Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Heroes of the Alamo

I was surprised to see the words “Columbia Pictures Presents” on the opening titles of “Heroes of the Alamo” (1937). I wasn’t aware that Columbia had ever made an Alamo movie, and the cast did not show any studio contract players. I thought it must have been a distribution pickup.

It was, and the background of “Heroes of the Alamo” is a great deal more interesting than the film itself. It’s by no means a good film – indeed it’s pitifully amateurish throughout – but it’s interesting to see how different it is from other Alamo portrayals.

The background on the film was gleaned from the invaluable book “Alamo Movies” by Frank Thompson (Old Mill Books, 1991).

“Heroes of the Alamo” was a product of Poverty Row outfit Sunset Productions. Head of production was one Anthony J. Xydias, producer of a silent film called “Davy Crockett at the Fall of the Alamo” (1926). He had made other films detailing chapters from American history and had gained some success from them. In 1937 he announced he would remake these films for the 1937-38 exhibition season, billing them as “thrilling epics of frontier days.” Announced titles were: “Buffalo Bill on the U.P. Trail”, “Sitting Bull at the Spirit Lake Massacre”, “General Custer at the Little Big Horn”, “Daniel Boone Through the Wilderness” and “Kit Carson Over the Great Divide.”

But the first would be “Heroes of the Alamo” a remake of his 1926 film. To save money, footage from the silent epic would be re-used, augmented with a music scores and sound effects.

It doesn’t sound as far fetched as you might think. Even a major studio like Warner Bros. used footage from “The Sea Hawk” (1924) to augment newly shot sea battle footage for “Captain Blood” (1935), one of the year’s biggest hits.

Unfortunately, Sunset Productions was not Warner Bros. and “Heroes of the Alamo” comes off looking cheap and threadbare. The Alamo set itself is pretty unimpressive and the costumes make no attempt at period, with leading characters and extras looking no different from scores of other “B” oaters.

Despite the title, the movie does not emphasize Crockett (Lane Chandler), Bowie (Roger Williams) or Travis (Rex Lease). Instead most of the footage is given to Captain Dickinson (Bruce Warren) and his wife Ann (Ruth Findley), seen as representatives of the unstoppable American Frontier Spirit. Other men in the Alamo are also given greater footage than the more famous names.

It’s easy to spot the silent footage over the newly shot footage and the new footage is pretty sad in the excitement department. But the silent footage looks like a lot of money was spent on the original production. So one can say it’s cheap looking film that doesn’t look cheap, if that makes sense.

Most of the final siege is talked about rather than shown. And has any Alamo movie shown Davy Crockett dying a more ignoble death? No getting speared before blowing up a powder keg or swinging Old Betsy at the swarming Mexicans. Here, the battle is almost over and Crockett is seen crawling on his belly, mortally wounded. General Santa Anna orders one of his men to club him to death while face down on the ground. I bet that shattered a few schoolroom illusions.

I don’t think “Heroes of the Alamo” was that big a success, despite enjoying distribution by Columbia. The other titles were never filmed, so we’re left with this true oddity in the Alamo film catalog.
Rating for “Heroes of the Alamo”: One and a half stars.

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