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Dust to Dust

Once more, a man calls upon the troops to save The Alamo, before it's gone forever

"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 Alamoon 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 Alamomaking-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.

John Wayne spent nearly 12 years trying to make The Alamo. Now, his labor of love is in danger of disappearing forever.
John Wayne spent nearly 12 years trying to make The Alamo. Now, his labor of love is in danger of disappearing forever.

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, Carouselor It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, it would be impossible. They simply do not exist.

The Alamohardly 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."

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