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John Wayne’s 'The Alamo' and the Devoted Slave (Should the Film be Saved?)

Shadow and Act By Sergio | Shadow and Act June 12, 2014 at 8:55AM

Some films deserved to be preserved, but is there a case for 'The Alamo'? Maybe not so much.
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The Alamo

So right now you’re probably saying to yourself, there he goes again talking about some old movie made before I was born. True, but I can’t help it. It’s what I love and grew up with, and those old films still have a bigger impact on me than a lot the stuff that comes out nowadays. So here I go with another one.

But, as always, a bit of background first.

Robert A. Harris is true film savior. The legendary film restoration and preservation archivist has been responsible for saving some of the most important films made during the 1960’s and 1970’s as film prints, archival footage and material rapidly deteriorate. Once they’re gone, the film is too.

His work on restoring and preserving the original theatrical versions of films as such the "Godfather I" and "II," David Lean’s "Lawrence of Arabia," Hitchcock’s "Vertigo" and "Rear Window." George Cukor’s "My Fair Lady" and, most recently, Stanley Kramer’s 1963 three-and-a-half-hour slapstick comedy epic "It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World," deserve nothing but praises.

However, for the past few years, Harris has been on a mission to restore and preserve a rather unlikely contender - the 1960 United Artists road show epic "The Alamo," starring and directed by John Wayne, about the 13-day siege of the fort in 1836, while defended by Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie and a bunch of other volunteers, fighting for Texas' freedom from Mexico.

The film was a passion project for Wayne for many years, and finally, in 1959, he made the film, for what was then the astounding amount of $6 million, half of it from UA, with Wayne and his production company Batjac, providing the other half. The film was actually a box office hit, but it wiped out Wayne financially, and it took him years to recover.

The film is one of those huge road show epics, popular during the 50's and 60's, at the time shot in the 70MM Todd-AO anamorphic film process, and ran, originally, some 202 minutes, including an overture, intermission and exit music, though UA later recut the film to a more manageable 167 minutes for general screenings, TV broadcasts and later home video

However, several years ago, a 70 MM print of the original 202 minute version was discovered and put into storage, where it’s been deteriorating ever since, and Harris has been trying to restore this version to its full glory, before it’s lost forever. However it’s been a struggle for various reasons, including a genuine lack of interest.

Then two weeks ago, Harris created a controversy on the blogosphere and among film geeks, when he wrote that the film print and other materials were rapidly decaying at a more rapid pace, and that MGM/UA basically didn’t care if the original version of the film was lost for good.

MGM immediately replied, saying that Harris’ accusations were not true, and that they keep constant tabs on the condition of the materials, and that there’s nothing to worry about. Although, they vaguely implied that it’s not a top priority for them to restore the film right now. That may be somewhat understandable, considering the studio is strapped for cash and can’t really afford to spend millions to restore a 202 minute version of a film that would have limited appeal.

So, all right and good, right? But what does this have to do with anything? I’ll get to that in minute.

The question to ask is, why aren’t MGM/UA and other people so anxious to restore "The Alamo"? Well, there is one good reason; one that even Harris himself has somewhat reluctantly admitted.

The fact of the matter is that, "The Alamo" just isn’t good. In fact it sucks! Believe me, I know. I’ve seen it more than once to know that, and if you don’t believe, me take a look below at what director John Landis says about the film, courtesy of the Trailers from Hell website.

Now consider "Lawrence of Arabia," "The Godfather" films, and "Vertigo." Those are genuine classics. Great films by master filmmakers worthy of being preserved. "The Alamo," directed Wayne, who was a lousy director when he occasionally stepped behind the camera in films he starred in, like his 1968 film "The Green Berets," is flatfooted and clumsy.

Granted the film’s battle sequences as directed by Wayne and his army of second unit directors, including John Ford, are exciting and impressive, with a real epic sense of grandeur. It’s just that, all the stuff leading up to those sequences, is stiff, dull, with terrible dialogue, as characters give endless speeches about "Freedom, Library and Republic," instead of having real, meaningful dialogue. It’s like a Tea Party convention instead of a movie.

However, there’s another reason why there is not such a great desire to restore the film. It’s not very PC either..

In particular, I’m referring to Jethro, the slave of Jim Bowie, played by Jester Hairston, who, some of you might remember, played the role of Rolly Forbes for years on the NBC sit-com "Amen," during the late 80’s (He's on the far-right/upfront in the above photo).

Now you could argue that it's a historically accurate depiction; that the founding fathers of the America were hypocrites, who always talked about freedom and liberty for all men… except for black people, that is, who they believed were better off being slaves.

And the character Jethro is not just routine old slave, but a truly devoted one to Bowie, following him everywhere he goes. I can’t even recall if he has a single line of dialogue, but he’s always just there.

And, of course, there's the classic scene at the climax where Bowie, in bed, seriously wounded during the Alamo surge, is attacked by Mexican soldiers with bayonets, as his slave Jethro, ever devoted to the end, runs and throws himself in front of the soldiers to protect Massa, only to be killed along with Bowie. Even as a kid, when I saw the scene on TV for the first time, I thought to myself: “Really?”

Interestingly, Richard Widmark - who played Bowie, and who worked with Sidney Poitier on several films, like "The Long Ships," "The Bedford Incident" and "No Way Out," and who was a lifelong friend of Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis - was a well-known and quite vocal liberal, who was very progressive on social issues. So you would think he would have had second thoughts about playing the Bowie character; but it doesn't appear that he did.

Also, remember, this film came out in 1960, not 1940 or 1950, so the image of the devoted slave in a big budget Hollywood movie during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, in the midst of racial turmoil in the country, wasn’t a good idea, you would think. Then again, Wayne was a very well known hard-line right-winger, and it’s very possible that he consciously had Jethro in the film to tell audiences that, all the "equal rights" stuff was a load of nonsense, and that black people should follow Jethro's example, and go back to being devoted and subservient.  

And this is why I’m not that keen on seeing a restored 202 minute version of "The Alamo" on the big screen, or on Blu-ray. O.K. maybe I'll take a look at it once, if only for curiosity's sake, and I'm sure it’ll look impressive, but is it really worth it?

Here's John Landis on The Alamo:

This article is related to: Things That Make You Go Hmm...


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