The Alamo on the Big Screen: 1960 vs 2004

Since the dawn of film-making, the battle of the Alamo has inspired and intrigued film directors. Since early in the twentieth century, there have been numerous adaptations on the Alamo story, some ranging from the historically accurate, to the ridiculous and exaggerated.

It all began in 1911, with the first Alamo movie titled The Immortal Alamo. This film has since been lost to history, but lobby cards of screen shots still exist in their rare form. Three years later, The Siege and Fall of the Alamo would be filmed, and no remnants remain of this classic movie starring Ray Myers as Crockett. In 1915, D.W Griffith would spin his version of the story, with the highly racist and downright laughable Martyrs of the Alamo. 1926 would have Davy Crockett at the Fall of the Alamo, and then a semi-remake of that in 1937 with Heroes of the Alamo.

The Alamo facade from D.W Griffith’s “Martyrs of the Alamo”.

In the 1950’s, fresh off Walt Disney’s Davy Crockett craze, The Last Command would be made, starring Sterling Hayden and Arthur Hunnicut. Although it was the best Alamo film until that time, it would be no match for John Wayne’s take just five years later. After his 1960 film, buffs would have to wait twenty-seven years, when the mini-series Thirteen Days to Glory would be televised. This is the version that has been hacked apart by film critics and historians alike, even though it was the most accurate version up until that time.

Sterling Hayden, Arthur Hunnicut, Richard Carlson, and Ernest Borgnine, among others in the cast of “The Last Command”.

Just when no one thought the market could bear another Alamo movie, John Lee Hancock directed The Alamo, in 2004. This was a critical and commercial flop. Despite its immense budget of $90 million, and billing itself as the most accurate Alamo movie ever made, it angered people because it basically tore apart the legends surrounding Texan heroes such as David Crockett, James Bowie, and William Barrett Travis, and all but ignored the heroics of courier James Butler Bonham.

Although there have been all these adaptations, when discussing the Alamo battle and cinema, only two come up. They of course are Wayne’s and Hancock’s, both going by the exact same name, and each one unique in its own right.

But which one of these films are better?

Most Alamo buffs will say that they enjoy both, as I do. But it is a hard decision to make. Do you pick the patriotic and triumphant 1960 version? Or the more accurate, better choreographed 2004 version? In order to decide which is better, I will compare everything having to do with the two movies, and by the end, hopefully we can figure out which film is the better version.


It seems a random place to start, but let’s take a look at the two soundtracks. The 1960 film had Hollywood legend Dmitri Tiomkin at the helm, and he delivered what I feel is the best film score of his career, and one that I rank top five in all the movies ever made. From the haunting main title until the incredible, rip-roaring final assault, this soundtrack gave Carter Burwell, composer for the 2004 film, a run for his money.

But Burwell was up to the challenge, and delivered what I consider to be the best film score in the last decade. Deguello de Crockett is something I consider very enjoyable, and the music during the final battle scene (which is divided into six parts) is not only haunting itself, but a real tear-jerker.

When deciding which of these is better, it is very difficult. I could happily listen to either of these any day, but I will give the slight edge, and by slight, I mean minuscule, to Carter Burwell.

Acting: David Crockett

Both of these portrayals are stark in contrast. John Wayne gave Crockett the almighty, larger-than-life look that people at the time were interested in seeing. However, in the politically correct world we live in today, our heroes are more subject to accuracy. For that, Hancock chose to make Bill Bob Thornton’s Crockett a little more believable. He is intelligent, yet not as outspoken as Wayne’s. He is a hero, but acknowledges how exaggerated the stories are about him. And more importantly, Hancock’s film takes note of there being a little animosity between Crockett and Bowie, as these two were superstars of their time. Although I don’t know how it would have been, I don’t think it would have been love at first sight as seen in Wayne’s version.

Billy Bob Thornton as David Crockett.

The edge here will go to Thornton’s Crockett, because he was really into his character, and in addition to that, actually resembled portraits of the real Crockett. When Wayne made his version, he did not want to star in it, but to get financial backing they made him. With such immense pressure on him as the director, you could tell he was not totally into his character. That and the fact he appeared in the same clothes he wore in almost every western– a blue shirt and a leather vest, went against him. The coonskin cap did get more screen time in his version though, and whether or not Crockett wore it full-time at the Alamo is irrelevant. I think it was something that needed to be in Hancock’s version.

Acting: James Bowie

Both versions did a good job of displaying the difference of opinions between Bowie and the Alamo commander William Travis. Both depict him as the ruffian, knife-fighter who does not take any nonsense from anybody, including his superiors. Jason Patric was perfect for the role, in both looks, personality, and persona, though I wish he was a bit more emotional.

Richard Widmark, who played Bowie in Wayne’s version, was by no means flawless. Often times he seemed over the top, but I still found him more enjoyable, despite the ridiculous rifle they made him carry around, and his constant and endless threats to pull his men out of the fort.

Richard Widmark and John Wayne as Bowie and Crockett, respectively.

I will still give the edge to Widmark, because along with Wayne, he epitomized what it meant to be a tough guy in the old west. The fate of his slave at the Alamo is uncertain, but I thought Widmark nailed the situation perfectly, but Patric was also good in his portrayal, of a much more brutally honest situation.

Acting: William Barret Travis

It is well known in history that Travis was not so well liked among his peers and subordinates. Whether or not the hatred was as drastic as in Wayne’s version will never be known. But this comparison is not comparing accuracy just yet, just the acting. Shakespearean trained Lithuanian actor Laurence Harvey got the part in 1960, and although his obvious European accent did nothing but throw his character off a bit, I felt he was simply the better actor at times.

Wayne made it a point to have the audience, and characters, despise Travis, so that we could all witness his transformation at the near-end of the movie, when he gives the speech telling his men no help will arrive. Harvey was nearly perfect in achieving that hatred with his arrogance, and then losing it and achieving honor. Patrick Wilson’s version, as seen in 2004, was close to Harvey’s, but was not quite there.

Patrick Wilson as Travis.

It showed a little more of his personal life, showing him signing the divorce papers, but I thought Wilson looked too awkward in that scene, whether or not that was intentional. I thought Wilson’s portrayal was extremely dry until the end, but his final speech to the men will top everything that Harvey did in 1960, leaving me no choice but to award Wilson with a slight edge over Harvey.

Acting: Supporting Cast

Let me just come right out and say it, John Wayne’s supporting cast blows Hancock’s right out of the water. I cannot even say how great they were, because to put into words the character portrayals by veteran actors Chill Wills, Hank Worden, Chuck Roberson, Denver Pyle, and Ken Curtis would not do them justice.

Crockett and his Tennesseans, with Chill Wills next to Wayne in the foreground.

Although all of those above actors, with the exception of  Curtis as Captain Dickinson, played fictional characters, it was well worth the loss of accuracy to see such tremendous performances. These men were shown to be lighthearted and humorous, making the time just fly by when watching them.

James Bonham was also given more screen time, although his ride and the news he brings with him were highly fictionalized,  and almost laugh-out-loud horrible, it still acknowledged him as one of the many Alamo heroes.

In the 2004 version, Bonham’s spoken dialogue was reduced to a few sentences, after his role was chopped away in the editing room. The supporting cast was also not as lovable, and maybe that is due to the accuracy factor. These men were shown to be land-grabbers and slave holders, and although that may have been true in real life, I felt it hurt the film to have the director go out of his way to let the audience know it. Leon Rippy’s character of William Ward was enjoyable, and the Esparza family was given ample screen time, but that is about it. Juan Seguin was also given a major role in Hancock’s, whereas he was inaccurately portrayed in Wayne’s, by shown to be present at the time of the final battle when he was really with Houston.

It also must be mentioned the portrayal of the Mexican soldiers in both versions. Even though they were shown to be gallant and proud in Wayne’s version, they were not nearly given enough dialogue warranted in a film that stretched nearly three and a half hours. Hancock’s version did a great job with Emilio Echevarria as General Santa Anna, portraying him as a tyrant who would not listen to the warnings of his generals. Wayne’s version shows Santa Anna twice, with him only receiving one sentence just minutes away from the film’s conclusion.

Final Battle Scenes

For an Alamo movie, whether or not one will enjoy it usually comes down to the final battle scene. Because both of these movies featured completely different portrayals, with Wayne’s being in the day, and Hancock’s at night, it makes it very easy to compare the two.

Once again, we will put aside historical accuracy as it is fact that the Alamo battle occurred in the pre-dawn hours of March 6, as shown perfectly in the 2004 version. Hancock did an excellent job in filming a highly complex scene, because of the fact he shot it at night. However, his use of computer generated soldiers takes away from the film, as it is glaringly obvious in some scenes. That and the fact that a smoke ring floats right across the screen after a cannon shot. We all know that smoke rings can only be caused when firing a blank round. This highly irritates me and I still wonder to this day why it was not edited out.

Theater lobby poster for Wayne’s Alamo film.

When it comes to Wayne’s version, the word grandiosity comes to mind. He spared no expense in using nearly five thousand extras for the attack scenes, with each regiment wearing a different color uniform. Whether or not that was the case in real life, it added to the immensity of the film project. He also included cavalry, which added to the splendor of the final battle, when twenty-or-so riders come galloping towards the palisade before they are cut down by Crockett’s riflemen.

The winner in this category will be John Wayne’s. To this day, it is my favorite battle scene in any movie. Rarely has one like that, especially when you consider how old it is, been filmed. There are a few obvious errors, such as a dummy being used near a wall when a cannon explodes, but for the day, that was expected.

The Death of the Alamo Heroes

Unfortunately, when looking at this category, accuracy has to come into mind. In the 2004 version, Wilson’s Travis was shot in the forehead by a rifle, when he then slumped to the ground dead. This was very blunt, but also the way I was expecting, because that is what actually happened. Harvey’s portrayal was not so subtle. He takes on two Mexican soldiers in a sword fight, before getting shot twice, and then for no apparent reason, he breaks the sword over his knee and throws the handle towards the approaching enemy, before falling to the ground dead. The scene really could have went without the over-dramatic nature of his death.

When it came to Bowie, both movies showed him being sick or injured and in bed during the final assault. We all know that Bowie was ill with a form of pneumonia that left him nearly crippled at the time of the battle. In the 1960 version, Widmark is up and fighting until he gets injured halfway through the battle and is forced to lay down in a bed. In the 2004 version, Patric is barely able to sit up, and slowly lifts up two pistols and kills two Mexican soldiers before being bayoneted to death. This is the more realistic scenario. But Widmark’s character, who carries a ridiculous ten-shot rifle, blasts away a charging group of soldiers, then fires two pistols, and is also able to slit another one in the throat with his famous knife before being bayoneted himself. Although heroic, it was also highly ridiculous.

Crockett’s death, meanwhile, still causes controversy to this day. Did he die fighting, or was he taken alive and executed after the battle? We will never know, but luckily, these films got to show us both sides of the spectrum. Thornton’s Crockett is cornered in the Alamo church and attempts to go down swinging. When the next scenes opens, he is kneeling down after the battle and he is given the option to surrender. This scene was very emotional and brought a tear to our eyes as he is finally killed.

Wayne’s Crockett impaled by a lancer during his last stand.

Wayne’s Crockett ends up running halfway across the compound with a torch, gets lanced in the chest, and then stumbles into the gun powder room. He then tosses the torch in, and the place blows itself to smithereens. That scene always makes me smile, because Wayne’s character is basically saying to the audience, “They may get me, but I’m gonna take a lot of ’em with me!”

The film with the edge in death scenes goes to Hancock’s version. They were more emotional and depressing, and combined with the eerie score of Burwell, it was a perfect marriage of sight and sound.

Historical Accuracy

It could take the length of a book to compare and contrast the various inaccuracies in both movies, but we will just go over the most obvious. In John Wayne’s version, the final battle takes place in broad daylight, with drums and music before the final march. The 2004 version shows just what it was in real life; a dark, surprise attack.

The deaths of the characters, as noted above, also heavily lean toward Hancock’s version, as do the way there were dressed and what they did in their personal lives, such as own slaves.

It is also worthy to note that the Mexican numbers were most likely around 3,000-4,000, and not 7,000 as depicted in Wayne’s version. The Alamo forces numbered around 250, but it is mentioned that they have 185 in Wayne’s version.

Critical Reaction

Both films were basically torn apart by the critics, but loved by the history buffs. People that did not enjoy history who saw these movies obviously did not enjoy the film. When looking at the IMDB ratings for both, John Wayne’s version stands at a very solid 6.7 rating with 5,318 votes. John Lee Hancock’s, meanwhile, has a mediocre 5.9 rating with 9,855 votes.

When it came to awards, Wayne’s version was recognized by various institutions, while Hancock’s was only nominated for one, which was a Harry Award in 2005. Wayne’s version would be nominated for seven Academy Awards, for Best Sound (winner), Best Supporting Actor for Chill Wills, Best Color Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Music, and most importantly, Best Picture. It also took home a Golden Globe, three Laurel Awards, and a Bronze Wrangler Award.

Final Thoughts

Both of these movies are very close to my heart. Both are alike and different in so many ways. Even after mapping out what I like and dislike in the two versions, it is still very difficult. Either way, these movies both showed ordinary men standing up for what they feel is right. Whether or not you agree with their politics is one thing, but you cannot discount the fact that they gave their lives for the dream that was Texas.

For that, I will go ahead and say that John Wayne’s 1960 version is my favorite of the two. The reason is, it did so much to build up all the characters, especially the supporting cast of Wayne’s Tennesseans, by showing how fun and lovable they were. All this build up led the audience to feel really sad when the characters died at the end of the film. Meanwhile, Hancock’s version went out of its way to show them as ordinary, almost to debunk and destroy their hero stature. With the exception of Crockett, there really is not as much sadness felt when the characters were killed at the end.

Alamo historian and author Ned Huthmacher, who penned a novel titled, One Domingo Morning: The Story of Alamo Joe once said to me, when asked about which movie was better, that, “John Lee Hancock’s version is by far and away the better of the two, but that does not make it my favorite, or more enjoyable.”

15 thoughts on “The Alamo on the Big Screen: 1960 vs 2004

  1. Israel

    I read this whole article and really enjoyed it. I’m a big fan of the Alamo, and prefer Hancock’s version myself, mostly on the strength of Thorton’s portrayal of Crockett.

  2. Nice review and comparison. I’m much in agreement with you. I find John Wayne’s version very enjoyable despite knowing how inaccurate it is. I really liked Thorton’s Crockett, though. The irony of someone dying to preserve their own legend is pretty intense when you consider it.

    I have both on DVD and watch each of them once or twice a year, usually close together. They complement each other quite well.

    I’ve been an Alamo buff most of my life, since I first visited the Alamo when I was about five years old. After the 2004 movie I decided to build an Alamo diorama. I put it on a web site

  3. Steve Nunn

    What an excellent review! Well thought-out and reasoned. Objective and detailed. Congratulations.

    I’m very much inclined to go with the 2004 version and for pretty much the same reasons of historical accuracy, acting comparisons and so on. I found Carter Burwell’s score very moving indeed – I bought the soundtrack CD and find it to be good driving music in the car!

  4. John Noseworthy

    Great article and review. I have to say that I love both movies they were both great films but my favorite is John Wayne’s version only because I saw it when I was 16
    and I was highly impressionable. I could watch that battle scene forever. Although I do like Hancock’s version because of its accuracy and Billy Bob Thorton’s portrayal of Davey Crockett.

  5. henry charles

    I must say I find it hard to believe that someone could like both of these movies. One has an accurate story ( more or less), correct wardrobe, believable dialog and a performance for the ages with Billy Bob Thornton as DC. The other has a giant Mexican cannon, some kind of machine gun in Bowie’s hands, an English Travis, Crockett in cowboy clothes and dewy eyed blather about freedom from the mouths of slave-mongers. Good score though. Anyway, I enjoyed the comparison. Good job.

  6. Great article discovered almost by accident: brought back memories of being taken to the movies by a friend’s father in 1960 (unprecedented event!), at age 10, to see the movie about one of my favorite subjects (right up there with the Titanic and Civil War); but even then I had misgivings over John Wayne, who I can remember thinking at the time was simply no Davie Crockett (maybe because he did not look like the revered Fess Parker!), but still, I thought, he was stiff and too “normal” — and sure enough, that is how I left the theater, feeling a little disappointed because I just could not see him as Davie any more than had he played Rocky: I know these comments border on treason.

  7. Jay Lew

    When you reviewed the 1960 movie did you watch the original that was over three hours long or the current shortened version that is out on DVD shortened by about 40 min?

  8. Russell Cox

    After reading the article, I looked for pictures of Davey Crockett. I disagree that Thorton looks more like Crockett than John Wayne. I don’t think either one looks like him. He looks a lot more like Fess Parker than either of the other two.

  9. Melissa Taylor

    I REALLY appreciate you taking the time to write this article! I am taking my son to San Antonio soon, and I wanted him to have an idea of the history before he looked at the Alamo as “an old building.” They have not covered that history in school yet and mine is quite rusty, (I’m a little older than I like to admit and my memory is TERRIBLE) so I was wanting to know if there was a movie that accurately (or closely) depicted the truth of the history. I enjoyed your article immensely, and now I’ve decided to make him watch both movies. Classics never hurt a kid!🙂

  10. david

    I understand your opinions and accept them but do disagree. Richard Widmark was a movie star and was not a great actor. Jason Patric’s acting is superior. John Wayne, as you imply, was basically the same guy in almost every movie he ever made with subtle differences, not because of interprtation, but because of his age at the time. I would have to give the ensemble cast to the latter version only because of realistic style. The acting in the Wayne version was typical 50’s-60’s western fare. But the main reason why I pick Billy Bob Thornton’s movie is because it is definitely more historically accurate.
    I do not believe any previous movie about the Alamo ever showed the story from the Mexican army’s perspective. The fact that Santa Ana was such a lowlife arrogant egotistical person who fashioned himself as the modern Napolean. That he was so small in stature, which also is so telling regarding his personality and leadership techniques. The fact that he did not attack for days knowing that the defenders would run out of supplies. It was not an epic final battle as in the Disney or the Wayne depiction, but more of an inevitable conclusion, which also solidifies the level of bravery that the doomed Texicans faced in spite of the overwhelming odds. NO Other version ever made that point so clear as the Thornton version did. Both are riddled with inaccuracies, for sure. But just starting with Wayne, who was probably 6’4″, or taller, the inaccuracies abound. Now if you want to discuss which one was more entertaining then I can see why the John Wayne entry would be someone’s choice. As far as which one was probably more historically accurate and better portrayed… in my opinion it’s just the opposite.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s