Back in 1945, John Wayne decided he wanted to make a movie about the Battle of the Alamo. The pivotal conflict during the Texan Revolution saw a 13 day siege on the Alamo Mission. The Mexican army successfully killed most of the defenders, including American folk heroes Davy Crockett and James Bowie. As a result, this inspired many Texians to win the Battle of San Jacinto a month later, which ended the rebellion in favour of the newly formed Republic of Texas.
The conservative patriot Wayne hired screenwriter James Edward Grant to write a draft of The Alamo, which is on ITV4 today. But as it neared completion, the Hollywood star had a major falling out with Herbert Yates, the head of Republic Pictures.
Duke was offered a measly $3 million budget by the studio famed for its low-budget B-movies, when he wanted his Alamo picture to be a big-budget epic. Unable to agree on the financing, he left Republic over the feud but wasn’t able to take the script with him. Instead, it was rewritten and made into 1955’s The Last Command.
Nevertheless, the tenacious actor was determined to get the movie made his way. Wayne formed his own production company Batjac and decided to produce and direct The Alamo to protect his original vision for the movie.
Originally he also planned to cameo in the small role of Sam Houston. However, he couldn’t get the financial backing to make the film unless he also agree to star as Davy Crockett, a part that had been offered to Clark Gable.
To raise the $12 million budget (over $120 million today), Duke contributed $1.5 million of his own money by taking out second mortgages on his houses and using his cars and yacht as collateral to obtain loans.
Before Wayne was forced to play a main part, he had wanted Richard Widmark to play Davy Crockett. But when Duke took on the role himself to secure financial backing, he need to move his co-star to another role.
United Artists, one of The Alamo’s backers, had pushed for the director to hire him as box office insurance. Widmark was offered the part of Col William Travis, but objected and agreed to play Jim Bowie.
However, just a few days into filming he complained he had been miscast and tried to leave the production. One of his issues was that at 5’9 he was playing a 6’6 man described as “larger than life”.
Yet after threats of legal action, Widmark agreed to finish the move, getting Burt Kennedy to rewrite his lines. But he did not get on with Wayne during filming.
Whatever the case, Duke was under incredible pressure starring, producing and being a first time director on such a huge movie he was self-backing and had a number of production problems.
To deal with the stress of the movie that had 7000 extras, 1500 horses and 400 cattle in its climatic battle scene, Wayne would smoke cigarettes no-stop when he wasn’t acting.
According to Smitty actor Frankie Avalon: “There may have been some conflict with Widmark in portraying the role that he did, but I didn’t see any of that. All I know is he was tough to work for without a doubt because he [Wayne] wanted it his way and he wanted professionalism. He wanted everybody to know their lines and be on their mark and do what he wanted them to do.”
Things proved even more challenging when Wayne’s longtime director collaborator John Ford would show up on the set of The Alamo uninvited and tried to influence the direction of the movie.
To get rid of Pappy, Duke sent him off to shoot second-unit footage that he didn’t really intend to use in the movie, with the vast majority of it left on the cutting room floor.
The Alamo ended up being profitable at the box office and was nominated for seven Oscars, although Duke did lose money on his own personal investment.