“ Genre: War & Western - War / Theatrical Release: 1960 / Parental Guidance / Director: John Wayne / Actors: John Wayne, Richard Widmark, Laurence Harvey, Frankie Avalon, Patrick Wayne ... / DVD released 2004-09-06 at MGM Entertainment / Features of the DVD: Dubbed, PAL, Widescreen „
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In 1836, the Mexican army is in Texas and look to be unconquerable following the driving out of their troops a few months before. General Sam Houston wants the time to gather together enough men to fight them back, so sends Colonel William Travis and Jim Bowie to halt the Mexicans in their tracks. They are later joined by Davy Crockett and a few of his supporters, but they are still fewer than 200 men facing 7000 - yet still no extra men arrive. When the fighting begins, it seems that the Texians have no hope, but grit and determination keep them going on until the point of no return. Will the Texians under the command of Travis, Bowie and Crockett be able to keep the Mexican troops back? Or are they all doomed to die?
As this film is based on a true story, a quick history lesson is needed (as much for my own information as anyone else's!). The Texas Revolution took place between October 1835 and April 1836, and was a conflict between the Mexicans who were living in Texas at that point and the new American settlers. These settlers were known as Texians, rather than Texans, and wanted to drive the Mexicans out. One of the pivotal battles was the Battle of the Alamo in February, on which this film is based. John Wayne had originally been all set to make a film about the battle in the 1940s, but had a disagreement with the film company's President, after which he waited until he was able to produce and direct the movie himself so that he could retain control over the production. (Facts taken from Wikipedia).
I have to admit to not being the greatest John Wayne fan, although I know many people will disagree. As well as directing and producing the film, he also stars as Davy Crockett, although he wasn't entirely happy with the decision. He gives a more than competent performance and ticks all the boxes, but I can't say he's brilliant, although I struggle to say why. It may be all part of the role, but he comes across as being rather smug and more than a little bit annoying - not ideal for the supposed hero of the piece. Perhaps Wayne simply had too much on his plate - he was in nearly every scene after all, yet he was supposed to be directing it at the same time. Richard Widmark is much better as Jim Bowie - this is definitely the best performance in the film, because it feels completely natural. He had more character development than the others, which probably helps, especially as he handles it all brilliantly. He made the film worth watching.
Laurence Harvey plays William Travis. A British actor brought in by Wayne to bring a touch of class to the billing, he is painfully wooden at times. Travis is not portrayed as a particularly pleasant character, and thankfully, appears much less than Crockett and Bowie. Neverthless, when he does appear, he is embarrassing. He has a way of talking that sounds and looks very affected, almost as though he is trying to exercise every muscle in his face and it is very off-putting. I've seen him in other roles (most recently The Good Die Young) and he didn't do this, so I have no idea why he felt the need to here. The only other role worth mentioning is Frankie Avalon (the 50s teen star), who plays a young soldier - this is one of his first acting roles and bodes well for his acting future. Chill Wills is often mentioned for his role as a secondary character in the film - he won an award for it, but he didn't particularly impress me.
There is little that I can criticise about the story. It is based on the truth, although I'm sure that some artistic licence was taken, and is an interesting watch just because of that. However, I don't enjoy war films at the best of times and this one, at two and a half hours, is way too long for me. I appreciate Wayne's desire to get the story over, but a little bit of editing could easily have reduced it by half an hour. The first part of the film is incredibly slow, showing how Davy Crockett joins up with the others and really struggled to keep my interest. Thankfully, once the action starts, it really does start, and the fact that we have a brief understanding of the Bowie's background does begin to kick in then. The ending is probably the best part of the film - it's just a shame it took so long to get there!
The set is quite incredible. A replica of Alamo and its mission, where the Texians spent much of the battle was built, presumably at great cost - certainly it took nearly two years to build. This does make a terrific background for the story, something I cannot fault John Wayne for. There are some panoramic views of the Texan scenery - it was actually filmed in Texas, at the insistence of the financial backers for the film - but it is only for the purpose of taking in the battle formations, so it is hard to see this as an attractive film (unless you find battle formations attractive of course). I greatly admire John Wayne for the obvious blood, sweat and tears that he must have spent over this film; but ultimately have to admit that the best parts of the film were the scenes between the men and their women on the eve of battle - it is the human touch that wins me over every time. They were a little twee at times, but touching nevertheless.
There are just a couple of extras. However, one is a forty minute documentary on the film, and for those interested, it is well worth a watch. What it brought home for me is just how committed to the film John Wayne was. It really appears to have been his life's work, and I just wish that I could have enjoyed it a little bit more. The documentary is very well made, and includes a number of interviews with cast members, John Wayne's son and clips from the filming. I really enjoyed watching Laurence Harvey (who was much more relaxed off-screen) spouting Shakespeare with a Texan accent. The other extra is the original theatrical trailer.
I'm quite aware that I've just largely rubbished a film that many consider to be a masterpiece. Nevertheless, it just didn't appeal to me. It is competently made and there is great attention to detail, I don't deny that, but I found it too long and meandering. War films are my least favourite genre, that is true, but a good war film should still be able to win me over and this one didn't. I watched it through to the end, and I'm glad I did, but I have no desire to see it again. Fans of John Wayne and Richard Widmark should take the time to watch it; as should anyone with an interest in American history, or those who just want to see what all the fuss is about - it is an important part of film history, after all. However, I can't give it any more than three stars out of five.
The DVD is available from play.com for £5.99.
Running time: 154 minutes