Rated: Not Rated
Film Length: 162 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 16x9 Enhanced Widescreen (2.35:1)
Subtitles: French, and Spanish
Audio: English – Dolby Digital 5.1; French – Stereo Surround; Spanish - Monaural
April 6th, 2004
The battle for the Alamo, a crumbling adobe mission in Texas, is a legendary event in American history. In this battle, a group of 185 brave souls, who supported the foundation of a Texan republic, fought an un-winnable battle against Generalissimo Santa Anna’s (Ruben Padilla) massive Mexican force of seven thousand strong. Commanded by Colonels Davy Crockett (John Wayne), William Travis (Laurence Harvey), and Jim Bowie (Richard Widmark), the group overcame internal bickering and defiantly fought Santa Anna’s troops to the last, even when it became clear reinforcements would not arrive and death was certain. The ultimate sacrifice made by these patriots was not in vain, however, as it played an important role in freeing Texas from Mexican rule.
To be a little more specific, this epic battle took place in 1836, when Texas was still a territory of Mexico. At the time, the push to declare Texas a republic, free from the oppressive Mexican rule, was being made. As one might imagine, there were several different views on how to bring the desired result about, and these contrasting viewpoints were put on display in this film. For instance, Colonel Travis was in favor of delaying the heretofore rapid advance of the Mexican army by holding out inside “the Alamo”, until reinforcements arrived.
Conversely, co-commander Bowie had his own battle plan, and pointed to the success he and his men had against Mexican troops by employing a stealthy hit-and-run strategy. Ultimately, as history tells us, these freedom fighters ended up fighting a battle that was lost before it had begun from inside the Alamo. Of course, before the fighting began, Davy Crockett and his troops arrived, and Colonel Travis was quick to enlist their aid, in hopes that additional support would allow group to hold out until reinforcement troops arrive. Unfortunately, these reinforcements would never come, but the selflessness of these individuals would make them all heroes, and eventually turn the tide against Santa Anna’s army.
Now, at this point in the review I ask the following rhetorical question: What man would have been better suited to bring this epic tale to the big screen than the iconic John Wayne, for whom getting this story on film was also a personal mission? Say what you will about Wayne’s acting ability, but the man’s huge on-screen presence and likeability made him one of Hollywood’s brightest and most bankable stars for over thirty years.
Apparently, “The Duke” had wanted to make this epic tale into a film for over a decade, but Republic Pictures wanted to do the film on a smaller scale, and with an established director (not John Wayne) at the helm. Several other studios were also interested, but these entities also wanted someone else to direct. Eventually, after long years spent in developing the motion picture, and several concessions, Wayne was able to reach an agreement with United Artists, and the picture was on its way to being made.
The production was not without personal risk for Mr. Wayne, though, as he was required to finance a good portion of it himself. Although he received funding by United Artists, and several Texas businessmen, Wayne had to secure the remainder by taking out second mortgages on several of his homes, and using his cars and yacht as collateral on other loans!
The level of detail in The Alamo is also admirable, as replicas of the Alamo, and other structures from “old San Antonio”, were erected from scratch on an immense location just north of Bracketville, Texas over a two-year period. Most impressively, these structures were not merely facades, but fully functional buildings, which have since been used on other productions. For the production, an airstrip and 14 miles of roads were built! Fortunately, John Wayne’s big gamble paid off, as the film went on to be nominated for seven Academy Awards®, including Best Picture
In terms of the caliber of acting in the film, John Wayne is as likeable as ever, and the actors playing supporting characters turned in solid performances as well. Also, as previously mentioned, the film’s extremely high production values are evident throughout, from the fabulous cinematography; to the superb score by Dimitri Tiomkin; to the sheer scope of the production. In particular, the depiction of the Mexican army marching on the Alamo is a sight to see, featuring nearly 7,000 extras, over 1,500 horses, 8,000 firearms, and 60 cannons!
As might be expected, The Alamo is most at home when battle is being waged, and the action sequences are very well thought out and feature top-notch stunt-work. Although Wayne has been criticized for the way he directed scenes without action, his knack for exciting an audience during action sequences pays big dividends here. He was even thoughtful enough to film over-the-top death scenes for each principal character (his own included)! Then again, I suppose it did not hurt to have acclaimed director John Ford supervising the second-unit shots during the action sequences.
Of course, the film is not without flaws, but given The Duke’s inexperience as a director (The Alamo was his directorial debut), I suppose that things could have been much, much worse. Still, I am inclined to agree with those who question his ability to direct sequences without action in them. Now that I have seen this movie several times, it is more apparent to me that there are a few spots where things really slow down, and the picture really “feels” its length. In addition, some of the dialogue is a bit heavy-handed, and sounded almost as though the characters are speaking to the viewer from behind a pulpit.
These relatively minor quibbles aside though, The Alamo is a fairly well-crafted film that treats a remarkable moment in American history with the care and respect it so richly deserves. Though it is a subtle point, I think Wayne deserves some credit for refraining from portraying the Mexican people as villains. Instead, their honor (from a neutral viewpoint) is preserved, as evidenced by the behavior of their fighting men in the film. And though I cannot bring myself to dub this film a true masterpiece, it is entertaining and informative enough to deserve a place in the DVD collections of history buffs or Western fans (many actors who frequently appeared in Westerns star in The Alamo).
SO, HOW DOES IT LOOK?
John Wayne’s The Alamo was originally filmed in Todd-AO, a technology capable of rendering deep, razor-sharp, and lustrously colored images. Presented in anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) by MGM, this transfer stays true to the spectacular imagery that resulted from the Todd-AO process, and looks much better than I remember it appearing on Laserdisc. Yes, this is one of the small number of films I have seen on Laserdisc!
To be more descriptive, while the image contains moderate amounts of grain and minor print flaws, the film looks a lot cleaner than I would have expected it to. Colors are generally well drawn, if a little flat, but flesh tones appear to lean slightly towards brown in a few scenes. Aside from this, some very minor edge enhancement haloing, and a few moiré errors, things really did look quite good overall.
In particular, black levels were deep and true throughout the film, leading to excellent shadow delineation. While I am on the subject, night shots contain plenty of detail and sharp edges, so whatever is happening onscreen is always readily apparent. Most importantly, the film appears to be free of ugly compression artifacts. Therefore, all things considered, the transfer treats the film very kindly. For a 44-year old, The Alamo is not looking too shabby!
NOTE: The version of the film being released on this DVD is the light and trim 162-minute cut, not the so-called “Roadshow Version”, which runs for a butt-numbing 192-minutes!
WHAT IS THAT NOISE?
While The Alamo’s Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track is nice, it does contain a couple of minor annoyances that keep it from being great. Starting with the positive, frequency response is nice and even, and the score sounds absolutely fantastic. Strings, horns, and even the accordion are all rendered very precisely across the front of the soundstage, which is where most of the action is. I must point out, however, that the score does tend to overshadow sound effects and dialogue (to a lesser degree) during some of the battle sequences.
Now, this is a nearly three-hour movie, with oodles of dialogue, so how does that sound? Well, when rooted in the center channel, it actually sounds very pleasant, and more “full-bodied” than that from most films this age. On the other hand, dialogue tends to become slightly muddy during sequences where it is competing for audio space with effects and music.
In terms of rear usage, you will probably not be surprised when I tell you that there is very, very little. In fact, you might forget you have rear speakers at all for most of the film. Really, aside from a couple instances of surround use during the battle scenes, which reveal their up-mixed nature, there is only a slight bleeding of the score into the listening space. Though there are notable exceptions, “artificially created” surround channel information generally does not sound very good, so I have no problem with the limited amount of rear use in this film. In similar fashion, the subwoofer is largely silent, though it provides modest support for the gunshots and cannon-fire during the battle sequences.
Given the age of the source material, and the fact that it was remixed, this track is no redheaded stepchild! As far as I am concerned, The Alamo will probably sounds better on DVD than it ever did on other formats!
John Wayne’s The Alamo
This long (40-minutes) documentary takes a retrospective look at the process of creating The Alamo. Through interviews with members of the cast and crew, the documentary celebrates John Wayne for making the effort to get this film made with a minimum of compromises to his original vision. To its credit though, the documentary also criticizes some of the choices he made as the film’s director. For instance, “The Duke’s” ability to maximize the impact of dramatic sequences is called into question. Personally, I find this sort of honesty, especially in the movie business, to be refreshing!
Again, since The Alamo is one of the few films I have seen on Laserdisc, I know that this documentary was originally available on the Laserdisc “Roadshow Version” of the film. If you are interested in knowing which version I prefer, it is this 162-minute cut, which I believe offers better pacing, and less superfluous character development.
Interestingly, despite the three different incarnations of this film (theatrical cut, the 162-minute cut, and 192-minute “Roadshow” cut) there is not so much as a mention of why the film was trimmed so substantially for its theatrical release. I suppose it is not that big a deal in the grand scheme of things, but considering the superhuman effort made to preserve The Alamo’s artistic integrity, it would have been nice to get “an official” reason for the cuts.
On the whole, I have to say that this documentary is a nice supplement to the film, since it provides a great deal of insight into the production, and also touches on the historical event it is based on.
The original theatrical trailer for The Alamo is included.
This DVD is essentially a re-release timed to coincide with the theatrical debut of its remake starring Dennis Quaid and Billy Bob Thornton. However, it does feature new cover art, which I happen to think is a lot more appealing and appropriate than the old cover with Davy Crockett in a coonskin cap. There is also a four-page insert, which contains the old cover art, 2 pages of facts on the production, and a chapter listing.
(on a five-point scale)
THE LAST WORD
Though John Wayne’s rendition of The Alamo does drag a bit in spots, its respectful treatment of this historic event would make it a nice addition to the DVD collection of those interested in historical pieces or westerns. In terms of presentation, The Alamo looks and sounds just fine, and though the documentary is the only extra of any substance, it should give fans a deeper understanding of everything it took to get this film made.
It must be noted, however, that this DVD re-release, timed to street just prior to the theatrical release of its remake (starring Dennis Quaid and Billy Bob Thornton), does not contain anything that the previous version did not (except for new cover art)! As such, if you already own it, you are good! Recommended (but only if you do not already own it)!!!