Remembering the Fake Alamo

by Nancy Semin-Lingo

Cinema is one of the most transformative mediums of this century. It shapes who we are and how we view the world.  But while Hollywood memorabilia has become a billion dollar industry, little interest exists for the preservation of film architecture. These structures are perceived as contrived buildings, built only to help facilitate the cinematic illusion. Moreover, film sets are regarded as nothing more than flimsy structures, crude replications, often with only two or three facades present.  They are created solely to manipulate history and are bereft of an honest sense of place.  It’s time for a reevaluation of the historic value of old film sets. They have become a quintessential part of the American experience, representing excitement, celebrity and glamour of the Hollywood film industry.

Innumerable film sets exist in the United States.  Many remain functional and are actively used by the film industry. But countless others have been destroyed, abandoned or suffer from neglect. Outside Marfa, Texas, the façade of the Reata ranch, an iconic image from the 1956 film Giant was destroyed in the early 1990s when a wind storm reduced it to timbers.  Though the set was a popular tourist attraction for decades, no conscious movement developed to preserve it due to its devalued status as a prop.  One such endangered set in need of attention is Alamo Village, in Brackettville.  John Wayne helped finance its construction for the filming of the 1960 film The Alamo.  The set contains 26 western buildings, including a replica of the namesake mission.

Alamo Village was constructed in 1958, due largely to the efforts of an enterprising rancher named James “Happy” Shahan. When the federal government decommissioned nearby Fort Clark after World War II, Shahan knew he had to do something to reverse the town’s declining fortunes. So he courted the Hollywood film industry to come to southwest Texas, where the rugged terrain, dotted with scrub cactus and native grasses offered the perfect landscape for western films.

  Iconic movie still of James Dean in the 1956 film Giant, with the ranch Reata in the background.                Blown down in the early 1990s, timbers are all that remain of Reata today.
Top Photo:  Iconic movie still of James Dean in the 1956 film Giant, with the ranch Reata in the background. 
Lower Photo:  Blown down in the early 1990s, timbers are all that remain of Reata today.

For the construction of the Alamo Village, real adobe blocks were used, which numbered well over one and a quarter million. Wayne also allegedly asked the Daughters of the Republic of Texas if he could take plaster molds of everything on the real Alamo so he could faithfully produce the front façade. They said no, but Happy Shahan recalled that a monument company had been allowed to make molds during the centennial celebration of the Alamo’s siege, back in 1936, so Wayne obtained their molds instead. Though it has undergone modifications to accommodate subsequent film productions, rather ironically the Alamo compound in Brackettville is more true-to-life than its San Antonio counterpart.

Happy Shahan passed away in 1996 and efforts were made to keep the Village up and running, but today it is closed to the public. It sits vacant and its future is uncertain.

The Alamo movie set in Brackettville, Texas
Above:  The Alamo movie set in Brackettville, Texas.