John Wayne, in good fellowship, would reportedly refer to Richard Widmark by the nickname "Dick" when filming began, to which Widmark icily replied "It's Richard." After this, Wayne constantly and sarcastically emphasized Widmark's formal first name on the set, as in "Oh, RICHARD, are you ready for the next take, RICHARD?"
Charlton Heston was among the actors who were sent the script and John Wayne wanted him to play Jim Bowie. Heston later said there seemed good reasons for him not to do the film and, when pressed further, stated having John Wayne as director to be one of them. Heston had just spent months filming Ben-Hur (1959) and did not want to commit to another large epic.
Chill Wills' aggressive campaign to win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar was generally thought to bring about a backlash, most people regarding his Variety ad in which the film's cast were praying harder for Wills to win the Oscar than the defenders of the Alamo themselves prayed on the night before the battle as a display of poor judgment. John Wayne himself was appalled by the tastelessness of the ad and was forced to take out an ad himself, countering it.
John Wayne originally intended that Richard Widmark should play Davy Crockett, while Wayne himself would have taken the small role of Sam Houston so he could focus his energy on directing the picture. However, Wayne was only able to get financial backing if he played one of the main parts, so he decided to play Crockett and cast Widmark as Jim Bowie.
John Wayne partially financed this film himself. During shooting, the film was delayed due to various production problems. Wayne was under so much pressure, he smoked cigarettes almost non-stop when not acting.
Despite being a top-ten money maker for 1960, and its popularity in Europe and Japan, the film could not recoup its massive budget in its initial release. John Wayne assumed huge personal debt to get the film finished after United Artists refused to pay for cost overruns during production. It wasn't until the television rights sale in 1971 that Wayne's personal debts were finally paid off. It premiered on NBC in September 1971.
Originally to save on expenses, director John Wayne planned to shoot the film in Mexico. The Daughters of the Republic of Texas (the custodians of the real Alamo) sent him a letter that if he pursued that course of action, he had better not show the film in Texas. Consequently Wayne found an amenable landowner, Happy Shahan, who allowed the production to film on his 20,000-acre ranch in Bracketville, Texas. When Wayne asked to meet the builder, he was introduced to a Mexican immigrant. A rather dubious Wayne asked him, "Do you think you can build the Alamo?" to which the Mexican replied, "Do you think you can make a picture, Mr. Wayne?"
The film was cut by a half-hour only a few weeks into its release, and by 1979, the uncut version was perceived to be lost. In 1980, a Canadian fan of the film, Bob Bryden, discovered what was believed to be the last surviving print of the 70mm premiere version in pristine condition during a screening at the Cinesphere in Toronto. 10 years later, he organized a search to find the longer cut in Toronto and succeeded. MGM used the print to make a digital video transfer of the roadshow version for VHS and LaserDisc but unfortunately stored it improperly in an archive where it dramatically deteriorated.
John Wayne originally wanted to cast James Arness as Sam Houston. However Arness did not turn up for an interview with Wayne, so Richard Boone was cast instead. Wayne never really forgave Arness for not showing up.
John Wayne lobbied hard for Republic Pictures to fund a big-budget epic about the Alamo. Republic, which specialized in low-budget B-movies, turned him down, so Wayne was forced to finance much of the film himself. He took out a second mortgage on his houses, and secured loans on his cars and yacht.
The Ybarra set was later used in several films and each made additions. By 1985, however, the set was mostly in ruins, and much of it was pulled down. Using plans and period drawings, the set was rebuilt for Alamo: The Price of Freedom (1988) on its old foundations, this time to full scale under Production Designer/Art Director Roger Ragland. The new set is still in use. Both Lonesome Dove (1989) and Bad Girls (1994) have used the historically correct façade.
At the start of production on location just a few miles from the historic battle site, John Wayne had a clergyman say a prayer for the movie in front of the assembled cast and crew of 342, asking God to bless their work and help them produce a fitting testament to the brave men who died for the cause.
Sammy Davis Jr. managed to obtain a copy of the script and asked John Wayne if he could play the straight role of a Negro slave. Wayne considered him but eventually declined Davis' offer. Davis recalled, "There were a lot of influential Texans investing in the film and they didn't like the idea that I was seeing [his future wife] May Britt at the time. They disapproved of a man of color going out with a girl who was white, though Duke [Wayne] was upfront with me about it and I respected him for it".
John Wayne and Richard Widmark famously did not get along during filming. Since Widmark was a liberal Democrat who opposed blacklisting and supported the civil-rights movement and gun control - positions diametrically opposed to Wayne's - it was long rumored that politics had been the cause of the problem. However, Widmark later cited Wayne's lack of directing skills as the reason for the feud. This was something Ken Curtis agreed with, since he remarked that Wayne had no ability to motivate an actor for a scene.
Clark Gable and Charlton Heston, the two actors John Wayne wanted most to do the film, both expressed regret at not taking the parts they were offered. Heston declined the role of Jim Bowie out of political ideology--he was a liberal Democrat at the time and Wayne was an ultra-conservative Republican; later when Heston diametrically changed his political views he said he regretted turning down the role), and Gable passed due to to the age difference between himself and William Travis and also because he didn't want to commit himself to a big-budget picture with a first-time director. Gable's family later said that he wanted to do the film as a way to do "a macho film" to escape the typecasting of Gone with the Wind (1939) as a romantic lead.
Clark Gable was offered the role of Davy Crockett but turned it down. Though Gable was a Republican who shared director John Wayne's strident anti-Communist views, he did not want to commit to an expensive project with a first-time director.
The story related by Mayurice Zolotow in the John Wayne biography "Shooting Star" that when the Duke took out a full page 'Hollywood Reporter' ad congratulating Richard Widmark for joining the project, it was reported that a surly Widmark objected to being referred to as "Dick" and not "Richard" in the piece. Widmark denied it categorically.
The set in which the film was made, was opened to the public called "Alamo Village", Texas. There where shows, shops, and most of the buildings (including the Alamo Fort) were opened to the public daily. The Alamo Village closed in 2010.
Charlton Heston, then a moderate Democrat, turned down the role of Jim Bowie because he feared the critical response to the movie. However, later in life Heston turned around and wholeheartedly embraced right-wing Republican politics, also changing his mind about not accepting the part and saying that it was "a huge mistake".
Director John Ford showed up on the set, and let John Wayne know that he wanted to direct some of the picture. Wayne sent him out with a small crew to do some second-unit work, mostly of Mexican cavalry riding through the countryside as they approached the Alamo, and Frankie Avalon estimated that the footage filmed by Ford made up approximately ten to fifteen percent of the finished film. Other sources, however, have said that Wayne eventually deemed most of Ford's footage unusable, and little if any of it made it into the final cut of the film. According to these sources, the footage that Ford believed he shot of the Mexican cavalry patrolling the countryside was actually re-shot by a second-unit director, although Wayne didn't have the heart to tell Ford.
The gun carried by Bowie was a Nock Volley Gun. It was developed for the British Royal Navy, the idea being to fire all seven barrels at once to sweep the decks of opposing ships or destroy rigging. It was an unsuccessful design as the recoil from all seven barrels going off at once was too powerful for one man.
The Alamo Village set near Brackettville was built "180 degrees out" from the actual Alamo layout in San Antonio. In other words, the facade of the chapel faces west in San Antonio, but it faces east in Alamo Village. When an Alamo Village employee was asked why this was done, he replied that, since there were several scenes set at dawn, director John Wayne did not want to set up and shoot those scenes at dawn but rather at sundown, which would be easier on the crew, and the audience would not know. He also said that Wayne thought that a small hill, located to the west of the Alamo Village set, would look good as a backdrop to some of the shots of the chapel. No such hill exists east of San Antonio.
The film's first telecast was in two separate parts on two successive nights, since the normal running time of a network broadcast of a feature film was usually limited to two hours. Few films running three hours or more were telecast in one evening at that time. However, the longest uncut telecast of a film up to that time, Ben-Hur (1959), was first presented in 1971, the same year that "The Alamo" was first shown on television, and ran five full hours because of commercial breaks.
After release of the movie, the Alamo set was open to the public every day of the year, except Christmas day. It was billed as an active movie set including production of Lonesome Dove and Bad Girls. After the passing of ranch owner James Happy Shahan in 1996 the set was open only sporadically. It was open only three days per week until the passing of Happy's wife, Virginia Shahan in 2010. It is now permanently closed.
Several days after filming began, Richard Widmark complained he had been miscast and tried to leave. Among other things, it seemed ridiculous the diminutive 5'9" Widmark would be playing the "larger than life" Bowie, who was a reported 6'6". After threats of legal action, he agreed to finish the picture. During the filming he had Burt Kennedy rewrite his lines.
Just before Davy Crockett first appears, we can see two small deer and several birds (possibly grouse) scrambling through the thicket to avoid the Tennesseans and their horses coming through the field.
Davy Crockett and and Jim Bowie were both Colonels. William Travis, who was only a Lieutenant Colonel, was outranked by both but was in charge because he was in the regular army, while Bowie was in the militia and Crockett was actually retired at the time of the battle. It was a rule that the highest ranking regular army officer would be in charge.
William Travis was considered to be a "dandy" because of his Alabama upbringing. He only accepted a commission of Lieutenant Colonel to escape going to debtors prison after abandoning his wife and child back in Alabama.
According to many people involved in the film, John Wayne was an intelligent and gifted director despite a weakness for the long-winded dialogue of his favorite screenwriter, James Edward Grant. Richard Widmark complained that Wayne would try to tell him and other actors how to play their parts which sometimes went against their own interpretation of characters.
The film is thought to have been denied awards because Academy voters were alienated by an overblown publicity campaign, particularly one Variety ad claiming that the film's cast was praying harder for Chill Wills to win his award than the defenders of the Alamo prayed for their lives before the battle. The ad, placed by Wills, reportedly angered John Wayne, who took out an ad of his own deploring Wills's tastelessness. In response to Wills's ad, claiming that all the voters were his "Alamo Cousins," Groucho Marx took out a small ad which simply said, "Dear Mr. Wills, I am delighted to be your cousin, but I voted for Sal Mineo," (Wills's rival nominee for Exodus (1960)).
An 1836 memoir by a Mexican officer present at the battle, José Enrique de la Peña, throws some doubt on the popular version of the fate of Davy Crockett. The movie depicts the widely held version that he died in battle, but the de la Peña memoir describes Crockett as one of seven survivors who were tortured and executed at the end of the battle. But there is no corroboration of this event, and Alamo purists tend to discount this version in favor of the more heroic story.
The music played over the opening credits is a variation, composed by Dimitri Tiomkin, of the Mexican/Spanish/Moorish bugle call El Deguello. The original Mexican version was actually played by Mexican buglers outside the Alamo walls for the thirteen days of the siege and battle, on the direct orders of General Santa Ana. El Duguello means "throat cutting", and was a message to the besieged Texians that they would be given no quarter and would all be killed. This threat was carried out when all defenders at the Alamo were killed. The music composed by Tiomkin was actually recycled from the soundtrack of Rio Bravo (1959), where Tiomkin's El Deguello music was played outside the besieged jail house where John Wayne, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson, and Walter Brennan were holed up against the bad guys. In that film, Nelson tells his comrades about El Deguello being played outside the walls of the Alamo as a warning to those inside, implying they faced the same danger.
Laurence Harvey was chosen because John Wayne admired British stage actors and he wanted "British class". When production became tense, Harvey spoke lines from Shakespeare in a Texan accent. Harvey was a Lithuanian Jew from South Africa who had moved to the UK in 1934.
John Wayne had made Rio Bravo (1959) with singer Ricky Nelson in a support role to attract teen audiences. It had worked, so he hired Frankie Avalon to perform a similar function. According to Avalon, "Wayne had seen some of the rushes from Timberland and thought I would be right." After making the film Wayne told the press "We're not cutting one bit of any scene in which Frankie appears. I believe he is the finest young talent I've seen in a long time." "Mr Wayne said I was natural as far as acting goes," said Avalon.
A total of 560,000 feet of film was produced for 566 scenes. Despite the scope of the filming, it lasted only three weeks longer than scheduled. By the end of development, the film had been edited to three hours and 13 minutes.