From the time I was knee high to a grasshopper, I’ve been fascinated by the Alamo. Since I was old enough to understand that the Alamo was a real place in Texas I’ve had a hankerin’ to visit it and pay my respects. And when I became cognizant of the fact that the set for John Wayne’s 1960 film THE ALAMO is still standing and is open to the public as Alamo Village, just outside of Brackettville, Texas (about two and a half hours west of San Antonio, home of the real Alamo), it became my dream to visit the place where the Duke’s epic film, and subsequent others, have been made. It became, somewhat facetiously, the Holy Land to me, since it is ‘where the Duke walked’. Well after over thirty years of hankerin’, I finally got to go. Between the real and the replica I can honestly tell you I will never forget the Alamo.
First off, the real Alamo is exactly as I imagined it. I’ve often heard people comment on how small it is. I don’t think so. Maybe they’re expecting the entire fort, when all that exists today is the mission and part of the long barracks. All I know is the Alamo is exactly the size I envisaged it to be. The only disappointment I had was that it looks so clean! It’s been beautified ‘within an inch of its life’, to quote Richard L. Curilla, Alamo Village host and Alamo historian, and the front of the mission building gives little hint at what it must have looked like in its weather-beaten form in days gone by.
However history comes a step closer when you draw near to the front of the building. You can see actual indents, probably made by large musket balls. Whether these are authentic to the siege itself, I don’t know. There was no one around to ask when I noticed them. But it certainly stimulates the imagination…
As I mentioned, all that stands of the original Alamo is the mission (restored, with roof intact) and a fairly large section of the long barracks, which is joined by a wall to the mission. A structure to the other side of the Alamo and the surrounding wall around the complex itself was added in the early part of the last century to enclose the grounds and protect the site. The Alamo and its grounds are owned by the State of Texas but entrusted to the Daughters of the Republic of Texas for its upkeep.
As you enter the front doors of the mission/chapel, a sign asks male visitors to remove their hats, and offers a reminder that this is hallowed ground, the scene of great sacrifice and courage, worthy of respect, remembrance and contemplation.
Inside the chapel, which was where the last of the fighting occurred, one is moved to be standing in the actual spot where Mrs. Dickinson (wife of Captain Dickinson, one of the Alamo defenders), her infant daughter and the few other survivors of the battle were discovered by the attacking Mexican army. In that same room is a rifle that once belonged to Davy Crockett; one of Bowie’s famous knives; Crockett’s leather vest and Travis’ ring that he tied to a string and gave to Mrs. Dickinson’s daughter before the final attack. Seeing these personal artifacts stirs the senses and triggers the emotions.
What is striking about the interior of the Alamo chapel is the height of the ceiling. How much of the actual roof and supporting pillars were in place during the siege is hard to know, for the Alamo was already in a state of decay in 1836. How much more was damaged by cannon fire during the siege is also unknown. Either way, I found my imagination quite overcome with celluloid images of Alamo depictions mixed in with the sense of dread and excitement that the real battle had all happened here.
The grounds are tastefully maintained, with beautiful trees and foliage to counterpoint against the historical reality of the brutal slaughter that once occurred. A gift store provides more pertinent information, including a chronology of the development of the Bowie knife and a thrilling diorama of the final assault on the fort.
The long barracks has been preserved as a museum and it is quite thought-provoking to stand in the place where the fiercest fighting took place. For when the walls of the Alamo were overrun, the defenders retreated into the long barracks to fight, hand-to-hand from room to room, ending up with the final few in the chapel. It’s really quite awe-inspiring.
The plaza across from the Alamo is marked by a breathtaking cenotaph erected in 1936, created by an Italian sculptor who lived in San Antonio. Along the walls of the cenotaph, much like the Vietnam memorial wall in ‘Washington, D.C., are inscriptions of the names of the men who died in the battle of the Alamo. Looming likenesses of Crockett, Travis, Bowie and James Bonham stand out from the crowd of other marbled figures that frame the walls of the cenotaph above their names. At one end are inspired quotations speaking of the sacrifice of these brave defenders of freedom, and at the other a testament to Santa Anna’s brutality in attempting to squelch the rebellious spirit of the Texicans, a towering depiction of the bodies of the defenders being consumed by fire. As I walked around the plaza I could imagine where other parts of the fort had been, and consequently, where portions of the battle were waged.
Because the Alamo is one of five missions that dotted the San Antonio river from the late 1700s on, it is easy to gain a sense of what the actual complex would have looked like by visiting the other sites. Mission San Jose is particularly conducive to creative thinking as the entire structure, including outer walls and gates, still stands more or less intact.
But to really capture a romantic sense of what the Alamo and the town of San Antonio looked like in 1836, one is compelled to visit Alamo Village. Surrounded by open scrub range and wandering cattle, (for Alamo Village is located on a working ranch), it takes little imagination to feel catapulted back in time. All that’s missing is the San Antonio river.
Back in 1950, James T. ‘Happy” Shahan, a Texas rancher, entrepreneur and visionary got it into his head that his huge ranch would make a good place to film Western movies. He moseyed off to Hollywood to pitch his idea and two years later ARROWHEAD, a Western starring Charlton Heston became the first motion picture filmed on the Shahan ranch. In 1955 THE LAST COMMAND, the first big Alamo movie was shot there using a partial, temporary fort. Then in 1957, John Wayne started building his famous Alamo set which subsequently became known as Alamo Village. Happy’s no longer with us, but his feisty widow Virginia still owns the ranch and bombs around in her 4×4. She was there when cinematic history was being made.
The kind folks who work at Alamo Village are extremely friendly and welcoming. The guide and resident Alamo historian, Richard L. Curilla, is also a filmmaker himself, and has a deep appreciation for the artists that have worked there over the years. Richard is too young to have been there when John Wayne was filming, but since the mid-sixties, when as a student he began his association with Alamo Village, Richard has seen and worked with a lot of big stars and is quite happy to share his experiences with Alamo aficionados like myself.
When you think about it, what other film has spawned a veritable tourist industry at the actual site of the filming, with the set still standing and infinitely adaptable? This is but one of the factors that makes Alamo Village, seven miles north of Brackettville, Texas, so fascinating a place to visit. Plaques attached to some of the buildings inform the visitor of the films that have been made using the town and/or the fort. A John Wayne museum awaits the eager Duke fan in one of the buildings. Numerous production photos of THE ALAMO give you a real sense of the scope of this undertaking when the film was in production. John Wayne’s realized vision becomes even more impressive with this insider’s look at the building/filming process.
The greatest thrill is entering the actual reconstructed Alamo fort. Built to ľ scale, one sees that it is smaller than the real Alamo, but camera angles and lighting compensate for filming purposes. It is interesting to note that the real Alamo mission faces west, whereas the replica Alamo mission faces east. This was an artistic and esthetic choice since it could mean shooting the front of the mission with the sun sinking behind it. The mission stands out from the other buildings in the fort as it was constructed of limestone taken from a dilapidated building in Fort Clark, just outside of Brackettville. The rest of the fort is made of adobe bricks, built and baked on site between 1957 and 1959.
I can imagine the ghosts of John Wayne, James Stewart, John Ford and many, many other big names inhabiting this unique and exciting film location, especially at night. I was there beyond sunset, and believe me, it was pitch black. Realistically, one’s only concern at that time of night is stepping in a cow pie.
A quiet sense of peace and fulfillment pervaded my thoughts as I left Alamo Village. It is the ultimate place to visit for anyone who is a fan of Alamo films or even of Westerns. Richard and the rest of the staff are willing to share their extensive knowledge of a very specific piece of film history. I cannot urge you strongly enough to visit this fascinating replica.
With this satisfying experience in mind, let’s take a chronological look at some of the many films/videos that feature the Alamo as part of their story.