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The Man from the Alamo

30 May

The worst that can happen to you is that somebody will say you died a hero. That man’s going to be called a coward the rest of his life.

That quote essentially sums up what The Man from the Alamo (1953) is all about – the way that courage can be misrepresented and misunderstood, how casual labeling can lead to blind, unjustified persecution. While this idea is central to the film, it’s mixed in with a standard revenge tale, and set against a backdrop of historically significant events. One could say there are the makings of an epic story here but, in the hands of Budd Boetticher, the end result is a short, tightly paced western that rarely pauses for breath and never outstays its welcome.

The opening section plunges the audience straight into the latter stages of the siege of the Alamo, with Travis’ volunteers holed up in the old adobe mission and Santa Anna’s forces massing for the final assault outside. These events have become part of American lore, and far beyond the borders of the US too if the truth be told, coming to represent grit, determination and heroic self-sacrifice. Occasions such as this have the potential to make legends of all involved, to see names honored for generations to come. However, as always, there’s a flip side to the coin. Where circumstances can see one man’s reputation soar, they can equally see that of another cast into the mud. Which brings us to John Stroud (Glenn Ford), one of the defenders of the Alamo and a man who has already proved his mettle in the heat of battle. It’s bad enough when news arrives that no relief will be forthcoming, but the situation is exacerbated for some by reports that enemy sympathizers are raiding the unprotected homesteads to the north. As a result, a handful of defenders draw lots to see who will undertake the thankless task of leaving the mission and heading off to take care of the vulnerable families. The dubious honor falls to Stroud, who accepts his fate and rides off into potential ignominy. The crucial point here is that the viewer knows that Stroud had no other choice, that he was simply dealt a lousy hand and could do nothing but play it. As it turns out, his gesture proves futile – the guerrillas have been and gone, leaving nothing in their wake but charred homes and shallow graves. Stroud is now a man bereft: his home and family are gone, and his name has become a byword for cowardice and dishonor among those not privy to all the details. All that is left is a thirst for revenge, a desire to track down and punish the renegades who have taken all he held dear. At best Stroud finds himself shunned by a contemptuous town, and at worst he risks a lynching by the more hot-headed elements. Yet, despite the threats and insults, he is committed to tracking down the real villains and, in so doing, redeeming himself in the eyes of his suspicious traveling companions while also coming to terms with his own feelings of guilt and shame.

A brief glance at the credits for The Man from the Alamo provides ample proof of its pedigree: Niven Busch and Steve Fisher feature among the writers, Russell Metty handled the photography, and Budd Boetticher occupied the director’s chair. Boetticher’s status rests mainly on the Ranown films, those pared down masterpieces with Randolph Scott. However, directors, like actors, don’t just arrive fully formed. When you come to examine almost any artist’s finest work, there’s generally a progression that can be traced leading up to that point. And so it was with Boetticher; the Ranown westerns may represent the peak of his achievements, but his earlier pictures were pointing in that direction. As I mentioned at the beginning, the ingredients were in place for a “big” movie. However, Boetticher, and the writers, trim away all the unnecessary flab to leave us with a lean piece that focuses on a driven character, an emotionally damaged outsider who measures words and actions carefully. That inner torment that Scott would so successfully portray a few years down the line isn’t quite so fully developed in The Man from the Alamo, but it’s there in embryonic form at least. I think it’s fair to say that Boetticher did his best work when he was out shooting on location. This film doesn’t have the benefit of the iconic Lone Pine locations yet the exteriors all look suitably handsome. Actually, a fair bit of the filming took place on the Universal backlot, and still looks attractive. The opening in the Alamo is extremely atmospheric, with the guttering candlelight creating a kind of grim claustrophobia, punctuated occasionally by the harsh flashes of the artillery. Generally, all of the action, and there’s no shortage of it, is well handled – the scene with the wagon train in full flight near the end is a good example of the director’s talent for exciting outdoor sequences.

Glenn Ford started his post-war career strongly with Gilda and built on it very successfully in the years that followed. By the 1950s he was getting better and better, and The Man from the Alamo was made at a time when he was approaching his peak. While there are plenty of good actors around him in this movie, a lot rests on his central performance. Ford’s experience working in film noir stands to him here as there’s more than a touch of bad luck and the cruelty of fate surrounding his character. He was always good in these kinds of roles – the outsider who’s vaguely uncomfortable with himself – and uses that ability to get properly into the character of Stroud. He could also, when he wanted, project a type of self-effacing affability and that helps draw the sympathy of the audience. If you’re going to tell a story like this – about a wronged man whose sense of personal and public honor is questioned – then it’s vital to have an everyman type like Ford whose real qualities are apparent to the viewer. Julia Adams was handed a strong role too as the woman who overcomes her initial skepticism to become Stroud’s main ally. Not only does she bring a lot of dignity to her part, but she handles the physical demands very well too. Every western needs a suitable villain and Victor Jory was an expert at playing cunning and ruthless types. Besides looking shifty and slippery, Jory had a voice that just oozed malevolence. Neville Brand was another of those perennial bad guys and is impressive in a small but memorable role. In support there are worthwhile turns from Hugh O’Brian as a priggish Texan officer who gets to eat some humble pie, and Chill Wills as the one-armed newspaperman forced to put his blustering prejudice aside.

I actually have two copies of The Man from the Alamo on DVD: the UK edition that came out first and the US release that came as part of a four movie set a few years later. Both are Universal releases, and there’s not a lot to choose between them regarding the transfer. Both are in reasonable condition with no major print damage evident, although the colors look a little muted here and there. The UK disc has a variety of language dubs and subtitles available, but the US version represents better value since three other films come with it. Certain names bring raised expectations with them, and Budd Boetticher is one of those. It would be unwise to approach The Man from the Alamo in the hope of seeing a movie of the quality of any of the Ranown pictures, but that doesn’t mean it’s an inferior movie. Frankly, it’s a good little western on its own terms, but it’s also interesting as an indication of the direction in which Boetticher was unmistakably moving at this stage in his career.

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20 Comments

Posted by on May 30, 2013 in 1950s, Budd Boetticher, Glenn Ford, Westerns

 

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20 responses to “The Man from the Alamo

  1. Cavershamragu

    May 30, 2013 at 8:06 am

    Not seen this one Colin but caught a snatch of it on TV a few months ago and now really want to see it after the excellent review – might get the 4-disc set though the language option on the UK disc are tempting. Is the quote at the top of your review quite correct? The two sentences don’t seem to follow . It’s probably me being thick again but …

     
    • Colin

      May 30, 2013 at 8:31 am

      Thanks Sergio.

      Perhaps the quote does look a little odd taken out of context, but it’s correct for all that. It’s part of a conversation between two soldiers on the walls of the Alamo as Ford is preparing to ride away. In the first sentence the “you” refers to, let’s call him, soldier number 1, who has just commented on Ford’s imminent departure. Soldier number 2 then continues the next sentence talking about “that man” – Ford – who is visible below the ramparts saddling up and ready to go. Does that make sense?

      As for the DVDs, it really is a toss up between the language options on the UK disc and the added value of the other films on the US set.

       
      • Cavershamragu

        May 30, 2013 at 12:18 pm

        Cheers mate – I’m a huge Boetticher fan (the Sony box dedicated to his work is a thing of great beauty) so great to read good things about this one, one of the every last on my hit list so to speak.

         
        • Colin

          May 30, 2013 at 12:25 pm

          Quite. It’s great that so much of Boetticher’s work is now accessible after all those years when it was pretty difficult to see.

           
          • Cavershamragu

            May 30, 2013 at 12:29 pm

            Got to see him speak at the National Film Theatre some twenty years ago when THE TALL T was first restored and he was charm itself.

             
            • Colin

              May 30, 2013 at 7:05 pm

              That’s an experience to savor Sergio. And I can well believe he was charming – in every interview I’ve seen with the man he came across very well.

               
  2. Dafydd Jones

    May 30, 2013 at 8:21 am

    The man who ‘wasn’t there’ at crucial moments/battles in western history seems to guarantee a good film. A similar scenario to the one on which Randolph Scott’s 7th Cavalry is based of course. With the combination of talent on board in Man From The Alamo it was almost a sure thing that this would be a quality piece of work. Good review Colin. You’ve summed it up very well.

    I feel that this blog could occasionally benefit from some healthy one-upmanship (aka old-fashioned bragging) :) :) and with that in mind I would like to record for posterity that I myself own three (count ‘em!) copies of MFTA. The two DVDs that you’ve mentioned as well as an old U.S. VHS tape, I bought back in the 90s. Mind you, the less said about that the better. :)

     
    • Colin

      May 30, 2013 at 8:39 am

      Ha! There’s always someone to do you one better! :)

      I think I may have had three copies of Daves’ The Red House at one point, although I can’t say whether they were all actually in my possession at the same time. I can say for sure though that I do have three separate releases of Lang’s House by the River – such was my mania for finding an acceptable edition.

      Anyway, you’re right about the premise of the story being a strong one and full of dramatic potential.

       
  3. chrisk

    May 30, 2013 at 8:36 am

    I couldnt agree more with what you have written. No doubt about it, this is a minor and interesting western from Glenn Ford and Budd. Best regards.

     
    • Colin

      May 30, 2013 at 8:44 am

      Thanks Chris. I don’t think anyone would argue it’s the best work that either Boetticher or Ford did but it’s certainly interesting and well made. It’s a good film – just not up there with the very best.

       
  4. le0pard13

    May 30, 2013 at 10:59 am

    Another excellent review, Colin. And this is now in my Netflix queue. Much obliged.

     
    • Colin

      May 30, 2013 at 11:15 am

      Thanks Michael – hope you get to see it and, more importantly, enjoy it too.

       
  5. john k

    May 30, 2013 at 1:52 pm

    Your take on this film says it all Colin;no classic but good fun;and as you say, so fast
    moving that you do not have much time to think about it too much.My only gripe,surely they
    did not have six shooters back in 1836!
    Boetticher loved working with Ford and he was originally going to direct THE AMERICANO
    which was also going to co-star Arthur Kennedy;what a different picture that would have been.
    I too met Budd many years ago at the NFT,I took along his autobiography which he kindly
    signed for me.I remember telling him how great I thought “that scene” in SEVEN MEN FROM
    NOW was,where Lee Marvin really winds up Randolph Scott to breaking point. “Yeah, but he
    hits him in the end” said Budd,grinning broadly!

     
    • Colin

      May 30, 2013 at 7:09 pm

      Even as it stands, I’m kind of fond of The Americano. However, I can well imagine Boetticher would have added something more to the movie and likely have improved upon it.

      Nice little story about meeting Boetticher there too – thanks for sharing.

       
  6. Vienna

    May 30, 2013 at 6:14 pm

    What a thrill to have met the great Boetticher – you lucky people!
    I haven’t watched Man From Alamo in a long time but my memory of it is similar to your view.

     
    • Colin

      May 30, 2013 at 7:11 pm

      It’s a highly watchable movie Vienna – tightly directed and solid enough, worth revisiting in my opinion.

       
  7. Gareth Cross

    May 30, 2013 at 8:18 pm

    This might be an interesting complement to the movie Duke made a few years later, as I understand another similar Alamo film was made around this time The Last Command, would be interesting to compare and contrast them all.

     
    • Colin

      May 30, 2013 at 8:48 pm

      Hello Gareth. While I agree The Last Command and Wayne’s The Alamo could be assessed together, I don’t think this film should. Sure the first quarter hour or so takes place within the mission walls, but it’s really just used as a jumping off point for the story that follows. The siege of the Alamo is such an iconic historical event that it adds substance to the reactions of the various characters, but I wouldn’t actually class it an Alamo picture. Similarly, 7th Cavalry uses the massacre of Custer’s men, and the crucial absence of one officer, as the basis for the tale it tells yet it’s not really a Custer movie.

       
  8. Jeff Flugel

    June 6, 2013 at 12:03 pm

    I apologize for not responding in a timely fashion to your recent posts, Colin, but this is another terrific write-up that covers the pros, as well as some of the limitations, of this good-but-not-great western. I have that Classic Western Round-up, Volume 2 Region 1 set you reference (which also includes CALIFORNIA, THE TEXAN and THE CIMARRON KID – a nice package), but haven’t given this one a spin yet (I did see it years ago on TV, however). I think you pinpointed Glenn Ford’s strengths as a western star very well, and IMO he always makes for an interesting lead in these kinds of films. Now that you pointed out that Budd Boetticher directed this (a fact of which I was somehow unaware), I’m moving it towards the tip of my “to watch” pile.

     
    • Colin

      June 6, 2013 at 12:43 pm

      Thanks for the comment Jeff. That 4-movie pack is a nice little selection, and it helps that there are two Boetticher titles included – The Cimarron Kid being the other. All the films are worth a look though.

       

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