John Wayne and The Alamo
April 25, 2011
March 6, 2011 marked 150 years since the Battle at the Alamo occurred. The Mexican army, led by President General Santa Anna with some of his 6,000 troops armed with rifles and cannons, battled against 200 volunteers, citizens and soldiers holed up in the Mission San Antonio de Valero at Bexar, present day San Antonio. (The number of actual troops varies with hundreds of accounts of that day). When additional troops didn’t arrive, those in the Alamo chose to stay and fight.
It is written that at the end, six men, including Davy Crockett, waved flags of surrender and asked to be taken as prisoners of war. Instead, General Santa Anna ordered his soldiers “to take no prisoners.” Colonel James Bowie was fiercely stabbed while he was lying ill on his bed. Everyone left standing was beaten, shot or slashed with knives, and mortally wounded, joining the other dead bodies on the ground around them. The 13-day siege lasted from February 23 to March 6, 1836.
“Remember The Alamo” became the battle cry of Texans, led by Sam Houston, as they again fought for independence against Santa Anna’s army at the Battle of San Jacinto on April 21, 1836. General Santa Anna was allowed to surrender and was taken prisoner of war. Texas independence was won. Sam Houston became the first President of the Republic of Texas before they were admitted into the Union. After they achieved statehood, Houston was elected their first U.S. Senator and later Governor of Texas.
In 1954, Disney made a movie about the Alamo that was entertaining but fanciful. Everybody knew the words to “Davy, Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier.” The lyrics included a description of Davy Crockett who “kilt him a b’ar when he was only three” and who “patched up a crack in the Liberty Bell.” Kids sang the song wearing newly purchased coonskin caps on their heads while toting Davy Crockett lunchboxes too school. Millions of dollars were generated in this marketing bonanza related to the movie.
But it was the late actor, John “Duke” Wayne who, for 10 years, had an obsession with making an epic movie that was historically correct. While working in other films, he had hired researchers and writers to work on the Alamo project. The Duke was always a patriot in his own life. He firmly believed that, “This picture is America. I hope that seeing the Battle of the Alamo will remind Americans that liberty and freedom don’t come cheap. I hope our present generation of Americans will get a sense of our glorious past, and appreciate the struggle our ancestors made for the freedoms which we now enjoy – and sometimes just take for granted.” (Source: “Shooting Star A Biography of John Wayne” by Maurice Zolotow. Pocket Books, Simon & Schuster, NYC. 1974.)
Wayne wanted people to know the real Col. James Bowie and William Travis, co-commanders who each brought 50 men with them to fight. He wanted them to know the real Davy Crockett, who came five days after Bowie and Travis with more volunteers, ready to fight for freedom. And he wanted them to appreciate their heroic lives and their deaths lost fighting for Texas independence before it became a state. Davy Crockett died at the Alamo five months short of his 50th birthday.
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When Wayne approached Hollywood studios to film the movie in 1959, they all turned him down, claiming it would be a financial disaster. Like the characters in many of his movies, “Duke” surmounted all obstacles by forming his own company, Batjac. He hired his son Michael as co-producer and director and his handsome actor son, Patrick. He leased 200,000 square feet of land from “Happy” Shahan in Brackettville for filming, which was 120 miles south of San Antonio. He hired Mexicans to make 12 million adobe bricks from river mud, and put out a casting call for thousands. He hired the best actors and friends to play the parts and arranged construction of permanent buildings for them. Wayne had roads and an airstrip constructed.
One studio decided that they could contribute 2.5 million if he could match that amount with donations and investments from Texas millionaires. He did. With a passion matched by many of the characters he had played in movies over the years, he invested his own money. He mortgaged his California house, his three cars, his New York apartment, and borrowed all that he could. Wayne joked, “I mortgaged everything I own in this picture, except my necktie.” John Wayne was 52-years-old. The final cost was 12 million dollars. Filming started on September 22, 1959 and lasted 83 days.
Today, the Alamo in San Antonio gets 2.5 million visitors a year from all around the world. Visitors are surprised at the current size of the Alamo, 480 feet long and 160 feet wide. (Source: “The Illustrated Alamo 1836: A Photographic Journey,” Lemon, Winders & Covner 2008).