The Making of The Alamo: Part II
August 21 st 1959 saw the release of the master shooting schedule. Production shooting was set to begin on Wednesday September 9 th, but some pre-production shots were scheduled to commence on Friday 4 th September. These would be scenes showing the Mexican army on the move; columns of men and horses, with cannons and equipment etc. This was really second unit filming but Wayne was on hand to direct. One of the shots required the camera to be positioned in the middle of a river while the Mexican army went around it. Unfortunately one of the teams of galloping horses crashed straight into the unit sending the camera into the river. The camera was recovered safely, in spite of several crew members receiving electric shocks - and that shot is still in the finished film.
The schedule and script contained a total of 566 scenes, and Wayne had planned 66 days of shooting, finishing on Tuesday November 24 th and returning to Hollywood the following day. The cast had begun to assemble and by Monday 7 th September, most of the principals were on the set, with the rest arriving during the following two weeks as the schedule required. Widmark had arrived a few days earlier and accompanied Wayne on the pre-production shots.
On the morning of the 9 th, Wayne strode out to the set and called, “Action!” – a command he had waited fourteen years to give. The first set-up was scene 4, “Huston column enters Bexar”. This was followed by scene 5, after which, Wayne called “Save it!” The company broke for lunch, but not before Wayne was presented with a huge cake, in the shape of the Alamo, to celebrate his achievement in setting up the production. A delighted Wayne used Harvey's sword to slice up the cake as pieces were passed round to the crew. The remainder of the day were spent shooting various street scenes involving Boone and Harvey.
On day two, the crew moved to the “sound stage” in the airplane hanger at Ft. Clark. Temperatures were almost unbearable inside at that time of year, especially with the hangar doors having to be kept closed to keep out noise. Wayne worked quickly to complete the interiors so that the crew could move outside again, but he was also working against the fact that Boone had a tight schedule because of his TV show commitments.
Widmark shot his first scenes on Friday 11 th, and ironically, part of these scenes would be among the first to be cut from the film after release, and would remain “lost footage” for nearly thirty years.
Late on the following day, Wayne heard the disastrous news that Happy Shahan's daughter had been critically injured in a car crash – a head-on collision with a car driven by two Alamo crew members. A shocked Wayne rushed to the hospital in San Antonio to offer what support he could. He would return many times over the next few weeks until eventually he was relieved to hear that she would recover. He had become very close to the Shahan family, and the accident had shocked him deeply. The entire cast and crew helped to cheer her up with cards and visits, etc., and tensions were relieved somewhat with the arrival of Frankie Avalon, a few days later. The entire Brackettville High School turned out to greet him, and as it was his 19 th birthday on the 19 th September, a surprise birthday party was arranged for him in the Brackettville High School gym.
With Shahan's daughter recovering, Wayne resumed shooting; switching to night-time filming towards the end of the month. At that time it was usual to shoot night scenes in daylight, a process known as day-for-night, or “D/N”, and use a combination of filters, exposures and special processing to a achieve the look of a “night-time” scene. Wayne, however, wanted the night scenes to be actually shot at night. This created a tremendous problem for the cameramen because of the limited space for additional lighting equipment inside the three-dimensional sets. The negative film available required 300 foot- candles of light, and it was not until halfway through the night shooting schedule that 150 foot- candle negative became available, easing the problem somewhat.
Meanwhile, Frank Leyva, the casting director, was assembling extras for the crowd scenes, selecting certain people for small speaking roles. Unwittingly, he set another tragedy in motion when a travelling stock company, The Hollywood Starlight Players, applied for parts in the film. They were hired as extras, and after individual auditions, one of the group, an actress named Lagene Etheridge, impressed sufficiently enough to be given a small but important role as one of the frontier mothers. As she had a speaking part, her accommodation was at Ft. Clark, while the rest of the Theatre Group were lodged in the small town of Spofford, some twenty miles south of Brackettville. Etheridge threw herself into rehearsals for the role over the next few weeks, resulting in little contact with her theatre group, including her boyfriend, fellow actor Chester Harvey Smith. Wayne was impressed with her performance and her scene, 122A , was shot in a single day. Wayne asked her to stay on for publicity shots and interviews, which she agreed to. Unfortunately, her boyfriend was rapidly losing patience with her continued stay at Ft. Clark, and demanded that she return to Spofford with him. A fight ensued, and she returned to her apartment at Ft. Clark. Later that evening, Smith , armed with a Bowie knife, tracked her down, and when she opened the door, stabbed her in the chest. She died a few minutes later.
This tragic event threw things into turmoil. They were five weeks into shooting, and with a budget of $60,000 a day, Wayne couldn't afford to let this juggernaut of a production grind to a standstill. Shooting continued around the police investigation, and was hampered by the press digging into Smith's past, revealing a history of violence. All of this added to the spiralling pressure on Wayne and his publicity department, as they found themselves answering more and more questions about the murder, rather than the film.
Eventually, as Etheridge's employer, Wayne was forced to give a deposition in Brackettville. After plea-bargaining arrangements, Smith received a twenty year sentence for his crime.
Harvey, Widmark and John Ford.
With the tragic memory of Lagene Etheridge behind him, Wayne plunged on with the production, though not without further incidents. The first was a fire in the publicity department offices at Ft. Clark, resulting in the loss of many important payroll and publicity files. The next incident occurred during filming of the scene in which Travis replies to Santa Anna's ultimatum with a cannon shot (scenes 154-161). Wide shots were completed on the mission roof, and then the crew moved over to the replica of the upper portion of the mission, which had been built off to one side, to film the close shots. Harvey went through his lines again, fired the cannon and held the look of determination on his face as Wayne had directed. It was only when Wayne called “cut”, and Harvey collapsed in pain, that they realised that the cannon had rolled over the actor's foot! Harvey – the consummate professional – had held the expression until the cameras had stopped rolling. Wayne ordered, ”Get him the hell to hospital”. But Harvey refused to go. Instead, calling for a bucket of hot water and a bucket of cold, he proceeded to dip his injured foot first into one, then into the other. He called this “the hot and cold treatment”, which he kept up for the rest of the day. With his foot bandaged for longer than it might have been had he gone to hospital, Harvey was able to continue filming and complete his scheduled scenes on time.
Harvey was able to bring much comic relief to a set that had been dogged by more than its fair share of disasters, and Wayne became genuinely fond of the actor. By contrast the relationship with Widmark was less cordial. Nevertheless, although they were never close, Wane had tremendous respect for the actor's abilities. Stories circulating that the two actors became involved in an argument that resulted in Wayne throwing Widmark against a wall, were not true. Wayne, in fact found the actor to be extremely helpful, and his contribution to the production was much appreciated.
Widmark's reputation amongst the crew for being aloof and abrupt, actually stem from the fact that he is deaf in one ear, and very often would not hear someone speaking to him, or would be startled when someone approached him on his deaf side.
Wayne became somewhat anxious, a few weeks into shooting, when his old mentor, John Ford, arrived on the set for a “visit”. The problem was that Ford had been very helpful during pre-production, being able to advise Wayne on many aspects of the production; casting, location and finance, etc. But Wayne was also aware that he would have been able to get The Alamo shot years ago if he would have agreed to have Ford as the director. He was concerned that once the director arrived on the set he would begin taking charge – which proved to be exactly the case. Within ten minutes of Ford arriving, he was bossing the crew about and telling Wayne what to do.
Wayne was uncertain how to deal with Ford; he didn't want to hurt the director's feelings, but he didn't want to loose control of his film either. He discussed the dilemma with William Clothier and Michael (Wayne). Clothier suggested asking Ford to direct some second unit footage. Feeling this might work, Wayne did just that, and the following day, Ford went off with some extras and a crew. Wayne also gave Michael instructions not to let Ford talk to any of the principal actors.
Ford realised what Wayne was up to, so to get his own back, for the next few days he shot everything with the action to one side of the wide frame, making the footage unusable. Later on, both Wayne and Ford would state publicly that none of Ford's footage was used in the finished film, but actually it was. This was probably done to clarify the fact that it was Wayne's film, not Ford's. Ford actually shot some of the battle scenes, and also the following: scene 104 – the church basement; scene 136 – Crockett meets Jocko and Blind Nell, and scenes 91-92 - where Crockett offers to help Flaca at their first meeting. But in each case, the scenes were set up as Wayne wanted them.
The production had survived a murder and a fire – hardly normal events on a film set – but they had got through it all. There were still a few dialogue and night scenes to finish, plus a television special, but as they approached November 1 st, everyone was looking forward to shooting the battle scenes, where the full scale of this mammoth production would be seen.
They were slightly behind schedule, due to the problems they had faced, and pressure on Wayne began to increase. In one instance, a mistake by a technician caused a further delay, causing Wayne to flare up and chew the man out in front of the crew. Later, Wayne found out that the man was worried about his wife, who was in hospital back in Hollywood. He told the crewman to hop a ride on the plane that was taking the rushes back to the studio, and “Don't come back until your wife is well”. Wayne also paid the hospital bills.
The Battle and “It's a wrap”
While Wayne was putting the finishing touches to some dialogue scenes, stunt co-ordinator, Cliff Lyons and special effects man Lee Zavitz, were preparing to film the battle scenes. The stuntmen were rehearsing horse falls, sword fights and various other moves necessary to get the realism that Wayne had planned for this film. Web Overlander, the chief make-up technician, ordered more than 20 gallons of fake, “movie” blood!
The untrained extras,more than 2,300, were transformed into a believable, trained army in three weeks by the remarkable Jack Pennick. This former marine corps drill instructor, along with Cliff Lyons, had been associated with Wayne and Ford for years. Lyons had been a stuntman since the days of silent film, and Pennick had served with Ford in WWII. They made a formidable team as they whipped the men into shape. Pennick took charge of the infantry, while Lyons, known as “mother” to those who worked with him, handled the cavalry. Jack Pennick appears in the film as Sgt. Lightfoot. Another of the stuntmen on The Alamo was Bob Morgan, who was married to actress Yvonne De Carlo - a regular visitor to the set. A couple of years later, Morgan would suffer horrific injuries after a stunt went wrong during the filming of the railroad sequences in How The West Was Won.
Wayne had actually shot some of the battle scenes, back on October 22 nd, but had stopped at that point to resume night shooting. It would also gave them time to shoot a TV special, before the mission set was destroyed in the battle.
The night scenes were completed on Friday November 13 th, and the TV crew moved into the compound. This would be the first time a videotape production had been made on a motion picture location. It would be an hour- long show, for ABC, that would be aired during the 1960/61 season. Sponsored by Pontiac, it was budgeted at $300,000, and had a twenty nine man crew working out of Los Angeles TV station KTLA. The finished documentary was narrated by Richard Widmark, and was called, The Spirit Of The Alamo.
The battle scenes were due to begin filming on November 16 th, but Wayne had received news from United Artists that the film was close to running over budget. Another $400,000 would be needed, and United Artists said that they didn't have it. At this stage of the production, Wayne had no choice but to pay the money out of his own pocket. It would later emerge that United Artists lied to Wayne, and that they did actually have the funds.
Filming began, and it was during these scenes that Wayne's directing skill became apparent. Most critics still agree today that The Alamo's battle scenes are some of the finest ever captured on film.
It was on the cold morning of December 15 th that Wayne called “cut” for the final time, after three and a half months of filming and fourteen years of planning and preparation. A weary, but satisfied Wayne took his family back to Hollywood for the last time. Clothier and Lyons remained behind for a few days to finish up some second-unit footage. Wayne, meanwhile, was ready to start editing the 560,000 feet of film into his dream of, The Alamo.
After a brief rest, Wayne and his editing team, headed by Stuart Gilmore, began the awesome task of piecing together the thousands of feet of exposed film. This was expected to take several months, and at this time, the planned date for the premiere was sometime in August 1960.
Wayne had contracted Pacific Title to prepare a series of watercolour paintings for the opening credits, and these were ready by the end of January.
As the film was being put together, Wayne became aware of rumours that the Mexican government were not too pleased with the way the Mexican army were being portrayed in the film. It was felt that they were being presented as the villains, or at least, in a bad light. In spite of the fact that Grant had written dialogue into the film where certain characters praise the soldiers of Santa Anna, this problem would never be resolved. The Alamo was banned in Mexico in September 1960, and has never had a theatrical release there.
The next few months for Wayne would prove to be hectic. As well as supervising the editing, he had agreed to undertake a series of personal appearances to promote the film. In addition he was working closely with composer, Dimitri Tiomkin, who was scoring the film. As if the thousand and one things that would require his attention in relation to his own film were not enough, Wayne had contracted with 20 th Century-Fox to make North To Alaska, filming of which was due to begin in May.
By March, a rough cut had been assembled which Wayne ran for his associates, including John Ford. All agreed that it would be a hit. More comfortable with the way the film was coming together, Wayne felt able to announce on March 16 th that the film would premier on October 5 th 1960. The Alamo would premiere simultaneously in New York, Washington D.C., Toronto, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Antonio, Dallas, Houston, Philadelphia, Tokyo and London, as a “road show” presentation. The road show release had been agreed back in pre-production, though it was a decision that Wayne was not particularly enthusiastic about, and would later regret. The road show concept had been created by Hollywood executives to combat the enemy, Television, by creating the idea of a special evening at the cinema. Tickets would be sold on a reserve seat basis – and at higher prices – as these presentations would be considered an “event”. The “epic” quality of the film would be enhanced with additional scenes to create a longer running time, which would then be enhanced with “walk in” music, overture and exit music. An intermission would also be added and souvenir brochures would also be sold at the theatres.
The problem with the road show presentation was the number of theatres that would be able to show the film, and the number of shows per week. And though these theatres might show the film over a longer period – sometimes over a year – it can limit the volume of tickets to be sold. And this was the factor that concerned Wayne the most.
Tiomkin completed scoring The Alamo in May, just as Wayne began work on North To Alaska, with Henry Hathaway as director. All through shooting, Wayne kept up his punishing schedule, working on his own film between takes and after hours, right up until shooting on North to Alaska completed at the end of July. Wayne was desperately in need of a rest, but he was still due to embark on an intensive 30-day personal appearance tour to promote The Alamo in September. Negotiations with Columbia Records were also concluded successfully around this time, for the release of Dimitri Tiomkin's soundtrack album of the score. Originally planned as a two-disc set, it was eventually released in the more popular single-disc version, but with the addition of songs by The Brothers Four and Marty Robbins.
Now with a completed cut of the film, Wayne decided to sneak preview his film at the Aladdin Theatre in Denver, on Friday 5 th August. This would be the second time in less than a year that the city had played host to a preview of a major motion picture. The Centre Theatre in Denver had previewed Ben-Hur the previous September.
An extremely nervous Wayne entered the 900 seat theatre, which had been sold out three days before the screening, to thunderous applause. Accompanying Wayne at this first showing to the public of The Alamo, were his son, Michael; writer Jimmy Grant, Dimitri Tiomkin, William Clothier; two of the editing team, William and Stuart Gilmore with music editor, Robert Tracy. After introductions and opening remarks, the audience went quiet as the lights dimmed and Tiomkin's music filled the theatre. Cheers and applause greeted the opening titles, and for the next 192 minutes, Wayne saw the audience react in just the way he had hoped they would when he began filming almost a year before. When the preview cards came in, the results were better than they had hoped for. Even United Artists were pleased – and somewhat surprised. (There had been growing tension between Wayne and United Artists for some time).
The “missing reel”- and further cuts.
By mid-November, all the Todd-AO premiers had been held, and it was time to look at the all-important critical reviews. Generally, they were good – not great, but “good”. There was considerable praise for the cinematography and battle scenes and also for the underlying message of the film. Several critics felt that the film would sweep the Academy Awards, and business was good, too, with advance bookings well up; running about even with their main competition, Spartacus.
The one problem that most critics were agreed upon, though, was that the film was too long and dragged in places.
Always quick to find fault, United Artists immediately began to question whether the The Alamo was really a road show picture at all – although this had been their choice, not Wayne's. The film had been playing for four days, and Wayne was still in Europe, when the studio began to consider cutting the film's running time. Then, it came to the notice of Batjac that projectionists in certain theatres were omitting reel 9B, so that they could go home early. They had realised that the this reel, which is the “birthday party scene” could be left out, as it forms an interlude between the more relevant scenes before and after, and no one would notice! This confirmed the decision to trim the running time.
Wayne was due to leave Rome for Africa to begin shooting Hatari!, for Howard Hawks, but the start date was delayed for a month. This gave Wayne the chance to head back to Hollywood and supervise the further cutting of The Alamo. Several scenes were trimmed or removed altogether – including the birthday scene – plus the Intermission reel and exit music. (A still, depicting the birthday sequence, remained in the souvenir brochure, puzzling many Alamo fans for years – including yours truly!) This cut down the running time to 161 minutes, which would mean an extra show each day in cinemas. Wayne also ordered the earlier release of some 35mm prints, and by Christmas they were being shown in provincial cities in the U.S. This meant a dramatic increase in revenue, and generated tremendous word of mouth publicity for the film when it went on general release in the spring of 1961. This policy of Wayne's saved the film from financial failure.
The Alamo was nominated for seven Oscars, but on Oscar night, 17 th April 1961, it won only one – for best sound. Tiomkin and Clothier were both passed over in spite of their impressive – and has time has proved – memorable work on music and cinematography respectively. Wayne went home empty-handed.
The loss of 'The Alamo'
Before Wayne could move on to his next project, the debts incurred by his company, Batjac, during filming the The Alamo would have to be repaid. Revenue was coming in at a slow pace, but a shortfall was beginning to affect the operation of the company.
A decision was made to sell off as much of Batjac's property as possible, this would include guns, harnesses, lights and scaffolding etc. But the sad fact was that Batjac's main asset was The Alamo itself. Reluctantly, Wayne put together a package deal that included, along with Batjac's other assets, The Alamo, and offered the package to various studios. Eventually, Wayne and United Artists came to an agreement in mid 1961, which relieved Wayne of his financial burden.
His son, Michael, became owner and president of Batjac Productions, and their next production would be McLintock!, in 1963. Wayne, meanwhile, closed the door on his beloved Alamo – the film that had taken him nearly sixteen years to realise – in the knowledge that he had done his best to see it through to the end.
Rediscovery and Restoration
But The Alamo wouldn't go away. After Wayne was more or less forced to sell the film to United Artists, he would no longer receive any profit from his efforts. Not so the new owners of his film. Re-released in 1967, The Alamo was a huge success, generating tremendous revenue for United Artists. Wayne felt a great sense of pride that his movie could still pull in the crowds, and it continued to do so on its occasional showings around the world, up until 1971 when it was sold to television. Its appearance on NBC, shown in two parts on 18 and 20 September 1971 – with a further twenty minutes sliced from the running time- ranked in the year's top ten for movies shown on television. This edited version was shown again on TV in 1973, 1978 and 1980, with strong ratings each time. Wayne continued to be a popular star in Europe, as a result of which, The Alamo was presented there theatrically as late as 1976.
With the advent of home video and then laserdisc in the 1980's, the 161 minute version enjoyed a rebirth, appealing to a new generation of fans, with few realising that a version that was thirty minutes longer once existed. Certainly, United Artistes along with many Alamo buffs believed that the missing footage was lost forever. Until a Canadian gentleman, by the name of Bob Bryden, attended Toronto's annual 70mm Film Festival, in March 1980. Finding that a scheduled showing of Cleopatra had been cancelled, he nevertheless turned up to watch its replacement instead… The Alamo – the192 minute version! Ten years would pass, and it was not until 1990 that Bryden picked up a magazine that indicated that all the192 minute road show prints had been destroyed by 1979. Remembering what he had seen at the Toronto Festival, Bryden queried this, and doing so set in motion a veritable detective story, as fellow enthusiasts, Ashley Ward and Don Clark painstakingly tracked the known whereabouts of various Alamo prints. All of them were 161 minutes in length.
As a last resort, Bryden and Ward contacted United Artists, Toronto, who confirmed that their print was 161 minutes. On a hunch, they made arrangements to screen the print at the Eglinton Theatre, Toronto, where the chief projectionist also confirmed that their print was 161 minutes long.
On the evening of Saturday November 24 th 1990, a small group of enthusiasts gathered to watch the screening. As the film progressed, the group began to realise, with mounting excitement, that they were watching the original uncut version – all 192 minutes of it.
Within a short time, MGM/UA, as United Artists had now become, were contacted and given the news. The print was immediately recalled from Toronto, and a brand new transfer to home video was authorized, soon to be followed by” letterboxed” VHS and laserdisc versions, to the delight of fans around the world.
Many critics and reviewers today dismiss The Alamo as a flop. They couldn't be more wrong. On its initial release, it grossed over $8,000,000, an extremely respectable figure, which made it one of the top grossing films of that year. In Japan, it set an all-time record for a foreign film, surpassing the previous record holder, Ben-Hur. It established box-office records in London, Paris, Rome and many other cities around the world. And though Wayne himself never made any money from his film, it went on to generate many millions more for United Artists. The two songs from the film, The GreenLeaves Of Summer and The Ballad Of The Alamo, were huge hits at the time, and the former title can still be found on movie theme CD's.
The Alamo is not without its faults. Over- sentimental at times? Possibly …. a little John Ford influence there, perhaps. And certainly some of the patriotism is laid on a little to heavily for non-Americans; but this came from John Wayne's absolute belief in the story – and in America itself. And yet for all that, it works. I, and probably countless other Alamo and Wayne fans, wouldn't have it any other way.
John Wayne never lived to see his film restored and once again enjoyed in the form in which he intended. He died at 5:23 PM on the 11 th June 1979
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