The Last Command (1955)

The Last Command 1955One of the three members of the Alamo trinity along with David Crockett and William Travis, Jim Bowie and his famous knife have been a ripe subject for Hollywood feature films. Often enough, those flicks have little to nothing to do with Bowie’s actual exploits, including a handful of B-westerns that look to bank on the famous name. A rare exception and a pretty decent little biography about the last 2 years of Bowie’s life is 1955’s The Last Command.

It’s 1834 as famous knife fighter Jim Bowie (Sterling Hayden) returns to Texas on his way back home to see his wife and children at their home in Mexico. A land owner and Mexican citizen, Bowie discovers the ever-increasing rumblings of revolution, the Texans looking to fight for their rights from a Mexican government seemingly hell-bent on ignoring those rights. Bowie preaches peace, only changing his mind after his wife and family pass away. Now, Bowie can throw himself into the conflict, especially when Stephen F. Austin (Otto Kruger) returns from Mexico City preaching that the only resolution will come from fighting. As Mexican dictator Santa Anna (J. Carrol Naish) leads an army north from Mexico, all roads point to San Antonio and a crumbling old mission turned into a fort, 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 This was originally made with Wayne — still working at Republic — attached as an actor.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.

I’ve often criticized Hayden for being one of the more wooden actors to ever grace the screen. Thankfully, he injects some life into his part here as the famous knife fighter. Read about Bowie’s life, and my goodness, this fella was up to no good seemingly as soon as he could walk. This 1950’s portrayal is a little tam, portraying Bowie as an upright citizen, a patriot, and a loyal, brave and capable fighter. Hayden has some fun with the part, bringing the right amount of energy to play Bowie. Like Wayne’s Alamo, the story here features an unnecessary love story, Bowie falling for 18-year-old Consuelo (Anna Maria Alberghetti), in scenes that do nothing but slow down the story. Hayden is up to the task overall though, leading a pretty impressive cast.

I’m an Alamo buff, so I’ve watched just about everything there is from Hollywood about the battle and the Texas Revolution. Director Frank Lloyd tackles the subject head-on, covering about two years (1834-1836) in a 110-minute movie. Things are a little slow-going early on as everything is laid out, but ‘Command’ really hits its stride about the 40-minute mark as the fighting kicks in, eventually leading to the siege and battle of the Alamo. Lloyd’s film gets credit for trying to set up the story, not just rushing to the Alamo. It plays kinda fast and loose with the facts at times — Bowie and Santa Anna are supposedly good friends, the Mexican dictator even calling him ‘Jimmy’ — but it’s a highly entertaining, mostly accurate(ish) story.

Telling a familiar story, we get some familiar faces along the way. Richard Carlson is excellent as Travis, idealistic Alamo commander (a little old but a good part), and Arthur Hunnicutt is a scene-stealer as a homespun, backwoods Davy Crockett. They aren’t flashy parts, but they cut to the core of who the 3 men were (or at least what I hope they were). Ernest Borgnine is also a scene-stealer as Radin, a rival turned friend for Bowie. Other Alamo defenders include young Jeb Lacey (Ben Cooper), Lt. Dickinson (John Russell), and familiar character actors in Jim Davis, Slim Pickens, Russell Simpson, Eduard Franz and Roy Roberts. Virginia Grey appears briefly as Susannah Dickinson. Some fun supporting parts, especially Hunnicutt and Borgnine.

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. And while not Wild Bunch bloody, many of the deaths leave a lasting impression. This was bloody, horrific hand-to-hand fighting at its worst, close combat on steroids, something the battle sequence definitely shows.

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. 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. Definitely check out the new Blu-Ray released in December 2018. It’s a beautiful print and far ahead of any other version I’d seen.

The Last Command (1955): ***/****

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The Man from the Alamo (1953)

poster_of_the_movie_the_man_from_the_alamoOne of the legends of the battle of the Alamo is that late in the siege, Colonel Travis drew a line in the sand, asking the men who were willing to stay and fight to cross over the line. Supposedly, only one man chose not to, a Napoleonic veteran named Louis Rose. Did it really happen? Probably not, but it remains an enduring story almost 200 years later. The premise is certainly interesting though, and here it is, delivered with a twist, 1953’s The Man from the Alamo.

With the Mexican army surrounding the fort, the defenders of the Alamo desperately wait for reinforcements. Word has reached the defenders that raiding parties are attacking settlers and homesteads, including one area well-represented in the Alamo. A group of defenders draw straws to see who will leave the potentially doomed mission to look after the families. The one chosen? John Stroud (Glenn Ford), a tough, hard-working farmer who’s never run from a fight before but now he must. Stroud rides out of the Alamo only to find that he’s too late when he gets home. Farms and homes alike have been burned by raiding parties, but not Mexican soldiers. Instead, it is a gang of Americans who have sided with the Mexicans in hopes of acquiring land. With a stigma attached to his name, Stroud goes about exacting his revenge.

Ever since watching Disney’s Davy Crockett episodes as a kid, I’ve been hooked on the Alamo. This film effort was one that took awhile to track down, but it was worth the wait. It’s on my Alamo rotation I watched every year during the siege — Feb. 23 through March 6 — as it unfolds.

‘Man’ is an interesting entry, mostly because it uses the Alamo as a jumping off point and not an end result. The opening 15 minutes or so depict the siege, a high-walled, claustrophobic fort under heavy bombardment. We meet Crockett, Travis and Bowie briefly as we learn that time is running out on the defenders. Certain death awaits. What the opening lacks in historical accuracy, it makes up for in tension and a no-holds barred feeling. It gives you a real sense of what it must have been like to be part of the siege from the Texan perspective. A very cool intro that sets the stage nicely for the rest of the movie.

Once John leaves the Alamo, we return to a pretty standard B-western. We’ve got six-shooters and cowboys who look more appropriate for the 1870’s than 1830’s, but it’s fun. Director Budd Boetticher was still a relative unknown as he would pair up with star Randolph Scott in the coming years for his most memorable movies. ‘Man’ is solid though. It clocks in at just 79 minutes and is always on the move. Some good action, an interesting, unique story and entertaining throughout. The potential of the story — a man leaves the Alamo, mostly against his will — certainly could have been more involved, more in-depth to explore the character, but what’s here is entertaining, streamlined fun.

Glenn Ford has always been an actor I welcome when I see him in a cast listing, but one I’ve never thought of as one of my favorites either. A good actor, but he doesn’t have many classic or close classics to his name. He does what he can here as supposedly cowardly John Stroud, but the story never lets him slow down and breathe. Stroud finds out what happened to his wife and son but never gets a chance to show any frustration. He’s just immediately on the road to revenge! Not a flashy part, but a good one.

Also look for Julie Adams, Hugh O’Brian, Chill Wills (he’d star in John Wayne’s The Alamo 7 years later), Victor Jory as the villain, and Neville Brand as one of his henchmen. Marc Cavell has a solid supporting part as Carlos, a young Mexican boy who worked with his father on the Stroud farm. Even keep an eye out for Dennis Weaver as one of the Alamo defenders.

Nothing too flashy here, but a western I’ve enjoyed with repeated viewings. Especially noteworthy for its Alamo opening, ‘Man’ also features some pretty cool stunts in the finale as a gang of murderers chases across the prairie after eight wagons full of women, children, and a big old safe of gold. Worth a watch if you can track a copy down.

The Man from the Alamo (1953): ***/****