Alamo‘s Loss is MGM’s Shame

Restoration guru Robert Harris recently stated that in terms of a potential decent-quality restoration, the photo-chemical elements of the 202-minute, 70mm roadshow version of John Wayne‘s The Alamo (’60) are all but half-ruined. He’s told Digital Bits editor Bill Hunt that “[even] if a last-ditch restoration were started today, the best that could be achieved would be to return the film to perhaps 60% of its former glory,” Hunt writes. “But 60%, while disappointing, is certainly better than nothing.”

Is The Alamo a great film? No, but it’s a pretty good one — watchable, sturdily performed and generally well-constructed. In my view the fact that it was shot on 70mm mandates a proper preservation. But a petty Catch-22 imposed by rights holder MGM is standing in the way. They won’t fund a restoration on their own (okay, fine) but they won’t allow a crowd-funding effort either because it’ll make them look like pikers.

“There is no restoration effort at this time,” Harris has said on Home Theatre Forum. “Which means that there may never be a restoration effort. Several people have raised the concept of going to outside sources for funding [but] MGM has no interest in the concept, even if the film is lost. It appears that MGM has chosen to allow the film to die, as no immediate action will be taken with elements just one stage above that of industrial waste.”

This is absolutely deplorable on MGM’s part. These ass-clowns are essentially saying, “It’s better to allow the elements of this film to disintegrate into dust than for us to permit a Kickstarter-funded restoration because our egos won’t permit it. We’ll look like nickel-and-dime misers in front of our friends in the executive dining room. It’s a far, far better thing that the large-format lusciousness of The Alamo is lost forever than our corporate pride suffers even a slight diminishment.”

The situation is further complicated by two factors.

One is that The Alamo is handsomely shot, beautifully scored and emotionally engaging as far as it goes but it’s not a classic film or even, really, a first-rate one. (Decent staging and a sense of epic “bigness” but a lot of right-wing sentiment.) The most memorable thing about it, arguably, is Dimitri Tiomkin’s score and his “Green Leaves of Summer” melody.

The other is that MGM is on the ropes financially and isn’t much more than a low-rent licensing and catalogue business at this stage. They’re not just in deep doo-doo but deep denial about how they’re perceived. It would cost them nothing reputation-wise to allow others to fund an Alamo restoration because they’re already seen as two-bit pikers.

From the Wiki page: “The Alamo premiered at its 70mm roadshow length of 202 minutes, including overture, intermission and exit music, but was severely cut for wide release. UA re-edited it to 167 minutes. The 202-minute version was believed lost until a Canadian fan, Bob Bryden, realized he had seen the full version in the 1970s. He and Alamo collector Ashley Ward discovered the last known surviving print of the 70mm premiere version in Toronto. It was pristine. MGM (UA’s sister studio) used this print to make a digital video transfer of the roadshow version for VHS and LaserDisc release.

“The print was taken apart and deteriorated in storage. By 2007 it was unavailable in any useful form. MGM used the shorter general release version for subsequent DVD releases. The only version of the original uncut roadshow release is on digital video. It is the source for broadcasts on Turner Classic Movies. The best available actual film elements are of the 35mm negatives of the general release version.

“The overture and musical intermission in the film are usually omitted from TV broadcasts.”

  • Perfect Tommy

    Sadly agree. It’s not a great film. But it’s an important film in Hollywood history and lore. (Cleopatra might be a reasonable comparison. A tough watch at times, but the stories about Chill Wills Oscar campaign alone made it an curio worth saving.)

    • brenkilco

      He had this whole series of vulgar, folksy trade ads where he called the academy voters his cousins. So Groucho Marx took one out that said Chill, I’m proud to be your cousin but I’m voting for Sal Mineo.

  • JoeS

    It’s MGM’s type of ‘thinking’ that has always made the concept of bootlegs and ‘grey-market’ recordings and public screenings such a conundrum.
    On one hand, one shouldn’t condone the taking of intellectual property. BUT, if the rights holder doesn’t give a damn, it is imperative that the film itself be preserved, shared and MADE AVAILABLE to those that want to see it.
    Studios have, and continue to, act horribly when preserving their own history and legacy.

    • Carl LaFong

      Absolutely, Joe, and beautifully summarized by Kevin Brownlow in his 2010 Governor’s Award acceptance speech. The anecdote near the end about Carl Laemmle Jr. is particularly disquieting – studio indifference like Jeff described is nothing new: http://youtu.be/MCOub1qMdsY

  • Stewart Klein

    The photo of the Duke makes me ponder the evolution of the movie hero.
    John Wayne to Clint Eastwood to Han Solo to Thor
    Douglas Fairbanks to Burt Lancaster to Jackie Chan to The Amazing Spiderman.
    The Seven Samurai To The Magnificent seven To The Avengers
    From Bigger than life Human to Superhuman.
    Even non humans: from Maria to Gort to Robby, to Terminator to Optimus Prime.
    I’m sure there are other examples.

  • brenkilco

    This is really inexcusable. Hell, even The Big Trail has been restored and released on Blu Ray. What’s the name of MGM’s president? Tony Santa Anna?

  • Philip Lovecraft

    Quality of the film aside, and it’s been a long time since I saw “The Alamo”, but this is a %$#^*@$ John Wayne movie. In 70mm at that. The Duke was one of the biggest, if not the biggest, Hollywood movie stars for 30-40 years. With a finite amount of John Wayne movies in the world why would a studio let it rot? That’s a loss of commerce AND art. Down right criminal.