“The Alamo” (1960) at the Alamo

The excitement hit as soon as my eyes fell upon the mission itself. The lights hitting the cracked stones created a beautiful effect of shadow. Continuing to the right of the mission, greeting the Texas Ranger, and walking through the archway all heightened my excitement. Finally, I entered the living history encampment where the movie was shown. With the David Crockett hotel in the foreground, I—and the coonskin hat on my head—settled in to watch The Alamo (1960). 

The start of the movie follows the thirty-two Tennessee volunteers and their leader, Colonel David Crockett, on their last journey to the Alamo. At the Alamo, Colonel William Travis is attempting to slow down the Mexican army, led by Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. When a letter from Colonel James Fannin tells Travis that their reinforcements were stopped by the Mexican army, the need for more men to defend the Alamo increases. 

Throughout the movie, the portrayal of the three main American leaders of the Battle of the Alamo (Travis, Crockett and Bowie) was quite historically accurate. Travis, played by Laurie Harvey, is a highly trained military leader who demands the same level of military standards for all the men in the mission. His leadership style foils Crockett’s, played by John Wayne, who lets his men decide if they want to stay and die defending the Alamo–with some clever persuasion. Bowie, played by Richard Widmark, undergoes the most character development due to the incredibly hard choice he faces at the battle. Bowie’s original plan is to destroy the mission and the cannons, leaving nothing for the Mexican forces to retrieve or use against the rebels. As the siege begins, Travis gives the men the choice to stay or go. At this moment, Bowie is ready to leave the mission, both for practical reasons and his ongoing friction with the stiff, inflexible Travis. However, Bowie changes his mind. He hops off his horse and stands behind Travis. This scene replaces the “line in the sand” moment, which historians still argue over today and is portrayed differently in other Alamo movies. 

Fun fact—this frame from the movie tributes the famous oil painting El Jaleo by John Singer Sargent.
Fun fact—this frame from the movie tributes the famous oil painting El Jaleo by John Singer Sargent.

I was surprised at the portrayal of the Mexican army in this movie version. In typical fashion, the Mexican army is portrayed as a brutal force that murders the Alamo defenders in cold blood. But, in this version, the army seems highly trained and polished. The extras in the movie demonstrated good horsemanship on the screen. Compared to the ragtag volunteer defenders of the Alamo, the Mexican army showed off their beautiful uniforms and military training as they marched towards the defenders. After one of the first scrimmages of the siege, there is a scene with some of the volunteers on their post on the main gate talking about the men of the Mexican army, admiring them for continuing to march towards the walls even though the men around them face destruction by the defenders. Later on in the siege, the army strikes an agreement with the troops that they will allow the women and children to leave the mission peacefully and go wherever they please. This show of humanity continues after the last battle when Susanna Dickinson is spared, along with her daughter and slave. The army shows respect towards Susanna as they give her a donkey and provisions to help her make the journey back to safety. This is the last scene of the movie. While nobody talks, the Mexican army behaves towards Dickinson with great honor. Even Santa Anna himself takes off his hat as Susanna passes him.  

This was a once in a lifetime experience. I had the honor of watching this movie on its sixtieth anniversary at the Alamo itself as a part of the thirteen-day celebration of the 184th anniversary of the Battle of the Alamo. Watching the siege on the screen while sitting where it actually took place was an amazing experience. I was able to appreciate not only the movie, but also the Battle of the Alamo on a whole new level.

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