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THE ALAMO

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  John Wayne, Richard Widmark, Laurence Harvey, Frankie Avalon, Patrick Wayne, Linda Cristal
Director:  John Wayne
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Widescreen 2.20:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio:  MGM
Features:  Documentary, Theatrical Trailer
Length:  162 Minutes
Release Date:  April 6, 2004

Film ***1/2

To the south was the Mexican army of Santa Ana…thousands of rugged, valiant soldiers determined to keep the state of Texas under their control.  To the north was General Sam Houston, desperately waging a battle against time to build an army strong enough to liberate the great state.  In between the two stood a humble, ramshackle adobe church manned by 185 men, most of whom weren’t military, but simple volunteers.  Men who knew they wouldn’t survive the onslaught of the Mexican army that greatly outnumbered them.  Men who could have packed up and left in the face of eminent death.  Men who realized that they could buy precious time for General Houston with their lives.  Men who fought gallantly and vigorously until not a one was left standing.  They lost the battle, but the thirteen days’ time they ransomed with their blood gave Houston the time he needed to prepare his army.  Texas would indeed be liberated, and her citizens and the rest of America would always remember The Alamo.

This is a film that wears its sentiments boldly on its sleeve…yet you can’t fault it for that.  The story of David Crockett, Jim Bowie, William Travis and a hodgepodge group of soldiers, frontiersmen and others who chose their fates and willingly made the ultimate sacrifice can only conjure up images of gallantry, nobility and bravery.  It’s a story that loudly trumpets the ideals Americans cherish:  freedom, honor, and valor. 

John Wayne, despite being one of the world’s biggest stars, actually struggled for years to realize his dream project which would pay tribute to the men who died defending the Alamo.  He could have seen the movie come to light much sooner, had he merely agreed to bring in an established director, like long time collaborator John Ford.  But Wayne was passionate about directing and producing the movie himself, as well as starring as Davy Crockett.  Eventually, the struggle left Wayne and his long time studio Republic Pictures going their separate ways.  It was going to be a lot of work, and a lot of personal risk for Wayne.

It turns out, though, he knew what he was doing well enough.  His 30 plus years in the business gave him just the experience he needed to create the visions he wanted.  His sense of framing in scope ratio widescreen was impeccable, as was the wide, varying and often expressive lighting schemes he used.  He played with his images in the dark, using carefully placed firelights to break up his scenes with shadows and cast a beautiful glow on his foreground objects.  Perhaps most noteworthy of all were his extraordinary action and stunt sequences…having been in a few of the best ones himself in his career, he was more than ready to handle the challenge of even the most chaotic and thrilling battle sequences.

Yet, at the heart of the story was the simple men who did the fighting.  There was the military Colonel Travis (Harvey), who first tried to keep morale up by promising the men reinforcements that he knew would never come.  He later is forced to reveal the truth about the bleakness of their situation, yet the men chose to stay and die at his side.  Then there are the two colorful civilian leaders, Jim Bowie (Widmark), a man handy with a knife and always ready with a bottle, and the legendary frontiersman Davy Crockett (Wayne), who was a Congressman at the time, but still led a group of rough and ready Tennessee boys down to Texas for the sake of the cause.

Wayne manages to tell an epic war story with some humor.  There are moments of bickering between Bowie and Travis, as their clashing ideals create some of the film’s early conflicts.  The colonel asks for Bowie early in the picture.  “He’s indisposed, sir,” his private replies.  “If you mean drunk,” replies Travis, “say drunk.”  “Drunk, sir,” is the response.  There are even moments of daring-do as the Texans sneak into the camp of the Mexican army after dark to steal some of their cattle to replenish their tainted food supply.  It’s the kind of act of bravery that leaves you laughing and clapping in your seat.  But the grimness of reality would soon squelch the humor.

It begins when messengers from Santa Ana arrive at the Alamo to offer the men a chance to evacuate the women and the children before the siege.  In a few simple but potent scenes, we see the goodbyes and begin to feel the suspense and impending doom for the men and their fort. 

The first attack by the Mexican army isn’t successful…they brought only a small legion and attacked only from the front.  The Alamo fighters suffered 50 casualties, and were left not with the joy of victory, but with the dark knowledge that the enemy would be back in a matter of days, in full force, and attacking from all sides.  They would not succeed a second time.

The siege would last for thirteen days, and when it was over, none of the gallant men of the Alamo was left alive.  The Mexican army would win the battle, but very quickly lose the war.  General Houston earned the time he needed from the Alamo sacrifice, and would soon drive the Mexicans out of Texas once and for all.

As I said, given the nature of the story, it can be forgiven if the picture is overly sentimental at times.  When one hears dialogue about how the word “republic” leaves a lump in the throat similar to watching one’s baby take a first step, you can’t help but cringe just a little.  But it was that kind of idealism that led this ragtag bunch of fighting men into making the conscious choice to die together in the hopes that freedom would come to fruition for their state.  The Alamo is an impressive entertainment spectacle, but it also honors that spirit in ways that are very genuine, even if they border on cheesy from time to time.

Video ***

For the most part, this is a very impressive anamorphic transfer from MGM/UA.  I mentioned the variety of lighting schemes used, and generally, the darker fire lit scenes look extremely good and natural, with excellent detail and light influenced coloring.  The daylit scenes are bright and beautiful, with excellent color rendering and even stronger image detail.  The print is in mostly good shape, with only a few noticeable blemishes here and there, and the transfer is done quite well, with only a smidgeon of visible grain from time to time.  All in all, for a 40 year old film, I found The Alamo quite impressive.

Audio ***1/2

This movie won an Oscar for sound, and this is one of the best 5.1 mixes of an older soundtrack I’ve heard on DVD!  For starters, it really is a genuine multi-channel mix—not like some older pictures which merely spread the sound around a little bit.  When the horses charge the camera, you can hear the smooth crossover from front to rear stage in both straight and diagonal directions.  The audio is extremely dynamic, too, from the tremendous roars of the battle scenes to the potent score by Dimitri Tiomkin.  The lows are very clear, though soft, but when it gets loud, watch out.  The sound of the Mexican army’s drums is almost too much at the picture’s most suspenseful moment.  An extraordinary effort all around!

Features **1/2

The disc contains a trailer and a very informative and entertaining documentary titled “John Wayne’s Alamo”, which features recent interviews with cast and crew members, behind the scenes footage, and even shots of the Duke himself discussing his project.

Summary:

True to the familiar battle cry, the Alamo will never be forgotten…it is as much a part of American folklore as anything that could be called to mind from our country’s brief history.  The movie The Alamo is a fitting tribute to its subject matter…big, bold, powerful and entertaining, and marks an impressive first directing credit for John Wayne.  This quality disc makes this one no lover of the classics should pass up.