star Film Ranch, a twenty-acre tract near the Mission San Jose, across the river from the now abandoned Hot Wells Hotel and Spa. The Immortal Alamo was an ambitious undertaking for the production company. It required not only the participation of every actor in the company, but nonactors like Gaston Méliès (who played a priest). The hundred or so military academy extras aside, as one contemporary reporter noted, “every available actor, cowboy, and ranchhand” was on set. The result, wrote Thompson, was “without exception, the biggest, most expensive, most important film the Company produced in Texas, or anywhere else.”
What we know of the big, expensive, important Alamo film is mostly what Thompson was able to track down from contemporary reports in trade publications like the Film Index and the New York Dramatic Mirror, both of which praised the film for its historical accuracy. That’s questionable, given how the plot of The Immortal Alamo is as follows: Lucy Dickenson, married to an army lieutenant, is lusted after by a Mexican named Navarre (played by western director John Ford’s brother, Frances, in brown face). When Lieutenant Dickenson is sent out of the mission by Colonel Travis to seek reinforcements from Sam Houston, Navarre makes his move. Lucy rebuffs him, and so Navarre tells Santa Anna how few defenders are inside the Alamo, asking for the first pick of surviving females as his reward for passing on this crucial information. When the massacre is over, and Navarre is this close to forcing Lucy into marriage, Lieutenant Dickenson, General Houston, and a bunch of Texian cavalry descend upon the scene and defeat the Mexican army. Dickenson kills Navarre, and what was long considered to be the most tragic story in Texas history gets a happy ending.
Thompson notes only one contemporary account deriding the liberties taken by the Star Film Company: a letter printed in the New York Dramatic Mirror from a reader in Temple, Texas. “They butchered history,” wrote Paul H. McGregor in July 1911, inaugurating what would become the timeless pastime of vehement arguing about what really happened in that old San Antonio mission. “Lieutenant Dickinson was not at the Battle of San Jacinto, but perished in the Alamo,” McGregor continued. “Would not this true history have made a stronger play than to butcher sacred history in order to have the hero stab the villain and catch the heroine in his arms? Mockery!”
Critics, for the most part, didn’t agree with McGregor. The New York Dramatic Mirror wrote that “excellent judgement has been used in subordinating the [romantic] story just enough to leave the historical subject prominent.” The Moving Picture World proclaimed that “here is given a historical drama which will rank immediately with the important educational films.” An outlet called Motography said: “It would be a stolid audience indeed that failed to respond to the thrilling scene inside the Alamo.” But by the time that audience had a chance to see the movie, the Star Film Company would be out of Texas altogether.
According to Frank Thompson, when the Star Film Company landed in San Antonio, they found a land “so abundant in beauty and dramatic and scenic possibilities, that the company would never want to return to New York.” It’s true that the company never returned to the tristate area. But they didn’t stay in San Antonio, either: the Texas summers proved to be just as debilitating as New York’s winters. By the time The Immortal Alamo was released on May 25, 1911, Gaston Méliès had moved operations to Santa Barbara, California. Things fell apart by the end of the year. Gaston moved to Corsica, where he died in 1915, and his son Paul sold what was left of the Star Film Company two years later. At some point around then, most of the seventy movies produced at the Star Film Ranch were lost forever. (One of them, a Western called Billy and his Pal, was discovered in New Zealand in 2010, and Thompson helped fund its restoration.)
The Immortal Alamo is the most well-known of the Star company’s American productions, likely because its subject matter is something we have made an effort to remember over the years. It has its own Wikipedia page and enough historical relevance to inspire Frank Thompson to write a whole book eighty-five years later (and me to write about that book thirteen years after that). But the Star Film Company was just the first to roll cameras on a story whose cinematic telling was inevitable. As the New York Dramatic Mirror wrote when The Immortal Alamo came out, “it has long been a dream of American film makers to picture the fall of the Alamo.”
And it would continue to be so. Silent film legend Douglas Fairbanks starred in The Martyrs of the Alamo in 1915, and there were Alamo movies for big and small screens in most subsequent decades of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. And while we can never compare the unnamed actor who played Davy Crockett in The Immortal Alamo to Fess Parker’s unforgettable King of the Wild Frontier (who killed him a b’ar when he was only three), the mere existence of The Immortal Alamo and the Star Film Ranch proves that Texas stories have always loomed large in American (and French) cultural consciousness.