While first-time director John Wayne was shooting The Alamo in 1959, he received an uninvited guest on his set near Brackettville, Texas. It was his old friend John Ford. The filmmaker, then 66, had not only directed many of Hollywood’s most influential Westerns; he also was responsible for spotting an unknown prop boy named Marion Morrison wandering the backlot at 20th Century Fox 30 years earlier. Ford molded Morrison into John Wayne, who would become the world’s biggest movie star and the personification of American machismo.
Wayne looked up to Ford like a father, but he needed to make The Alamo his own way. He sank his reputation, clout and last dollar into it. So when Ford arrived and started telling his protégé how to direct the movie, Wayne did what he could to get himself out from under his surrogate father’s considerable shadow: He sent Ford off to shoot unnecessary scenes that would never make it into the movie. If only Oedipus had been so kind.
The Alamo, which celebrates its fiftieth anniversary this month with surprisingly little fanfare, was Wayne’s Rorschach test, his analyst’s couch, and the central storyline in his ongoing self-creation myth. If Ford had created John Wayne the rugged cowboy-stoic with a troubled psyche, his protégé was out to create John Wayne the irreproachable hero, noble beyond measure and wrapped in the American flag. And Ford couldn’t be around for that, because Wayne knew that his mentor had succeeded as a real hero where he had failed.
When the United States entered World War II, Ford—like Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart and dozens of other Hollywood luminaries—volunteered for duty. Wayne, on the other hand, sought deferrals and stayed in Hollywood to cultivate his career, ignoring Ford’s pleas to join him in Europe. Wayne became the biggest movie star in Hollywood while the world burned, making himself into the cinematic exemplar of the American hero onscreen while cleverly dodging any real sacrifice.
According to his friends and biographers, the sense of guilt Wayne felt over avoiding military service never left him, and The Alamo was his attempt to resuscitate his image in his own eyes. The movie is an unapologetic ode to the American fighting spirit. It’s huge and garish and violent and wonderful and terrible. Wayne shot unflinching, beautiful battle sequences between William Travis’ ragged battalion and Santa Ana’s armies, but then managed to overwhelm the scenes by having the characters recite endless speeches about freedom, America and God. He ignored history in favor of punchy drama and jingoistic fervor. Watching The Alamo is like watching a man staring at himself in the mirror, repeating the same lie until he starts to believe it.
The Alamo presented the perfect opportunity for Wayne’s self-reinvention. The story is the great founding myth of the most mythologized state in the Union, facts be damned. All the better, then, that Wayne cast himself as Davy Crockett—who, according to Wayne’s telling, was good to his men and kind to his women and gave up his life for the ideals of honor and truth and for his beloved republic, which, he says in the movie, “is one of those words that can make your heart warm.”
The Alamo gave Texas a myth, and, true to form, The Alamo made John Wayne the hero he could never actually hope to be. That’s why they call it the magic of movies.