Deep in the Heart
Aiming to share the history of Texas with the rest of America, John Wayne pooled all his resources and made an epic cinematic event with The Alamo.
When John Wayne finally got to sit down in the director’s chair to begin filming The Alamo (1960) in September 1959, it had been more than a decade since he’d first envisioned bringing the stirring story to the big screen. While filming Angel and the Badman in 1946 with screenwriter James Edward Grant, Duke and his go-to writer spent much of their time between takes diving deep into the history and lore of the great state of Texas, particularly the heroics of Davy Crockett and his outnumbered men defending against Santa Anna’s forces. But once the star decided to pursue his passion project in earnest, everything from financial setbacks to seemingly impossible production logistics began to pile up. John Wayne, however, was not about to give in and give up just because the deck was stacked against him. And that attitude translated perfectly to the role of the valiant colonel he would play in The Alamo.
In 1947, just a year after the idea for the film was born, Duke began scouting some filming locations near San Antonio with the belief that Republic Pictures would support the production. But because the actor insisted on directing and producing the film rather than starring in it, some potential backers became wary. Despite already being a massive movie star, John Wayne was still unproven as a director at the time. Finally, in 1956, John Wayne struck a deal with United Artists, who agreed to distribute and partially fund the prospective picture as long as Duke would give it a box office boost by getting in front of the camera as well.
As the tenacious Tennessean Colonel Davy Crockett, John Wayne was stepping into one of the most patriotic roles he ever played. The historical hero and his men are the embodiment of American unity, coming from Tennessee to Texas to aid General Sam Houston (played by Richard Boone in the film) against the invading Mexican army of Santa Anna and ensure Texas’s future as an independent republic. Though they’re completely outnumbered by the Santa Anna army—5,000 to 185 to be exact—the fearless Crockett rallies his men with a timeless, simple statement: “There’s right and there’s wrong. You gotta do one or the other.” Like the man he portrayed, Duke was determined to do right by Texas—and he knew that meant making the biggest film he could possibly make.
A typical scaled-down movie set wouldn’t do for The Alamo, especially since “everything is bigger” in the Lone Star State.
John Wayne believed the set needed to be as close to the scale of the real mission as possible, but budget concerns meant dialing it back. As a compromise, the entire set was built at 75 percent scale (with the exception of the chapel, which was a full-size replica). In February 1959, builders equipped with wood from crumbling Fort Clark buildings, limestone and handmade adobe bricks broke ground on the new Alamo and brought Old San Antonio to life. As the set was isolated from town, the crew also had to build 10 miles of road and tap several deep-water wells to keep the set and everyone involved hydrated. John Wayne also commissioned a stable that could house 1,000 horses and 300 longhorns for good measure.
Spread over 400 acres of land, the set truly became its own kind of village. And unlike most movie sets that are torn down soon after production wraps, Duke’s elaborate Alamo replica is still standing today (it was even open to the public for tours until 2009), a lasting reminder of how he was able to bring his vision to life through a wealth of craftsmanship and care. Much like the set, the film created there continues to stand tall more than half a century since its release. As John Farkis, author of Not Thinkin’...Just Rememberin’...The Making of John Wayne’s The Alamo, says, the film “is an emotional reminder of what we respect—liberty, freedom and independence.”
John Wayne had fought for what he believed in, making something timelessly inspiring in the process. It doesn’t get any more American than that.