A MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION
A dream, which had it's beginnings in the mid 1940's, finally came to fruition on a hot summer's day in 1957 when a bull dozer started up it's engine and began to move a large hill of dirt on a portion of Happy Shahan's 22,000 acre HV Ranch in Brackettville Texas. This mound of dirt would eventually become the mission compound which was used in the filming of John Wayne's epic masterpiece Alamo
“I first thought of doing in 1946 and went down there to research,” Duke said. “I was at Republic at the time and when I left there they tried to steal the idea. They came up with Last Command which was a quickie. Nuff said.” Wayne flew thousands of miles and visited multiple sites to try and find a location that would suit his purposes. From South America, to Panama to Mexico City, he was always on the look-out for property that would match the vision he had in his mind. No matter what project he happened to be involved with at the moment, whether it was Three Godfathers or Quiet Man or Horse Soldiers or any of the other numerous films he made during the late 40's and early to mid 50's, he always had in the back of his mind. How to finance it, where to film it, which other actors should be involved and countless other details all had to be resolved before his project could get off the ground.
In 1948, the famed director John Ford visited San Antonio with John Wayne and indicated that Wayne would play the role of David Crockett while Ford would be involved in the project. “It may be a year before we start shooting scenes of the Alamo picture.” Ford said. Pat Ford, John's son was already writing the script and the thought was that it was to be filmed in San Antonio. By 1950, the script was finished and now the plan was to film it in 1951. “Jack Ford has offered to help me with it and to direct the scenes in which I appear. What more help could a man ask?” The filming was tentatively scheduled to start in October of that year, once Quiet Man wrapped up in the summer. The initial script had already been revised numerous times and was modified by Paul Fix and further rewritten by James Edwards Grant.
After Wayne completed the filming of Pilot, he and his second wife Chata, flew down to Central America where he made a tentative search for potential locations for the film. By 1951, Wayne had submitted a copy of the script to the Censor Board of the Mexican Government. He followed that up with a visit to Sindicados at which time he gained permission to make the movie in Mexico. However, financial problems postponed the making of the movie at that time.
In June 1951, amid considerable publicity that Wayne and Republic Pictures would now film the story of this heroic battle in Mexico City due to economic considerations, R.J. O'Donnell (Vice-President and General Manager of the Interstate Circuit, one of the largest movie chains in Texas), Jesse Jones (Texas politician, publisher of the Houston Chronicle, entrepreneur and Secretary of Commerce under Franklin Roosevelt) and others went so far as to contact Herbert Yates, President of Republic to try and dissuade them from doing so. “To make the story of the Alamo in Mexico would be disastrous, in my opinion, and would be like making the story of Bunker Hill or the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia or any other of our patriotic stories in a foreign country,” O'Donnell implored.
By October of that year, the outrage of this direction was so great that Wayne had a change of heart. While in San Antonio as a part of a star studded publicity tour of Texas he indicated that when filming the movie, portions would be shot there if details could be worked out. “We hope to use the interior of the Alamo for some of our shots. We will use the chapel if they will let us.” But he also went on to say that to shoot this film locally would cost him “a million dollars more” than to make it in Mexico or California. Several years work had gone into the planning of this project and since that was going to be his first big picture, he was “not going to make a cheap job of it.” It appeared though that this response was just a way to potentially deflect criticism of an unpopular decision. William Saal, executive assistant to Herbert Yates, sent a letter to Mayor White of San Antonio, coyly skirting around the Alamo affair. “If we had known we weren't going to start Alamo until spring, we would have made a motion picture named Golden Herd which was written by a Texan man and has its locale near San Antonio.” Eventually, the whole idea of filming a portion of the movie locally was dropped. The following year Wayne visited Peru to scout locations; although he didn't find anything that suited his purposes, he did meet Pilar Weldy (Pallete), a young Peruvian woman who would eventually become his third wife.
After Quiet Man was finished, Wayne was all set to make in Panama where he had previously spent weeks scouting locations. The area was perfect and the country was in the midst of a depression, which would have made the cost more economical. As an added bonus, Wayne noted “there was a two-mile airstrip nearby that the Americans had built so transport would have been easy.” Herbert Yates demanded that Duke give up Batjac (Wayne's production company) and make the picture for Republic. Not only that, he further requested that they postpone the starting date and cut the budget. Wayne believed that Yates “deliberately told some folks that I was shooting it in Texas…but now the Texans were angry with me. I had to go down there and square it with my Texas friends.” After having yet another fruitless conversation with Yates regarding the approval of this project, Wayne gave him an ultimatum. “You go through with this, Herb, or I won't be on the set when you get back.” Calling his bluff Yates indicated that they could discuss it again in two weeks after Yates returned from a trip. Replied Wayne once more, “I want the okay right now or I won't be here when you get back.” Yates refused to answer and just laughed. As soon as Yates left for his trip, Wayne packed up his stuff lock, stock and barrel and left the studio, never to return.
In early 1952, Wayne started pre-production work in Durango, but was forced to stop when informed that officials in the Mexican government, despite previously approving his script, might impede the project. After a month of expensive preparation, he was compelled to quit. “Wayne had made a million adobes down in Mexico,” said Happy Shahan. “But after he made 'em, the Mexicans used 'em more than he did.”
Happy had learned about the constantly postponed project and contacted Wayne to try and persuade him to film the movie in Brackettville Texas. When informed that the intention was to do it in Panama or Mexico, Happy expressed his doubts on the choice of location. “I can do it any god-damn place I want to,” bellowed Wayne. Once Wayne received a letter from the Daughters of the Republic of Texas stating that if he would film it in Mexico, it wouldn't be shown in a Texas theater, he accused Shahan of putting them up to it. Although not taking responsibility for that action, Shahan did start a letter writing campaign called “Make in Texas.” It was to take over two years and several conversations for Happy to convince Wayne to make the movie locally, but by 1957, all the pieces were in place and the long-delayed project was finally begun.
When asked why he felt so strongly about this project Wayne answered, “I deplore the type garbage that's being splashed on our screens today. I think it's important for some agency in public life or communications to remind the world that once there were men and women in America who had the guts to stand up and die for things in which they believed in. This heroic story is not fiction. It happened only 124 years ago, and it belongs to people everywhere who have an interest in a thing called freedom. Davy Crockett said: 'Without freedom you're dead as a beaver hat.'”
It can't be said any plainer than that.
For further information on this subject, please refer to “Alamo Village - How a Texas Cattleman Brought Hollywood to the Old West” by John Farkis as well as his upcoming book, “Not Thinking, Just Remembering - The Making of John Wayne's The Alamo as Told by the Cast and Crew” to be available in the fall of 2009