As an Alamo buff, I own this gem (note the sarcasm) on VHS, but had not seen it in years. Thankfully, one of my former history professors was kind enough to send me a text message, alerting me that it was on Encore Westerns last night. As flawed as the film is, because it has to do with the Alamo, I watched it in its entirety on TV, and Encore showed the entire thing, commercial free.
The Alamo: Thirteen Days to Glory was made as a mini-series on NBC back in 1987, clocking in at nearly three hours, depending on the cut you see. There is so much good in this movie, but far, far more bad. The set they used for the Alamo compound and town of San Antonio was the same set that John Wayne built for his film, The Alamo, back in 1960, in Bracketville, Texas.
Not only did they steal the scenery, but battle footage as well. Whenever there were shots of large numbers of Mexican troops marching, it was lifted from The Last Command, from 1955. For the final battle scene, part of the main charge were also stolen from that movie, and spliced it with footage actually shot by the director Burt Kennedy. Only problem with this, is that the walls of the Alamo in The Last Command were a dark tan and made of bricks, while the set used in this film was a clear, smooth white. The director made no effort to hide it, so if you have seen both movies like I have, it’s a laughable error.
When it comes to the actors, you can say this little epic had an all-star cast. Brian Keith played Davy Crockett, James Arness was Jim Bowie, and the up-and-coming Alec Baldwin was William Barrett Travis. Raul Julia and David Ogden Stiers also made their way into the film, and I must admit, with as bad a dialogue as the writers of this film gave Julia, he made the best of it, and delivered a great performance.
But even with the all-star actors involved, they were horrible mis-cast. Brian Keith was 66 at the time, and was supposed to be playing a 49 year old Crockett. He did a good a job as he could, and being how old he really was, made it seem like he was even more wiser, and had more experience when he was telling stories. But all his charm could not save him from looking completely out of place.
Jim Bowie, on the other hand, was 40 years old at the time of the Alamo, and was being played by a 64 year old Arness. As usual, he delivered a gritty, convincing role, which was good for entertainment purposes. But as for historical accuracy, what a botched job it was. Lorne Greene also makes a cameo appearance as Sam Houston. This one scene, would probably be the most embarrassing of his film career. He looks ancient in the role, and when he speaks, he is emotionless. Let me stop there. As my professor Jeff Huber said, “It was amazing that it took the Mexican army an entire thirteen days to beat the geriatric brigade.” The only actor who was not out of place was Alec Baldwin, who actually bore a resemblance to the real Travis and was close enough in age.
When it came time for the actual battle, scenes of the charge were lifted from The Last Command, as mentioned above, but the parts that were actually filmed were just downright terrible. The rifles they fired sounded like cap guns and not one cannon ever recoiled after a shot.
The most ridiculous part, though, was the Travis’ last stand. He chose to stand on top of a well, and throughout the battle, we see the same exact scene three times: he fires his pistol, killing one soldier, and stabbing another with a sword. The director made no effort to even make the scene look real, and not once do we ever see him reload. When Travis finally does die, the bayonet that kills him conveniently stabs him underneath a flap in the jacket, so we never see any blood.
Speaking of bayonets, every time a soldier was running with his rifle, you could tell they were rubber because they kept flapping in the breeze. In one scene, where a Texan is stabbed from the side, you can clearly see it bend once it touched the side of his chest, right there on-screen, with no effort to hide it, as if the director was trying to insult our intelligence.
For educational purposes, I suppose this film can be used, if shown and explained in the right way. The film does accurately depict the fate of the women and children in the Alamo as well as Travis’ slave, Joe. It is, to date, the only Alamo film to get that right.
However, when it comes to dealing with Santa Anna and his staff, it depicts the general as a fearless warrior patriot with inept officers. In reality, it was the other way around. Santa Anna was the stubborn one, and his generals, such as Manuel Castrillion (not depicted in this film) tried to persuade him not to attack, and then to take prisoners when they did. Both requests which Santa Anna denied.
For my final rating, I will give this film a 5 out of 10, because it shows many things that other Alamo films have ignored, such as Colonel Fannin at Goliad, the fate of the survivors, a soldier asking to leave after Travis drew the line in the sand, and actual showing advanced dialogue between Santa Anna and his generals, even as ridiculous as some of his statements were.
This film is not available on DVD, nor should it be. There are copies on VHS that some people are selling on Ebay. If you love history, and love the Alamo, it is worth a watch, if you can get it for the right price. After you have seen it once, watch it again and make fun of all the errors; it really is a good time. Also, check your listings if you have digital cable, because it will be airing on certain channels in the next few weeks.