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A Princeton legend: Richard Widmark

‘The Alamo’

Published: Friday, April 11, 2014 1:10 p.m. CDT • Updated: Friday, April 11, 2014 1:15 p.m. CDT

Richard Widmark and John Wayne (born Marion Morrison) were on different sides of the fence politically but were both solid professionals and had similarities in their backgrounds. They both came from broken homes (parents separated while they were still in school), both lived through the Great Depression, both graduated high school as senior class president (Widmark at Princeton High School in Illinois and Wayne at Glendale High School in California), both played football in high school and college (Widmark at Lake Forest College and Wayne at USC), both made war movies though neither served in the military, and both actors had a strong connection to the Harry Carey (acting) family. They both worked in an ice cream/soda fountain in high school, and they both entered college in pre law. There is a Widmark Airport in Green City, Mo., and a John Wayne Airport in Orange County, Calif. 

Widmark plays Jim Bowie, adventurer and inventor of the Bowie knife in John Wayne’s “The Alamo” (1960).

“Wayne and I got along great professionally, but we weren’t friends socially. He was like (Robert) Mitchum in the sense that he liked the booze. The first time I met Wayne was when I went out to California for the first time. I had just made the film “Kiss of Death” (1947), and Wayne was standing in the corner with a drink in his hand and he said, ‘Well, here comes that laughing son of a bitch!’ So we never spent much time together socially. Wayne was a good director and did a good job on “The Alamo.” He just IS Westerns.

“John Ford invented John Wayne,” Widmark said, and in the process, created what Widmark called “the ideal Western hero.”

“Wayne had a publicity guy who I didn’t like. He used to plant terrible stories about me and Wayne that just weren’t true.” 

One story has it this way, whether planted or not. When Wayne was casting the film, Widmark was not his first choice to play Bowie. He was elated though when he got Widmark to come on board. Wayne took out an ad in a trade magazine that hailed Widmark’s acting skills, and it said in big bold letters, “WELCOME ABOARD DICK.”

When Widmark next saw Wayne, he told him, “Tell your publicity man, or whoever wrote that ad, that the name is Richard, not Dick!” 

Supposedly, Wayne had to hold back his anger, as it was he who took out the ad, and said, “I’ll remember that, the next time I take out an ad — Richard.” 

Widmark had later often remarked, “Don’t talk to me about that ‘Alamo’ thing.”  Ironically, Harry Carey Jr., in his book, “Company of Heroes,” is always, referring to Widmark as Dick! 

Publicity was a deciding factor in how the movie did at the box office. Wayne produced, directed and starred in “The Alamo.” This was his intended epic masterpiece. It was a decade in the making, way over budget, and plagued with many production delays. He broke Hollywood Rule No. 1 and put up his own money — and every dollar he could borrow — to make the film.

“I have everything I own in this picture — except my necktie,” he said.

Wayne’s reasons for making “The Alamo” were personal and patriotic, but he was ripped off by his financial advisor and the person he put in charge of the publicity campaign. That person went about it with an intention that actually hurt its chances at the box office and with the public. “The Alamo” lost millions in its initial run but earned seven Oscar nominations, including those for Best Picture and Best Song (“The Green Leaves of Summer”). The music by 16-time Oscar nominee Dimitri Tiomkin is one of his best scores. The music fits the images on film that are the crisp vivid colors of the Southwest that really hold your eye. Wayne must have learned something from John Ford. The battle sequences and horsemanship are spectacular and done with none of the special effects used today. The costumes and uniforms are authentic. A re-release in 1966 did little to reverse its box-office fortunes, but the film finally showed a profit after its sale to NBC-TV for its television debut in September 1971.

When you first see Widmark on the screen in “The Alamo” he looks like you think Jim Bowie should look - big, outdoorsy tanned, and rugged. He carries this image the entire movie, save for one scene where he shows he is just as human as any man. It is where he gets the letter about the death of his wife. Widmark was 46 at the time, and the real Jim Bowie was younger at 40 when he died. Alan Ladd played Bowie in the “Iron Mistress” (1952) and Sterling Hayden played the part in “The Last Command” (1955), so Widmark was not going up against a screen image cut in stone that Wayne, as Davey Crockett, would have to deal with. Wayne as producer and director would also have the formidable task of overcoming the image of Fess Parker as Crockett from television and movies put forth by Disney in the mid 1950s. He does a commanding job, I would say. He was John Wayne and people still paid to see John Wayne. The Duke was 53 at the time, and the real Crockett was 50 when he perished. “The Alamo” really needed to have Widmark as Bowie and Laurence Harvey as Col. William Travis to prevent Wayne’s presence from overpowering the rest of the cast. Director Howard Hawks said it best, “If you don’t get a damn good actor with Wayne, he’s going to blow him right off the screen, not just by the fact that he’s good, but by his power and his strength.” 

Widmark was a “damn good actor” and held his own as he always did. Laurence Harvey was the glue between these giants. Widmark said this of Harvey, “Laurence Harvey was a good actor, and he and Wayne got on well because they were both drinkers. I liked him.” That’s more of that blunt but great dialogue, and it’s real.                                                                                                                             

The movie is the story of the defense of the Alamo mission in 1836 by a small band of Texans against superior forces, about 185 to 7,000, under Mexican General Santa Anna. It was a pivotal moment in the Texas Revolution, one that over time evolved into one of America’s greatest myths. The movie has its faults but is an exciting and inspired tale, one that captures the spirit of the times, the heroic nature of the men, and the sacrifice they made. I watch movies to be entertained, and this movie entertained me. The actors are solid in their roles; the visuals have a touch of John Ford; and there is some fun and adventure to the it that you find in just about every John Wayne western.

Widmark holds his own with Wayne, and may be the best thing going for the movie. He had that ability to always give the best that one could expect from all his roles. He does have one of the best lines in the movie. Santa Anna has sent an officer under a flag of truce to ask the defenders to surrender. Bowie and Travis have been at odds the whole movie. Travis gives his answer by lighting the cannon fuse with his cigar, and it fires.  Widmark as Bowie turns to Wayne as Crockett and says, “I’d hate to say anything good about that long-winded jackanapes, but he does know the short way to start a war.”

The supporting cast is pretty darn good; Linda Cristal (whew), Denver Pyle, Chills Wills, Frankie Avalon (hey the kid could ‘crupper’ mount a horse), and Ken Curtis, almost the fourth lead in the movie. His character is Capt. Almeron Dickinson and is always called Dick in the movie, so I don’t know if that was a point of friction. I’ll be talking about John Ford, the Careys, and the two westerns Widmark made with Ford next time. As Festus Haggen (Ken Curtis) on “Gunsmoke” would say, “It’ll be a real pearl button bangle billy.”

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