The Battle of the Alamo was fought over 13 days on the grounds of an 18th century Spanish mission in San Antonio in the winter of 1836. But the battle over our collective memory of the Alamo is still being fought today. What unfolded in real time as one front in a regional conflict between Mexico and the nascent Republic of Texas has long since become a national symbol of American heroism and fighting spirit as summed up by the now-famous battle cry: “Remember the Alamo.”
That transformation has been aided in no small part by movies. 1915’s Martyrs of the Alamo was one of the earliest cinematic depictions of the siege — which found a small army of Texians (residents of what was then called Mexican Texas) and famed American frontiersman like James Bowie and Davy Crockett making an ultimately successful last stand against the forces of Mexican general Antonio López de Santa Anna — and it added a mythic sheen to events that obscured the historical record.
Produced by Birth of a Nation director D.W. Griffith, that silent film depicts the Texas side as significantly consisting of white soldiers, and also went out of its way to demonize the Mexican troops.
Walt Disney also offered a sanitized version of the battle in its 1954 TV series Davy Crockett (later released as two feature films), which depicted the coonskin cap-wearing pioneer, played by Fess Parker, as making a heroic last stand at the mission. But the Alamo received its grandest stage in John Wayne’s frontier epic The Alamo, which opened in theaters 60 years ago on Oct. 24, 1960.
Wayne directed and stars as Crockett in the two-and-a-half hour production, which was fashioned in the mold of the classic Westerns he made with John Ford, including Fort Apache and The Searchers. (In fact, Hollywood legend has it that Ford tried to take control of The Alamo behind the camera when he showed up on set, and Wayne dispatched him to helm second unit footage instead.)
But the famously conservative actor also brought his own specific politics to the story. With the Cold War in full swing, Wayne — who had sided with the forces of McCarthyism during Hollywood’s ’50s-era Red Scare — imbues the movie a pronounced “us vs. them” patriotism, and makes room for pointed asides such as Crockett’s explanation for why he’s so moved by the word “republic.” “It’s one of those words that makes me tight in the throat,” Wayne remarks in the movie. “Some words can make your heart warm: Republic is one of those words.”
At the same time, Wayne is trying to deliver grand spectacle; made for a then super-sized $12 million budget, The Alamo climaxes with an extended large-scale battle sequence that was singled out for praise at the time. It’s also the scene that resonated most with Ernesto Rodriguez, who grew up to become a curator at the real-life Alamo, which has been preserved as a historic site in San Antonio. “It’s a great scene,” Rodriguez told Yahoo Entertainment.