Last Command

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"The Last Command" of Jim Bowie: not the "true story"

Nov 13, 2011 (Updated Nov 13, 2011)
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Pros:Hayden

Cons:long and unconvincing romances, historical nonsense abounds

The Bottom Line: a B western with an imposing Sterling Hayden


Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie's plot.

Had I not spent last week in San Antonio at a University of Texas program on the history and culture of San Antonio, I probably would not have watched the 1955 Republic Studio movie about the Alamo, "The Last Command." Because of what I learned in the program, I had a particularly difficult time overlooking the movie's fast and loose relationship with the historical record. Of course, I realize that Hollywood movies are rarely a good place to learn history, but they are supposed to be entertaining, but the screenplay by Warren Duff (Angels with Dirty Faces) of a story by Sy Bartlett (Twelve O'Clock High, The Big Country) failed to be entertaining.

A lot of time was taken up with a romantic triangle between Jim Bowie (Sterling Hayden), Consuelo de Quesada (Anna Maria Alberghetti) and Jeb Lacey (Ben Cooper) with Bowie being avuncular to Jeb... and Alberghetti entirely lacking charisma.

I guess that the friendship between Bowie and General/President Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana has some dramatic excuse in providing a personal relationship between the eventual co-commander of the garrison at the Alamo and the elected leader who changed sides (in a Mexican context that is entirely missing from the movie) as soon as he was elected and trashed the constitution (that was barely a decade old). The movie's Santa Ana, played by J. Carroll Naish, is not a sympathetic character, but a more honorable one than the historical record justifies. The movie's Bowie is not the drunkard the historical Bowie was either, and a less responsible Bowie might have made for a more interesting movie.

Maybe being injured in a raid is more dramatic than being bed-ridden with illness. At least the movie has Bowie in bed rather than on the walls when he was killed along with all the other "rebels"/"freedom fighters" who died 6 March 1836 or were overpowered and executed the next day (as David —never "Davey"—Crockett was).

Ernest Borgnine won an Oscar for another 1955 movie (Marty) that mostly transformedi hs roles from sadistic bullies into more genial characters (though on of the nastiest of all was still years ahead, the railroad guard in "The Emperor of the North"). The fight between Borgnine's character (Mike Radin) and Hayden is not well choreographed.

The final assault was moved from predawn, probably for budgetary reasons, and the mission-turned-fort is the much later one (with the hump... and a roof) not the 1836 one, presumably because it is recognized/iconic. Arthur Hunnicutt's David Crockett is a collection of hillbilly stereotypes bearing little relatiosnhip to the former congressman. John Wayne wanted Republic to make a movie about the Alamo with him as Crockett... and eventually directed himself in the more famous 1960 movie "The Alamo." (Wayne's coonskin cap from the movie and a Director's Guild award are on display in the long barracks next to the Alamo, btw).

I thought that Hayden was good in the role as a wise and heroic Jim Bowie. He was definitely physically imposing. And Richard Carlson had some of the presumptuousness and snakiness of the real Lt. Col. Travis, the co-commander and de facto sole commander at the end. (BTW, I don't know of any previous Bowie commands.)

The movie was the last one directed by Frank Lloyd, who had been a president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and who directed two movies (Cavalcade (1934), Mutiny on the Bounty(1935)) that won its best picture awards. Lloyd won the award for directing for the first (and lesser) of the two and also one for directing the silent movie "The Divine Lady" (1929), which I have not seen. I was not impressed by his directing of "The Last Command." (or "Cavalcade," my choice for the worst of the 1930s movies to win a best picture Oscar).

It seems that pretty much every Hollywood western from the 1950s began with a ballad that I find obnoxious. The one proclaiming that the "true story" of Jim Bowie's last command was sung by Gordon MacCrae (Carousel, Oklahoma), written by Max Steiner (Gone with the Wind).

I have not seen the more recent Alamo film and saw the John Wayne version long, long ago (not quite as long ago as 1960, but I remember little other than Laurence Harvey as Travis marking a line for those who wanted to stay and die that is also in this version and is historically usubstantiated). Why are there three movies about the siege of the Alamo, which had not particular historical impact, and none about the decisive battle later that year at San Jacinto in which Santa Ana was defeated (and then captured)?

I'd recommend the movie only to fans of Lloyd and Carson (if there are any) or of Hayden (I think there are some of these and I may be one).

©2011, Stephen O. Murray


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