Dust to Dust
John Wayne spent nearly 12 years trying to make The Alamo. Now, his
labor of love is in danger of disappearing forever.
The 70mm Newsletter
by: Robert Wilonsky. From the Week of Thursday, August 9, 2001 . Reprinted from Dallas
Observer by permission from Robert Wilonsky.
October 21, 2002
Once more, a man calls upon the troops to save "The Alamo",
before it's gone forever
Ten years ago, Robert Harris picked up the phone to find on the other
end a relative stranger bearing extraordinary news. This man was at a film
exchange in Toronto, where movies are housed and rented out to exhibitors,
and he was holding in his hands canisters of film containing what Harris
considered something akin to the Holy Grail: a pristine, uncut 70mm print
of John Wayne's initial directorial effort and the Duke's labor of love,
1960's "The Alamo". One imagines it was like a scene from
an old film noir, where the detective phones his client with good news:
I've got your statue. It's the stuff dreams are made of.
Harris was one of those kids for whom movies became glorious instant
memories; they were better than real life, because they were so much
bigger. He had first seen "The Alamo" when he was 14, at
the old Rivoli
in New York City, and he never forgot a second of it. "It brought the
liberty and patriotism and the whole history of Texas to life," says
the man who's never actually visited the Alamo in San Antonio, "and
it gave you a whole understanding of what these people were fighting for
and what they were up against." "The Alamo" and
films like it--sweeping spectacles, old-fashioned roadshow pictures that
came complete with overtures and printed programs--made Robert Harris who
he is today: the world's best-known film preservationist, a man devoted to
protecting such blessed memories before they dissolve forever.
That is why this man called to tell Harris he had in his possession "The
Alamo"--the entire film, all 192 minutes of it, not the shortened
161-minute version that made the rounds after United Artists demanded it
be trimmed shortly after its premiere. It was the only such print in
existence, and a mere decade ago, it was in beautiful condition. Harris'
new friend wanted to know only how he could keep it that way. Harris made
a few calls and arranged to have the movie put in cold storage at the
Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences offices in Los Angeles, but it
never made it.
Instead, it wound up in the hands of MGM/UA's home-video department, which
had it transferred to laserdisc and videotape. Afterward, this
once-perfect print was dipped in so-called rejuvenation chemicals, sliced
into 1,000-foot sections, dumped into cardboard boxes and put in warm
storage, where it sat from 1991 till October of last year, when Harris
opened the boxes to discover his beautiful childhood memories lay in
near-absolute ruin. Its color was gone; its glory horribly diminished. And
it smelled like vinegar, the result of the destructive chemical bath.
"They didn't want to ruin it--it just happened--but what happened is
unthinkable," Harris says. "The thought of this thing going is
just horrible. How do you tell your kids there's no more Alamo? How do you
tell the world you've lost a major John Wayne film?"
Since piecing together "Lawrence of Arabia" for Columbia
Pictures, which re-released David Lean's restored epic in 1989, Harris,
along with partner James Katz, has supervised the arduous restorations of
such films as Stanley Kubrick's "Spartacus", George
Fair Lady" and Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo"
and "Rear Window". All were faded or torn or missing
frames and entire scenes (usually, all of the above); all received limited
big-screen releases upon completion. Harris not only repaired the damage
but worked to make sure those films were seen once more on the big screen,
much to the wide-eyed delight of audiences that had grown accustomed to
watching such epics and classics on their tiny television sets.
His work on "Lawrence of Arabia", which garnered him the
support of Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, made him chief among
those who forced studios during the 1980s to realize how shabbily they had
treated their pasts by storing old movies in hot warehouses--or, worse,
landfills. But never before, Harris says, has he been confronted with the
daunting task that sits before him. For the first time since he's been
restoring films, Harris is working not just against the unforgiving clock.
He also needs money to restore the movie--between $1.6 and $2.6 million,
which he doesn't have and which MGM, which owns the rights to "The
Alamo", can't pony up.
The studio is kicking in a substantial but unspecified amount of cash, but
it simply can't afford to invest millions in such an ambitious restoration
project. MGM would rather divvy up such funds among dozens of films in
need of preservation, rather than just one. As Harris explains, $1.6
million could be spread out among 50 other films that aren't in such
horrific shape--Gray Ainsworth, vice president of MGM's technical
services, estimates it costs between $15,000 and $50,000 per
picture--"so this has got to be back-burner for them," Harris
Working with the Texas Film Commission, Harris has contacted anyone he can
think of about donating money--even Alamo Rental Car, which, he discovered
much to his surprise and chagrin, is based out of Fort Lauderdale,
Florida. Michael Wayne, the Duke's eldest son, has been contacted, and
though he's supportive of Harris' efforts to restore and preserve his
father's obsession, the 67-year-old Wayne is too busy raising money for
the John Wayne Cancer Foundation. And many of the film's stars--Richard
Widmark, Richard Boone, Laurence Harvey, Frankie Avalon--are either dead
or living quiet lives well outside of the movie business. Which leaves
Harris hat in hand, begging for spare change from any corporation or
individuals looking for a tax write-off in exchange for being allowed to
use "The Alamo" in promotional materials or for charity
"It's hard to believe I'm sitting in New York worrying about a film
about Texas," Harris says. "Maybe the governor can give me a
license plate, but all I really want is to sit with an audience in San
Antonio and watch The Alamo on the big screen."
Initially, MGM asked Harris if he could restore the film for home-video
release: The wide-screen 192-minute version is available on video, but the
DVD, released last year with the 40-minute "John Wayne's The
Alamo" making-of documentary, is the gutted 161-minute version.
Harris said it was possible, but the film's in such a terrible state that
it couldn't stand being handled more than once, meaning it was an
either-or: Either it's fixed up for DVD at the cost of about $1
million--meaning it will never again be available for viewing in a
theater, as Wayne intended--or Harris could spend twice that much
preserving it forever. "Quite simply," Harris says,
"restoring it for home video would have meant we could have never
saved it on film, and when I think of "The Alamo", I
think of it as that 14-year-old kid in a movie palace watching John Wayne
and the Texicans trying to save the Alamo."
As Harris describes it, the movie, as it exists now, is bereft of any
color save for one, green. And the facial highlights all look distinctly
"crustacean," he says, because there's no blue left in the print
or the original negative. The film also flickers throughout, the result of
the chemical bath it received a decade ago. All that remains fully intact
is the soundtrack, which is currently being preserved by MGM at the
Todd-AO sound studios in Los Angeles.
Ainsworth says The Alamo is not "in imminent danger"
because it's being kept in the proper cold-storage facilities, but Harris
doesn't want to wait. In order to restore the film, he and MGM have two
options: The "lost" 31 minutes will be lifted from the faded
print, but the bulk of the film can either come from the original 65mm
separation masters (a preservation element holding a third of the color
spectrum on three strips of black-and-white film) or the digitization of
the original 65mm negative (some 45,000 frames, each treated like an
individual photograph). If it's the latter, they will restore the color
using computers, then output the entire thing onto a brand-new 65mm
negative. The process will take a good two years, but the result will be
invaluable: "The Alamo", in its entirety, will last for
hundreds of years.
"The Alamo", though, is but one of hundreds of landmark
films deteriorating in cold-storage vaults around the country; not until
the 1980s, when Columbia released "Lawrence of Arabia",
did studios think enough of their old movies to protect them from time and
the elements. Indeed, more than half the films made before the 1950s don't
exist at all, either because they've dissolved to dust as a result of film
stock and chemical treatments or were tossed out by studio execs who
simply needed the storage space. The studios have made concerted efforts
to atone for past sins, but if you wanted to walk into a theater and watch
an immaculate version of "North by Northwest", "West
Side Story", "Ben Hur", "The
Godfather", "South Pacific", "Carousel"
or "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World", it would be
impossible. They simply do not exist.
"The Alamo" hardly ranks among Wayne's best films; it's
overwrought, lethargic and jingoistic to the point where its history isn't
even accurate. Wayne himself was overwhelmed by the entire production: He
begged for money (which, perhaps, makes Harris feel a special kinship with
the Duke) when studios resisted his desire to direct, found himself
wrestling with the extensive, expansive action sequences and had to fend
off John Ford's interference when the director showed up on set uninvited.
Harris would admit it's not one of the greatest movies ever made, despite
its Oscar nomination for Best Picture. But that matters little to the
14-year-old boy who fell in love with Texas from the inside of a New York
City theater 41 years ago.
"Is "The Alamo" one of the great films?" Harris
asks. "No. Wayne himself said it was full of speechifying. But to my
mind, it's the consummate image of American patriotism and heroism and the
birth of Texas. I still remember seeing that film as a 14-year-old, and
how do you let something like that get away from you so kids can't see it
again? You can't."
in 70mm reading:
The Reconstruction and Restoration of John Wayne's "The Alamo"
"The Alamo" lost 70mm version -
This letter which started it all
Remember "The Alamo"
Remembering Dimitri Tiomkin
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