The Context of The Alamo(1960)
I donâ€™t know if you watched my video this week, but I wanted to expand upon something from it. I have been contemplating doing a little writing here and there and the history of movies and how they relate to major events in the United States and the world. Let me know what you think and if you think I should pursue such a line.
In my video, I mentioned The Alamo (1960) was actually a major financial success in its day, but is no longer looked upon favorably. My good friend and fellow Manic Expression contributor alexthed pointed out to me that it had also been nominated for best picture. It was actually nominated for several academy awards and won one for best sound. In part, this was because John Wayne worked to get the film accepted by the academy and garnish it praise. Why not? He invested a lot of his personal money in the film, directed it, starred in it, and produced it while managing the ad campaign. It was an extremely personal project.
So, why did it so quickly fade from the consciousness as a good film? It wasnâ€™t unlike films released before that are still viewed very positively. Wayne was a very much a disciple of the great John Ford. It shows in The Alamo. Comparisons could be made with some patriotic and Americana films that Ford made such as Young Mr. Lincoln, The Grapes of Wrath, and They Were Expendable. None of these films have dropped in the estimation of people. They are viewed as classics with John Ford on top of his game. What is different here?
In fairness, Wayne wasnâ€™t quite Ford as a director. Some of the subtly and epic feeling that Ford managed to infuse in almost all his films wasnâ€™t there for Wayne. It was Wayneâ€™s first effort, so some short comings would have to be expected. People of course did overlook that at the time. They went to the movie in droves and the academy did seem to think it worthy of praise.
This does lead us to two major conclusions. Financial success does not lead to long term classic status. Finding movies that made a ton of money and no one remembers isnâ€™t very hard. At least, people still have a grasp on this one. Transversely, a true John Wayne classic, The Searchers, was considered a minor financial bomb in its day. So, money does not make a film great. (This is no doubt a relief to Michael Bay haters.) The second conclusion is that awards do not make a film classic either. Remember American Beauty? My Left Foot? Tender Mercies? You may have heard of them, but these are films that garnished praise and awards in the last thirty years only to fade somewhat in the public consciousness. Staying power is a tricky thing and something that impresses the public today certainly may not do it tomorrow.
For comparison, letâ€™s look at probably the most well-known western released the same year as The Alamo, The Magnificent Seven. On the surface, these films have a lot of similarities. They are both about a group of ragtag defenders working to save something from an overwhelming force of Mexicans. They are both anchored by strong personalities who are followed in spite of the seeming assurance of defeat because it is the right thing to do.
What separates these two films? Simply put, tone and philosophy. In The Alamo, the defenders are working for something bigger. They are fighting for republic, democracy, and justice. These points are arguable, but that is how the characters justify themselves. At one point, Bowie and Crockett consider abandoning the post, but they canâ€™t. The morals of the film wonâ€™t let them. It is heavily steeped in conservative thought of the day and patriotism. The characters do what they do because it is good for the nation. On the other hand, the characters in The Magnificent Seven defend the Mexican village out of a sense of fate. They are gunman. They donâ€™t know and canâ€™t do anything else. Regardless of the outcome, they will lose. There is nothing for them to win, but a little of money trading the one skill they have that will eventually lead to their deaths. This job doesnâ€™t even pay enough to justify it, but they canâ€™t do anything else. Unlike the patriotism of The Alamo, The Magnificent Seven displays a motive based on personality and fate.
From this description, it becomes clear that The Magnificent Seven was a more pessimistic film, and that played better following 1960. The 1960s were a heavily pessimistic time for Americans. Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement, and other tumult caused Americans to have serious doubts about their government and the patriotic devotion to the same. So something like Wayneâ€™s positive spin on these themes in The Alamo easily fell out of favor. The John Ford films mentioned that bare semblance to Wayneâ€™s film had the advantage of being released more than a decade earlier and not having to suffer criticism from the 1960s social upheaval. Even Wayne and Ford couldnâ€™t go unaffected by this change. They collaborated to make the much more pessimistic The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence two years later.
So, how does this affect the view of Wayneâ€™s The Alamo? Maybe it can be seen as quaint. It was a film that was dated almost from the moment it was released and suffered the backlash of not realizing how the nation was moving on these issues. Wayne himself was 53 the year the film came out. He was an old man and probably wasnâ€™t exactly in tune with the popular wave of culture. It was only a few more years until Clint Eastwood would burst on the scene and challenge him as the most popular cowboy in the world.
This would be an easy view, but it should also be said that The Alamo was a very personal project for Wayne. His investment has already been brought up, so it is easy to appreciate how much he put into it. One could argue that this movie is a flawed, but made with a lot of care and time. Rarely are films perfect and this one certainly isnâ€™t, but it does offer something for an audience to this day. It marked the end of an era in many ways for westerns and culture. In this context, people donâ€™t have to like The Alamo, but can appreciate what it meant and means.