The dispute between John Wayne and his co-star that he tried to leave days after the shoot
In 1945, John Wayne decided that he wanted to make a movie about the Battle of the Alamo. The pivotal conflict during the Texas Revolution saw a 13-day siege on the Alamo Mission. The Mexican army successfully killed most of the defenders, including American folk heroes Davy Crockett and James Bowie. As a result, this inspired many Texans to win the Battle of San Jacinto a month later, ending the rebellion in favor of the newly formed Republic of Texas.
Conservative jingo Wayne hired screenwriter James Edward Grant to write a draft of The Alamo, which is on ITV4 today. But as it neared completion, the Hollywood star had a huge falling out with Herbert Yates, the head of Republic Pictures. The studio famous for its low-budget B-movies offered Duke a paltry $3 million budget, when he wanted his Alamo movie to be a big-budget epic. Unable to agree on financing, he left Republic over the dispute, but was unable to take the script with him. Instead, it was rewritten and made into 1955’s The Last Command. However, the tenacious actor was determined to make the movie his own way.
Wayne formed his own production company Batjac and decided to produce and direct The Alamo to protect his original vision for the film. Originally, he also planned to make a cameo in the small role of Sam Houston. However, he was unable to obtain financial backing to make the film unless he also agreed to star as Davy Crockett, a role he had offered to Clark Gable.
To raise the $12 million budget (more than $120 million today), Duke contributed $1.5 million of his own money by taking out second mortgages on his homes and using his cars and yachts as collateral for loans. Before Wayne was forced to play a leading role, he wanted Richard Widmark to play Davy Crockett. But when Duke took on the role himself to secure financial backing, he had to move his co-star to another role.
United Artists, one of the Alamo’s sponsors, had lobbied for the director to hire him as box office insurance. Widmark was offered the role of Colonel William Travis, but he declined and agreed to play Jim Bowie. However, just a few days after filming began, he complained that he had been poorly cast and tried to leave the production. One of his problems was that at 5’9 he was playing a 6’6 man described as “larger than life.”
After threats of legal action, Widmark agreed to end the movement, having Burt Kennedy rewrite his lines. But he didn’t get along with Wayne during the shoot. The reason for this was long rumored to be that Jim Bowie’s star was a liberal Democrat who opposed Hollywood’s blacklisting and supported gun control and civil rights, in contrast to Duke, the conservative Republican.
However, according to Widmark, the real reason for their dispute on the set was Wayne’s lack of skill as a director and his inability to motivate the actors for a scene. He complained that Crockett’s star was telling him and other actors how to play their roles, which sometimes conflicted with his interpretation of the characters. Although, other members of the cast and crew believed that Wayne was a smart and talented director.
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Whatever the case, Duke was under incredible pressure to star, produce, and direct for the first time on a film this big that was self-financing and had a series of production problems. To deal with the stress of the movie having 7,000 extras, 1,500 horses, and 400 head of cattle in its climactic battle scene, Wayne smoked cigarettes non-stop when he wasn’t acting.
According to Smitty’s actor, Frankie Avalon: “There may have been some conflict with Widmark in playing the part that he did, but I didn’t see any of it. All I know is that it was difficult working for him no doubt because he [Wayne] he wanted it his way and he wanted professionalism. He wanted everyone to know his lines and be on his mark and do what he wanted them to do.”
Things became even more challenging when John Ford, Wayne’s longtime collaborating director, would show up on the set of The Alamo uninvited and try to influence the film’s direction. To get rid of Pappy, Duke sent him to shoot second unit footage that he didn’t really intend to use in the film, with the vast majority of it left on the cutting room floor.
The Alamo ended up profitable at the box office and was nominated for seven Oscars, though Duke lost money on his own personal investment.
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