Jim Bowie who's had several films based on his exploits including 1952's The Iron Mistress (meh) and for today's review, 1955's The Last Command.
It's 1834, and knife fighter, adventurer and land owner Jim Bowie (Sterling Hayden) is riding south through Texas to Mexico to see his home and his family. As he rides through the territory though, he finds that many Texan colonists have had enough with Mexican president, Santa Anna (J. Carrol Naish), who's become more of a dictator with each passing day. Old friends with the president, Bowie isn't sure who to side with at first, but when his wife and children die, he's forced to come up with answers about what he believes and what he should ultimately do with the coming revolution. He joins the fighting, leading a group of volunteers. Santa Anna has started to march an army north from Mexico City to deal with the revolutionaries, and all roads lead to the town of San Antonio and a ruined old mission, the Alamo.
Anyone familiar with John Wayne's The Alamo from 1960 will no doubt notice some similarities between that film and this 1955 flick from Republic Studios. The reason? This was originally made with Wayne -- still working at Republic -- attached as an actor. He wanted to make an Alamo film, but disagreements with the studio drove the two sides apart. The end result was simple; Wayne left Republic, Republic made the film without Wayne, apparently out of spite. There are some similarities, from Davy Crockett's death to the Alamo defenders raiding the surrounding Mexican army for artillery and many others. The biggest difference though is obvious, a focus on Jim Bowie.
It's funny that in the casting of the infamous knife fighter, one of America's truly unique historical personalities, two of Hollywood's most wooden, vanilla actors were chosen. In 'Iron,' Alan Ladd starred, and here, Hayden takes the reins as Bowie. I'll say this. I don't think Hayden has a "showy" side, but he at least commits here and shows some energy in the lead. Just like Wayne's film would do, there is an unnecessary -- even painful -- love story as Bowie falls for Consuelo (Anna Maria Alberghetti), a young Mexican woman from a rich family (Eduard Franz plays her well-to-do uncle). Above all else, it's cool to see Bowie get a movie devoted to him and his involvement in the months leading up to and in the Texas Revolution. He was a fiery, passionate fighter who fought for what he believed in. His friendship with Santa Anna is a little much (the Mexican dictator affectionately calls him 'Jimmy'), but seeing a familiar story from an unfamiliar angle is refreshing.
Overall, the story focuses on a two-year period starting in 1834 and running through March 1836 and the battle and fall of the Alamo. The movie runs just 110-minutes and is a little slow-moving at times -- rather talky -- so non-history fans may lose some interest. Alamo buffs will get a kick out of the story though that focuses on Texas history that most Alamo movies simply ignore. We do meet some familiar faces, including Colonel Travis (Richard Carlson), Davy Crockett (Arthur Hunnicutt) and Lt. Dickinson (John Russell). Carlson is solid as the similarly fiery Travis, and Hunnicutt is a scene-stealer as the backwoods, storytelling Crockett that's based more in myth than the real-life Crockett. The story doesn't just jump right to the Alamo, but lays some ground work and background leading up to the famous battle. Also look for Ernest Borgnine as Mike Radin a rival-turned-friend of Bowie's and Ben Cooper as Jeb Lacey, a young Texan who looks up to Bowie. Other Alamo defenders include Slim Pickens, Jim Davis, Roy Roberts and Russell Simpson as the Parson.
The actual battle for the Alamo takes up about the last 40 minutes of 'Command.' The set is somewhat limited -- we basically see one corner of the mission along with the wooden palisade -- but there's something oddly cool about the set built near Bracketville, Texas (where Wayne's film was made). For a movie released in 1955, the final assault on the Alamo is surprisingly vicious and violent. Nothing graphic, but still pretty hardcore stuff for a 1950s audience. Each character gets their moment, their on-screen death with Bowie saved for last.
There's nothing hugely memorable about this 1955 Republic picture, but I like it just the same. Composer Max Steiner's score is a highlight -- give it a sample HERE -- and the Jim Bowie theme song (listen HERE) is pretty awful, but in an amazingly bad and memorable way. Lots of good actors, familiar faces and an enjoyable if unspectacular story in director Frank Lloyd's historical bio-pic. One IMDB reviewer points it out accurately. It's neither a big budget A-movie or a low-budget B-movie, but it's somewhere in between. TCM has three clips available so give them a watch at the link below.
The Last Command (1955): ***/****