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CRACKING THE SWORD

Foppish, pre-anorexic and all too often spotless in cream-colored trousers and straw hat, Laurence Harvey, usually one of moviedom’s most reliable contemporary cads, is ridiculously miscast as South Carolina’s Lieutenant Col. William Barret Travis in the John Wayne 1960 epic The Alamo. But he has one quick bit that may make this flag-waving botch of historic inaccuracy worth seeing: when the Alamo is being overrun by Santa Anna’s troops and they’re shooting or bayonetting one American hero after another in Wayne-directed kissoffs, and knowing his own end is near after being stabbed and pumped with a few rounds of rifle fire, Harvey cracks his sword over his knee and throws half of it at his killers. It’s shameful to laugh so hard, but we have to be very thankful. (Harvey didn’t take any guff from Wayne who, half-jokingly calling his co-star “the English fag,” not only liked him but also enjoyed that he had fine wines, champagne and caviar delivered to the Texas hellhole they were shooting in and became an imbiber of Bullshot, Harvey’s specialty made from vodka, beef consommé and lime.) Richard Widmark’s farewell gets a load of chuckles, too, as does a Chill Wills look-alike who ain’t goin’ alone—taking two Mexicans along for the fall. (These screamers and other moments were previously seen in 1955’s The Last Command, Frank Lloyd’s economized tale of the battle that was meant to star Wayne; we’ll leave it to the litigators to decide the degree of theft.) Composer Dmitri Tiomkin is at his usual, overusing the misplaced trumpets, and his “Tennessee Babe” hits a new low for inappropriate use and nearly causes upchucking when we hear the lyrics “sugar won’t melt in your mouth,” while his Oscar-nominated “The Green Leaves of Summer” would be pleasingly melodic were it not for a few versions too many. In ways the whole score seems a primer for The Alamo the Musical. A great last shot—the fortress in twilight. John Wayne stirred up a fuss with his God & Guns right-wing Oscar campaigning, which he attempted to disavow but which garnered for the hash seven nominations, including Best Picture. When nods were announced, columnist Sidney Skolsky quipped, “It appears more people voted for The Alamo than have seen it.” The movie’s roadshow engagements did not do well; the “popular prices” run, with roughly twenty minutes cut, did much better. Filmed in TODD AO. At every level, the story behind the trouble-filled making of the movie is more interesting than anything on the screen. Here’s a link to read more: http://widescreenmovies.org/WSM02/alamo.htm

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