The Making of The Alamo - Part 1
8.20 A.M. on September 9th 1959, 52 year-old John Wayne called "action"
on the set of the film that had taken him nearly 16 years to get made -
more than a third of his career. The story of the Alamo had great resonance
for Wayne. The way that, in 1836, a disparate group of Texans and Tenneseans,
soldiers and civilians, stood off the 5,000 strong Mexican army of General
Santa Anna for thirteen days in a ruined mission, and died to the last man
in the process, summed up for Wayne what America was all about. For him
it was simply a story that had to be told. From the time, in 1945, that
he read Alamo commander William Barrett Travis' letter of appeal for help,
sent during the period of the siege, Wayne's thoughts were never far away
from that battle. The long struggle to recreate this piece of Texas history
would cost Wayne dear; and though he would be forced to compromise his wealth
and his career, he would not compromise his vision of the story of the Alamo.
One way or another, it would be made. And it would be made his way.
In 1945, John Wayne was under contract to Herbert J. Yates' Republic Studios and he was also their biggest star. Wayne's contract, while giving him the freedom to appear in films for other studios, did not allow him what he sought most - artistic control. The only way for the star to achieve this would be to go behind the camera and produce. Eventually, Yates agreed to let Wayne produce a property of his own, and it was then that he proposed an Alamo film. Yates was quite cool towards the idea, having previously visited the subject in 1939, with the film, Man Of Conquest, a low-budget production of moderate success, and he was in no hurry to make another one. However, he continued to let Wayne make his plans and preparations for the Alamo project and Wayne continued to pull in the crowds at the box-office for the shrewd studio owner.
It's doubtful that Yates had any real intention of allowing Wayne's film to go forward, in spite of his constant assurances to the star. Rather it was just case of keeping his biggest money-maker happy whilst the bucks rolled in; and if ever an Alamo film was really planned at Republic during this period, it certainly wouldn't have been the one Wayne envisioned, because Yates was not prepared to put in the investment that Wayne was certain would be required to do it justice.
Some years previously, Wayne had struck up a friendship with screenwriter James Edward Grant, whom he had met through his long association with John Ford. The two hit it off immediately, with Grant's writing style perfectly suited to Wayne. The man known as "the miser with words" would advise the star on dialogue that would allow his powerful frame to "do his talking for him". Wayne brought Grant over to Republic in the forties and their first film together was The Angel And The Badman, in 1947, which was also Wayne's first attempt at producing. It was a modest success, and as they began to search for other projects, Wayne told Grant about his Alamo idea and the writer began work on a first draft of a script. Wayne, meanwhile agreed to do two pictures for Yates that were ostensibly showcases for Yates' girlfriend, Ruba Ralston. These wereDakota and The Fighting Kentuckian.
Around this time, John Ford came over to Republic to make The Quiet Man with Wayne. This proved to be a bitter experience for the director, who clashed constantly with Yates over budget over-runs and running time. He left vowing never to work for Republic again. Wayne meanwhile was still confident that Yates would keep his end of the bargain with regard to his Alamo film, and with Grant's announcement that he had completed the script, Wayne began searching out locations. Wayne realised that shooting in the U.S. would prove too costly, and fortunately he had found the perfect location in Panama. The landscape and vegetation matched perfectly and access was ideal - he had found an abandoned airfield nearby. He had even found suitable accommodations for the sizeable cast and crew that would be required. And another favourable factor was the labour costs - in Panama at that time; a man could expect 50 cents a day for work. This was now 1952 and the project had been on the boil for five years. Wayne now expected Yates to deliver the promised backing, but the studio head tried to put the star off once more. Wayne gave Yates an ultimatum: they either went ahead with it now or he would leave Republic. Yates did not believe him, and told Wayne to "Cut it out." Wayne moved his office out of Republic.
This made a bad situation even worse. Because Grant, who had left Republic with Wayne, had written the script while on the Republic payroll, that script belonged to Yates, not Wayne. Some time later, when tempers had cooled, Wayne indicated to Yates that he would still like to make the film, even though he was no longer with the studio. Yates didn't really want to spend the money, but he knew Wayne was desperate to make the film - and he wanted his star back at Republic. So, claiming the script was no good, he had it re-written and then told Wayne he could shoot the new version instead. Wayne took a look at the new script and refused
Yates eventually filmed the reworked script and released it in 1955 - as The Last Command, starring Sterling Hayden - probably to spite Wayne rather than because of any great desire to make the definitive Alamo movie.
Wayne formed a new company, Wayne-Fellows Productions, with Robert Fellows and signed a distribution deal with Warner brothers, whereby he undertook to star in several Warner pictures, and Warners, in turn, would distribute films that Wayne would produce for Wayne-Fellows Productions. Left out of the deal was the Alamo film. Warner Brothers did not want to commit to the Alamo project in any capacity, so Wayne reluctantly put the production on hold, indefinitely, while he concentrated on his new contractual obligations.
Wayne's association with Robert Fellows would be short-lived, lasting only two years; but during this brief period they would produce some memorable films. Among the total of seven completed were, Hondo, (in 3D); Big Jim McClaine; Island In The Sky, and the classic airplane movie The High And The Mighty, from Ernest K. Gann's best-selling novel. Fellows had no interest in Wayne's Alamo project, and in 1954 the pair agreed to go their separate ways after completing their last film together, Track Of The Cat. At the same time, Wayne and his friend Jimmy Grant fell out over some projects that Wayne had commited to, and they parted company also. Wayne bought out Fellows' half of the business, and hastily reformed the company, this time naming it Batjac Productions after the Batjack Trading Company in his film, The Wake Of The Red Witch - a secretary accidentally missed off the "k" when typing up the corporation papers - and once again threw himself back into work for the remaining two years of his contract with Warner Brothers. In this period he starred in The Sea Chase; Blood Alley, The Searchers, and, for RKO, The Conqueror. He was now America's number one box office draw and was earning around half a million dollars per picture. He was working at a furious pace to lay aside funds to get his Alamo film off the ground again, when Herbert Yates decided to put Wayne's original Alamo idea into production, using Grant's first script - which Yates, of course, still owned - and re-title it as, The Last Command. Though stunned at first, Wayne was somewhat relieved when Yates' low-budget version came and went quickly, and with very little real success.
Interestingly, The Last Command was actually shot in Texas, near Brackettville; a small town that had grown up alongside Fort Clarke, a military post that was established by the U.S. Army in 1852. When the fort was decommissioned in 1946, it was the cause of some anxiety among the local townsfolk, many of whom were dependent on the military installation for their living. There was also some ranching carried out in the area, and though the fort eventually became a hotel and tourist attraction (which it remains) additional industry would be required to sustain the population. James T. "Happy " Shahan, a local rancher with a holding of some 22,000 acres had thought for some time that the area would be highly suitable for the production of western movies, and had begun a one-man campaign to get Hollywood interested. By 1951 he had persuaded one studio to make a film there - Arrowhead - and three years later, Yates turned up with his Alamo film.
Less than impressed with Yates' cheapskate production, and its papier mache sets - Yates had continued to let people believe that this was the Alamo epic with which Wayne was identified by this time, although never actually claiming the star was involved - Shahan decided to call Wayne
Wayne listened to Shahan with great interest. He had been tentatively planning to shoot his film in Durango, instead of Panama, and had been negotiating with the Mexican government, off and on, over several years. He promised the rancher, however, that he would keep Brackettville in mind. Wayne was coming to the end of his contract with Warner Brothers, and was in discussions with them to renew it - but the studio were still adamant that they would not finance Wayne's Alamo picture. He eventually made a deal with United Artists, and while it would not be as lucrative as his Warner's contract, they gave him a commitment to distribute his film - and put up $2,500,000 towards the budget. A further stipulation was that Wayne would now take a main starring role in his film, and not the supporting role of Sam Huston as he had originally planned. He decided to take the role of Davy Crockett. He would also have to make concessions in percentages on the films he would make for United Artists. "I made a bad deal for myself because I wanted to do the film so badly," Wayne said later.
Wayne and Grant patched up their differences and the writer came back on to the project. Now, with an agreement to finance his film from United Artists, his writer working on a new script, all Wayne needed to do now was to secure additional private investment. For some time he had been pitching his film to several wealthy Texas oilmen, and had persuaded them to invest several million dollars in the production. Unfortunately, the rumour about the planned Mexico shoot had spread to some prominent Texans, who sent a letter to the Alamo in San Antonio. In their letter they stated that they would not support a film about the Alamo if it was shot in Mexico, and furthermore, they would not allow it to be shown in Texas cinemas.
Wayne thought that "Happy" Shahan was behind the letter, and
he immediately called the rancher in Brackettville. Shahan absolutely
denied any involvement in the letter, and, in fact knew nothing about
the controversy surrounding Wayne's proposed Mexican shoot. With tempers
cooled, the two men began talking. Wayne realised now that filming in
Mexico would be out of the question - he couldn't have a film about the
Alamo boycotted by Texas theatres - so he told Shahan that he would be
to looking at Texas locations, and would probably send his production
manager down to Brackettville, shortly. Wayne realised that filming in
Texas locations would add millions to the budget, but at the same time,
a positive effect of the letter was that it put Wayne in a much better
position to raise finance from Texas investors.
After fifteen years of setbacks and disappointments production was now assured. All Wayne needed now was a location. He picked up the phone and called Shahan.
final cost would be more, Wayne's budget for The Alamo was set
at $8,000,000, including $1.5 million towards set construction. In the
summer of 1957 Wayne sent his production manager, Nate Edwards, to Brackettville
to scout locations. Shahan offered to personally guide Edwards around
the Kinney County area where Brackettville was located. Edwards approved
of the Fort Clark facilities, as they would be able to handle a large
cast and crew. However, after several days of searching for a suitable
site - one that met all the requirements of camera angles, terrain, vegetation,
and most importantly accessibility - they found nothing. Until the last
day of Edward's stay, when, returning at dusk to the Ft. Clark Guest Ranch,
Shahan suggested a detour to his ranch to check on some cattle. Pulling
up on a hill overlooking Shahan's cattle, Edwards asked the rancher why
he hadn't brought him to this place before. Shahan explained that he thought
they would want to see the whole area rather than his ranch.
next day with his art director, Alfred Ybarra. They agreed with Edward's
opinion that the site would be perfect, and Wayne immediately made arrangements
with Shahan to lease the land. As Shahan was also a building contractor
and supplier, he was also hired as general contractor for the set.
It was officially announced in January 1958 that Brackettville was the location for the film. Construction now began in earnest, concentrating on the church, hotel and cantina, which would require interior shots and therefore had to be complete structures. One scene would call for a shot of the basement of the church. To save costs, instead of digging a hole for the basement, Ybarra simply added an extra room to the church with a flight of stairs going up as if to the bell-tower. In the film, when the actors walk down the steps it gives the appearance of them walking down into the basement.
A set-back occurred four months into construction. Torrential rain hit the set, putting it under three feet of water and washing away 50,000 adobe bricks that had been drying in the sun. Belatedly, drainage ditches were dug, but work had slowed to a crawl. Wayne then had another major problem with his former partner Robert Fellows, who was demanding final payment on Wayne's buy-out deal over Wayne-Fellows Productions. Wayne had to come up with $3,000,000 immediately. This left him with a severe cash-flow problem as his salary was paid out over a period of time to offset tax liabilities. Construction could not be resumed until his paycheck from the studio arrived.
Shahan felt that if construction were halted it may never resume, and he had begun to see possibilities in what was being built on his property. If the town were a solid construction rather than made up of false fronts, he would probably be able to pull in other western film productions and possibly have a viable tourist attraction as well. He suggested to Wayne that if he would continue to finance the original one-sided buildings as originally agreed, Shahan would borrow the money to build three other walls and a roof for each building, making them complete. He also offered Wayne an option to buy into his scheme at a later date. Wayne agreed and work continued, though it was now looking more like a mid-1959 start date for shooting.
the Wayne-Fellows business, Wayne committed himself to a heavy workload
in 1958,completing The Barbarian And The Geisha, in Japan in February.
He started Rio Bravo for Howard Hawks, in May and when that wrapped
in July, he went on to complete The Horse Soldiers for John Ford,
from October to January 1959. He intended to devote the whole of 1959
to The Alamo.
The logistics of the final phase of pre-production were staggering because of the proposed size of the production. Transportation of people and equipment from Hollywood to Brackettville had to be carefully planned far in advance, and resulted, in addition to plane flights, the leasing of twenty nine Ford Edsels; thirty four passenger buses with 64 full-time drivers. Forty two camera & equipment trucks were required, and though some were owned by Batjac, many were leased from Samuel Goldwyn Studios. The cost of transporting cast, crew, equipment and press visitors to and from Hollywood would come to some $650,000, with on-location costs around $200,000. Also a runway was built on Shahan's ranch so that film could be rushed to San Antonio or Dallas, and then on to Hollywood for processing. When shooting began, planes would be in the air constantly flying film back to Hollywood for printing, and then back to Brackettville so that Wayne could view the "rushes".
Costumes & Equipment
for the military uniforms were passed to costumers Frank Beetson and Ann
Peck so that they could begin the awesome task of assembling the huge
numbers of outfits required for the Mexican Army. At the time of the battle,
there were twelve different types of uniform in use by the Mexicans, and
some of these were recreated by using Japanese army surplus uniforms from
World War II, the khaki colour of which was an almost perfect match for
some of Mexican Army uniforms. Money was saved by having many of the uniforms
fitted with draw-strings to avoid individual fittings.
For armaments, Ybarra again returned to his Civil War references, and commissioned a San Antonio firm to build forty two wooden cannons out of redwood. Most of these were about eight feet long, but two "Mexican Long Toms" were constructed of balsa wood and these were more than thirteen feet in length. In addition, several redwood mortars were built, around four feet long. They were all fired using gas cylinders. After filming was completed, they were sold to the "Old Tucson" film-site, where they remain on display today.
Rifles were another problem. The principal characters would have authentic firearms of the period, but finding a few thousand percussion-cap rifles for the Mexican Army was never going to be easy. Eventually, George Ross, Batjac's military arms advisor, was able to find enough trap-door Springfield rifles in various Hollywood prop-shops. By attaching bayonets and artificial locks to them, they would look reasonably correct, and would still be able to fire blanks. Fifteen gunsmiths were hired to keep the weapons functioning throughout filming. Wayne's rifle was an exact replica of Crockett's original, and at the time of filming, was over 100 years old.
Finding horses was proving unexpectedly difficult, too. The problem was, that westerns were extremely popular on TV in 1959, and most of the specially trained animals were being used on them. Head wrangler, Bill Jones eventually put together the 500 horses and 100 mules that would be needed, by scouting as far as Oklahoma and Arkansas, though some were hired from local ranchers. Of course, the real work began when the animals were assembled, as they all then had to trained to ignore gun and canon fire. Not one animal was hurt or injured on the production, and eventually, the newly trained herd was sold off to local ranchers and realised a small profit.
Catering for the enormous cast was a tremendous undertaking, with meals having to be provided for up to two thousand people daily, on the open prairie. By the end of production, food and logistics had run to well over $300,000 and 192,509 meals had been prepared and served - the largest film catering job up to that time.
Back in Hollywood, Wayne was planning the production down to the smallest detail. Using story boards, he would work out exactly where and when each scene would be shot, what camera angles would be used, and even what stunt-work would be required. A good example of this would be the production department bulletin for the final assault on the mission, which listed one hundred set-ups for a screen running time of fifteen minutes. Wayne had prepared so thoroughly that, by the start of filming, any reference to the script by him was a formality.
back at the site, Ybarra had six wells dug to provide fresh water for
the huge numbers of people working on the film. Wayne had also instructed
him not hire portable toilets, as was usual, but to install permanent
rest rooms inside the houses in the town set, and in even the Alamo itself.
With construction and preparation nearing completion, Wayne and his team could now turn to the next major decision: casting.
At the start of 1959, Wayne had a good idea of which actors he would use in secondary roles; regulars from his past movies, like Hank Worden, Chuck Roberson and Ken Curtis could be relied upon. And as far back as 1956 he had discussed the role of Flaca, Crockett's love-interest, with Argentinian actress, Linda Cristal. More problematic were the other two principal characters, Travis and Bowie. (Wayne was committed to play the Crockett role because of his financial deal with distributors, United Artists.) William Holden, with whom Wayne had become good friends in the early fifties, was considered for the role of Jim Bowie. They had wanted to make a film together and both had their own production companies. They eventually appeared in The Horse Soldiers, but were unable to match schedules and shooting arrangements for The Alamo, so Holden pulled out. Rock Hudson was attached to the project for a time, according to the press, for the role of Travis. Wayne let the rumour circulate for a time in order to benefit from the publicity, but in fact, Hudson was never seriously considered for part. He would, however work with Wayne some years later in The Undefeated.
Hearing about a newcomer from England, Laurence Harvey, Wayne met him for dinner one evening in May. Also there was veteran John Ford whose opinion Wayne valued highly. A very nervous Harvey began to discuss his acting credentials, mentioning his work at the Old Vic and his approach to his craft. Wayne interrupted Harvey, saying," Don't give me all that shit about art. I'm up to my shoulders trying to get this picture together." He then went on to describe the part of Travis to a stunned Harvey. Ford, who had been sitting very quietly, observing Harvey and saying nothing, turned to Wayne and said," Don't bother telling him about the part, Duke, we haven't got much time. Just sign the bastard up."
Although he had become one of Britain's most popular stars during his ten-year career in England, Harvey was in fact, born in Lithuania on October 1st 1928, and moved with his parents to South Africa as a small child. At the age of 14, he joined the Royal South African Navy by lying about his age, serving for several months until his mother located him, and he was discharged for being underage. When he was 17, he lied about his age again, and joined the army. He was discharged from the army in 1946, at the age of 18. With an educational grant from the government for his military service, he enrolled in the Royal Academy Of Dramatic Art, which he left after three months, feeling that he'd learned enough about acting, and joined a professional theatre company. He worked in stage and film - an early film role was in the CinemaScope production, King Richard And The Crusaders, and he was eventually nominated for an Academy Award for his role in the 1958 production, Room At The Top.
With the Travis role filled, Wayne turned his attention to the role of Jim Bowie. One actor whose name was attached to the role briefly was James Arness, who had worked with Wayne several times before - in fact Wayne had suggested Arness for the role which would make him famous, Marshall Matt Dillon in TV's Gunsmoke series, after Wayne had turned it down himself. Again, he was never a serious contender for the role of Bowie. Charlton Heston's name began circulating in connection with the role also, although he had actually been offered the cameo role of Sam Houston, a role he would be unable to take because of prior commitments.
With William Holden unavailable, Wayne second choice for the role was an actor whose work Wayne had long admired: Richard Widmark. Born on December 26th 1914, in Sunrise, Minnesota, Widmark had been a drama teacher in the late 1930's before heading for Broadway. Working in radio, he became a regular on several soap operas, as well as appearing on the Broadway stage, through the 1940's. Initially rejected by director Henry Hathaway for the role of giggling psychopath, Tommy Udo in the 1946 film Kiss Of Death, Widmark was offered the role anyway by studio head Darryl F. Zanuck. It was this role that catapulted Widmark to stardom; memorable for the scene where he pushes an old lady in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs to her death. Widmark agreed to appear as Bowie, and a delighted Wayne inadvertently upset his co-star by taking out an ad in one of the trade magazines, saying "Welcome aboard, Dick." The irate star is said to have told Wayne, "The name is Richard, not Dick"
With casting of his principals secure, Wayne turned next to the supporting roles. The Sam Houston cameo was taken by Richard Boone, a household name, thanks to appearances in TV's Medic, and subsequently as the gunfighter for hire, Paladin, in the classic western series, Have Gun-Will Travel.
As mentioned previously, the role of Flaca, the beautiful Mexican girl, was given to Linda Cristal as she was Wayne's first and only choice for the part. Born in Argentina, of a French mother and an Italian father, she had made over a dozen movies in Mexico. Under contract to Universal International, she had appeared in several major U.S. films., but her role in The Alamo would be her most important up to that time. She would eventually go on to star in the popular T.V. western series, The High Chapparal.
The other major female role, "Mrs Dickinson", went to former singer, Joan O'Brien. She had worked on Bob Crosby's daytime television show before going into movies, and had just co-starred in Operation Petticoat with Cary Grant and Tony Curtis. She was offered the role, as one of the Alamo survivors, after meeting Wayne at a party. She said his description of the film's ending, with her character walking through the ruins of the Alamo into the sunset, was so vivid that she couldn't say no.
Her character's husband, Captain Dickinson, Travis' aide, went to Ken Curtis, a long time member of Wayne's unofficial repertory company, being married to John Ford's daughter, Barbara. An accomplished country and western singer, he was a veteran of many Wayne/Ford movies, including The Quiet Man, Wings Of Eagles, The Searchers and The Horse Soldiers.
To appeal to the teenage audience, pop idol Frankie Avalon was cast as "Smitty", the young boy who rides with Crockett's Tennesseans into the Alamo, but is sent to fetch help before the final battle, thus surviving the massacre. A hugely popular singer, Avalon had made his movie debut in 1959 in Guns Of The Timberland, with Alan Ladd. He started work on The Alamo two days before his 19th birthday.
of the Wayne family were also included in the cast. Wayne's son Patrick
took the role of James Butler Bonham, a Texan soldier. He too was a veteran
of several Ford movies, including The Long Grey Line and Mister
Roberts. He also appeared as the young cavalry lieutenant in The
Though they had been working on the project for 13 years, Wayne was still not happy with the 106 page script. He asked Grant to do a rewrite. Then another. And then another until the final version of the script - 12 rewrites later - which by then had grown to 156 pages.
While Grant was reworking the script, Wayne was considering the film format he would use. Over the years, he had looked at several of the new processes that were being developed in Hollywood. 3D had appealed to him because it seemed the natural process to use for an action film. He had shot Hondo in 3D, but then had second thoughts about the glasses that were needed to view the 3D films, considering them uncomfortable and impractical. Deciding that 3D was just a fad, he ordered that Hondo be released in "flat " versions only.
He was most impressed with Todd-AO (see the Todd-AO feature) feeling that the big screen and wide-angle photography would be particularly suited to his story.
Wayne chose William Clothier as his cinematographer. A former aerial cinematographer, he had first worked for Wayne in that capacity on The High And The Mighty. He had shot several films for Wayne since then, but had never worked in 65mm, so he spent the month prior to shooting, testing and familiarizing himself with the equipment, and also working out how many cameras would be needed to capture the story on film. He considered that six cameras would be required, with an operating crew of 18 cameramen. Apart from the help that Clothier received from Todd-AO inc., Batjac's casting director, Frank Leyva, had worked on Mike Todd's Around The World In Eighty Days, and so was familiar with the requirements of the system. His help proved invaluable.
Sound recording on The Alamo would prove to be a challenge. Wayne wanted the sound to be as realistic as possible, that is to say, recorded at the time of filming with as little post-synching as possible. A basic group of five men would handle the complex task: Jack Solomon, head sound engineer; Harry Alphin, recorder; William Flannery, boom man; Al Yaylian, boom man and Al Boyle, cable man. These five would eventually be joined by another four, as the filming of the battle scenes got under way, making them the largest sound crew ever assigned to a location.
End Of Part One
Click here for Part Two: Shooting, Post Production, Premiere and Restoration.
The principal source for this article is the excellent book, John Wayne's The Alamo The Making Of The Epic Film, by Donald Clark and Christopher Andersen, which contains so much information about this remarkable film that both parts together of our version merely scratch the surface. No John Wayne fan, or Epic Movie enthusiast should be without this incredible book in their collection. Full details can be found in our Recommended Reading section, along with some other John Wayne literature that is worth a serious look.
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