The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Alamo: 13 Days to Glory

In its history, Hollywood continues to go back to the well on certain historical events. The battle of the Alamo has been the focus of major studio productions like John Wayne's The Alamo in 1960 or more recently in the accurate, well-told 2004 version that flopped in theaters. It has even been shown as a background piece in movies focusing on the Texas revolution as a whole. Split the difference in years between the two major movies, and we get a TV movie from 1987, The Alamo: 13 Days to Glory.

It's February 1836 in San Antonio, Texas, and Colonel William Travis (Alec Baldwin) and Jim Bowie (James Arness) command a little over 100 volunteers, all the while awaiting the arrival of the Mexican army under the command of Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna (Raul Julia). When Santa Anna's army of several thousand men arrives, Travis, Bowie, Davy Crockett (Brian Keith) and their ragtag force retreat into the Alamo, an old Spanish mission, in hopes of stalling the army as long as possible. The fort is in ruins though, and Travis' command is far too small to defend it adequately. The Texans inside wait and wait for help, hoping reinforcements can arrive in time before Santa Anna's soldiers storm the walls.

Made for NBC in 1987, this made-for-TV movie is based off the novel of the same name from author Lon Tinkle. Veteran director Burt Kennedy takes the helm, working with a small budget that limited what he could do with the story. This is not the epic that Wayne made, '13 Days' instead made on a much smaller scale. There's never any sense of an enormous, overwhelming Mexican army waiting outside the walls, just a few extras in Mexican soldiers' uniform. Drawing further comparison to Wayne's version, the miniseries was filmed on location at Alamo Village, the set Wayne built for his 1960 film. It adds some needed realism to the scaled-down story with composer Peter Bernstein's score aiding the cause, especially in the final battle and the main theme.

Watching this since I was a kid, I have a soft spot for '13 Days' but I can still appreciate some of its truly bad, awful moments. Historical accuracy is one thing, but there are some real oddities here whether it be from a lack of budget or just a bad script. We see the same shots over and over again, a cannon being fired, the Alamo defenders firing in a volley, Mexican cavalry riding in front of Santa Anna's tent, just to name a few. There's also moments of mind-blowing stupidity, like Mexican artillery firing a cannon with a ramrod still in the gun's barrel. Other winners? Capt. Dickinson (Jon Lindstrom) tells wife, Susannah (Kathleen York), he'll be back at night to bring her into the Alamo. Oh, by the way, the Mexican army is on the edge of town. Colonel Fannin's relief column consists of about 15 men, a supply wagon and a cannon. Low budget for that one. It's those little things -- like David Ogden Stier's Col. Black, a fictional English officer fighting with the Mexicans -- that strike an odd, out of left field note.My favorite though is Alamo messenger Jim Bonham (Jim Metzler) calling Sam Houston (Lorne Green in a bizarre cameo) a coward. First, no such meeting ever occurred, but it is an unintentionally funny scene.

With such recognizable names as Crockett, Bowie, Travis and Santa Anna, '13 Days' goes 2-for-4 in the casting department. Keith and Arness are just too old to play Crockett and Bowie. Keith was 66 at the time, Arness was 64 while in 1836 Crockett was 50 and Bowie just 40 years old. They give it a valiant effort -- Keith's Crockett a mix of real-life David and legendary Davy, Arness' Bowie an imposing, intimidating figure -- but it never completely clicks. On the other hand, a young Alec Baldwin is a great choice to play Travis, a young, brash officer thrust into a command position, rising to the occasion with his life on the line. His line in the sand speech is one of the best from all the Alamo movies. '13 Days' is also one of the few movies to portray Santa Anna somewhat fairly, Julia doing a great job with the part. He's both an obsessed, possibly lunatic leader and also a president trying to save his country.

Thanks to Tinkle's novel, the TV miniseries also tries to turn the spotlight on some of the other Alamo defenders including Metzler's Bonham and Lindstrom and York as the Dickensons. York especially represents herself well as Susannah Dickinson, the strongest portrayal of the real life woman yet committed to the screen in an Alamo movie. There's also Travis' slave, Joe (Hinton Battle), Juan Seguin (Michael Wren), the Alamo messenger, and Eloy Casados as Gregorio Esparza, one of the Tejanos fighting in the Alamo. Other defenders include Tom Schanley as Danny Cloud, a Tennessean engaged to a local girl (shrill Laura Fabian), Tony Becker and Ethan Wayne (the Duke's son) as the Taylor brothers, George and Edward, Buck Taylor and Stan Ivar as Colorado Smith and Doc Sutherland, two more messengers, along with Gene Evans, Grainger Hines, Tom Everett, Jerry Potter and Jay Baker. With so many characters, most aren't given much development, just enough to introduce them and be somewhat interested in them.

With a few slower segments over its almost three-hour run-time, '13 Days' picks up in the final hour as reality sets in that no help is coming for the beleaguered defenders. It sets the tone well for men awaiting their death, wind whipping around the fort, silence hanging in the air. For its small scale and reliance on re-using shots repeatedly for action sequences, the final assault on the Alamo on March 6 is a surprisingly effective battle scene. You can watch the final attack HERE at Youtube. For the "big" shots, footage from 1955's The Last Command was used, some obvious editing showing how different the Alamo looked in the two films. The battle is easily the high point of the movie, making up for some of those slower portions. The defenders finally being overwhelmed supply some surprisingly emotional moments, again aided by the music.

Faults aside -- and there's a-plenty -- '13 Days' works fairly well because like most Alamo movies, it gets the message right. Outnumbered against an army of thousands and surrounded on all sides, less than 200 men decided to stick it out and fight, knowing death awaited them with that decision. When it would have been easy to surrender, they fought on. So even through the cheesiness, the bad casting, the general low budget feel, '13 Days' is still well worth a watch, especially for Alamo buffs.

The Alamo: 13 Days to Glory (1987): ***/****

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