Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Alamo (1960)

7 Nominations, 1 Win

Win: Best Sound - Gordon Sawyer and Fred Hynes
Nomination: Best Picture - John Wayne
Nomination: Best Actor in a Supporting Role - Chill Wills
Nomination: Best Cinematography, Color - William H. Clothier
Nomination: Best Film Editing - Stuart Gilmore
Nomination: Best Music, Original Song - Dimitri Tiomkin and Paul Francis Webster for "The Green Leaves of Summer"
Nomination: Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture - Dimitri Tiomkin

Hollywood has now taken three cracks at telling the story of the Battle of the Alamo: The Last Command (1955), The Alamo (1960), and The Alamo (2004).  One would think that the story of one of the most eulogized battles in American history in which a brave group of soldiers fought bravely against a far superior military force would make for an easy film adaptation, but each telling of the story has fallen far short of the potential offered by the true event.

The 1960 version of The Alamo was John Wayne's passion project, and he labored for years at great personal expense to see the film reach the big screen.  While the scope of the film with its hundreds of extras and expansive set is certainly impressive, the film is all spectacle and little substance.  Every character is one dimensional, given to long rants, with no one showing any subtlety or nuance of character.  Wayne always played a version of his famous screen persona, but the lack of variation in his acting is never more obvious than in The Alamo.  Were it not for the coonskin hat, there would be no way of knowing that John Wayne was playing David Crockett, or for that matter anyone other than "The Duke" persona.  It would be like Charlie Chaplin putting on a coonskin hat but still acting like the Little Tramp.  The film also offers no real understanding of the political or military issues surrounding the battle, and the audience is instead left with the message that the Mexican soldiers were mere marauders (though gallant marauders) and the Texans were brave soldiers defending their homeland.  It's fine if Wayne wants to view history in this manner, but by robbing the script of any deeper look at the issue, we are presented with a simple battle film with no real weight to it.

Unfortunately, even the spectacle is underwhelming.  As flat as Wayne's performance is in The Alamo, his direction is far worse.  Scenes consist of little more than an unmoving camera in a medium shot, followed by another static medium shot, and then another.  Occasionally when Wayne is feeling especially daring, he'll introduce a pan, but that's about the extent of his sense of visual flair.  Everything is shot in full light with no use of shadows or color.  Most unforgivably, the final battle is shown in full daylight, despite the battle taking place in the dawn hours under much darkness.  I'm not a stickler for historical accuracy in film, but in a film mostly devoid of any shadows or darkness, Wayne passed on a key opportunity to make a visual impact.

Dimitri Tiomkin, the recipient of 22 Oscar nominations and four Academy Awards in his illustrious career, could often save even the most mediocre films with great scores, but his effort in The Alamo is generic.  The same can be said for Stuart Gilmore's editing, which is just fine but far short of the work done by Daniel Mandell in The Apartment.  It's a cinematic crime that both Tiomkin and Gilmore were nominated over the work of Bernard Herrmann and George Tomasini for Psycho, but the Academy had a history of undervaluing Alfred Hitchcock's films.

The Alamo has long been criticized for being little more than a mouthpiece for John Wayne's political views during the Cold War.  Though I disagree with nearly all of Wayne's politics, I have no problem with a filmmaker including his personal beliefs in his work.  However, the themes of The Alamo were included so hamhandedly that the film couldn't help but be a failure, and Wayne's limp direction left me with a deeper appreciation than ever for John Ford.

Remaining: 3130 films, 861 Oscars, 5363 nominations

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