Remembering a different 'Alamo,' 40 years later
Emerging from the same state of mind that bred the outlaw country movement, Eagle Pennell was Texas’ own outlaw filmmaker, documenting a colorful world of barflys, drunks, and assorted hangers-on. In 1978, his film “The Whole Shootin’ Match” played at the US Film Festival in Utah, where it was seen by Robert Redford. According to actor Sonny Carl Davis, who worked with Pennell, Redford was so impressed by "Shootin' Match" he was inspired to start a collective to support regional filmmaking such as Pennell's. That initiative became the Sundance Institute.
Pennell's second feature, "Last Night at the Alamo," debuted at the New York Film Festival forty years ago this week. The movie is a comedic elegy for a group of hard-drinking, shit-talkin' good ole boys at a small time bar in Houston, named The Alamo, on its last night in business. Film critic Roger Ebert, a champion of independent cinema, compared the film favorably to the work of playwright Eugene O'Neill, calling it "one of the best low-budget American movies in quite a while."
Sonny Carl Davis plays the central role of Cowboy, a smooth-talking big shot who claims to know a well-connected politician in Austin who can save the Alamo from being closed down.
Davis attended a TPR Cinema screening of "Last Night at the Alamo" in June 2023, and recalled getting the part: "It was well within my range," he said with a smile.
"Just growing up in the South and, ah, you know, knowing bars... just briefly!" Davis joked. "I had read about 'em! So it was just like an old pair of shoes... I know these guys, I know this character, I know this environment."
After "Last Night at the Alamo," Davis continued to work steadily in Hollywood as a bit player and character actor, but years later the film and its director Eagle Pennell faded into semi-obscurity, partly due to the filmmaker's alcoholism. The disease led to unfinished screenplays and films, and tragically to Pennell's early death in 2002, just days shy of his 50th birthday.
In the mid-2000s, Watchmaker Films undertook a major restoration of “The Whole Shootin’ Match,” which was released on DVD in 2006. Ten years later, the South By Southwest Film Festival premiered a new restoration of “Last Night at the Alamo” to a packed and appreciative crowd.
The 2016 SXSW screening was followed by a Q&A session moderated by film critic and historian Leonard Maltin. What follows is a transcript of that event, edited for clarity and length. Enjoy—and I hope you're inspired to seek out this hidden Texas gem.
Leonard Maltin: One of the questions always is how much do you do? How much do you restore? How much do you try to improve? Do you try to leave it just the way it was? Do you try to get rid of imperfections that were part of the original film? Lots of things go into these decisions, but this just looks like a really great print of the film. The way it must have looked. Probably better than it looked!
Richard Linklater (filmmaker, financed restoration): A little better. I was at the premiere of this movie at the Houston Film Festival. I think it was the premiere? I'd never heard of Eagle, or the movie. I read the paper that morning, and it was an article about the Eagle and the movie, and I just went and saw it, and they were showing it in 16 millimeter, and it was a beautiful 16 millimeter. I remember there was a break in the middle, I think, to change the reels. So there was a break, and in the middle Eagle got up and told jokes and then he came back and Eagle was so excited that night, he was talking about the [35mm] blow up, and they had a distributor. He was just so happy. And then I remember seeing the film within the next year… and it was blown up to 35 by that time. And when you have like a 1 to 3 ratio like this, and then it was kind of cropped… and the black and white was really kind of disappointing looking. The colors were washed out a little bit. This looks as good, or better than that first thing back in ‘84. It's just so exciting to see these rich blacks.
Brian Huberman (cinematographer): It does look beautiful. But it looks the way I remember it. I mean, the first print struck was... It was shot on 16 millimeter and the first print was a 16 millimeter release print. And that print still exists. It currently lives in the Wittliff Collection, down in San Marcos. And it's a lovely print. But it's a little older, and so am I! I don't want to present myself as an old fogey, but damn it, that film was made when film was film… and that time has perhaps passed. But let us not forget its origins.
Leonard Maltin: Mark, what would you say about the condition of the materials you have to work with in general?
Mark Rance (restoration supervisor): Louis and I had been after this one for, I think, the better part of six or seven years, and Rick stepped in, thank the Lord. And we got a hold of the negative and a copy of one of the blow ups. So we had a chance to sort of look at what was the thing you saw. And then we did some tests on the negative… You know, bless them, they made this thing for under $30,000. And when they say $30,000, a good portion of that was in-kind. It wasn't even cash. So what they did do, they did on less than a shoestring, and they got away with it because of the strength of the production, the dialog, the acting, you know, it just trumps all the technical goofs, I guess? But we had the opportunity here to really improve on if they'd had a little bit more money. So I'm delighted to hear people say, “Oh, that's how I remember it,” because the goal in my work is really to get it to where I sort of technically know it would have been if they could have done it and to try and be true to it at the same time, because there's loads you can do these days to make it look like, I don't know, really super smooth and shiny and it's just wrong.
Leonard Maltin: And it doesn't. It didn't look super smooth and shiny. It still looks like a film. The problem is that some people think things shouldn't look like film anymore. They want everything to look like video or like digital.
[Unknown voice]: You mean dead!
Leonard Maltin: Well, not dead, necessarily. On a case by case basis, then.
Brian Huberman: I do miss that kind of rhythmic feeling that film [has].
Leonard Maltin: Well, that's Quentin Tarantino's complaint, that if you're not showing film, you're showing television on a big screen. And he feels very strongly about that. There's something called “film weave.” And if you're if you've ever threaded a projector, a 16 or 35, and watched the film, it's not rock steady. I mean, we all got used to it as we all grew up, watching our whole lives. But it's not rock steady and it's not razor sharp… and digital is rock steady and is razor sharp. So there's a there's a fundamental difference in the two media. But where do you stand on it, Rick?
Richard Linklater: Well, Quentin can afford to have that attitude! He's earned it. You know, there's always been a practical element to filmmaking. Every documentary, every low budget film for years was shot on 16 millimeter because it was the cheapest, most practical way to do it. You know, now that's changed. I just think it is always a utilitarian, practical, low budget answer. And I think for documentary reasons, I don't know, you just… the times change and I'm less... I mean, yeah, I love film. You know, the films that we try to show [at Austin Film Society], we show films. Was the film shot on 35? Let's show a 35 print, if one still exists. So I think I want to be rabid about film prints, not just shooting on film, but that film should be able to be shown on film too. I'm worried if that goes away. So I think that's an important battle to fight for everybody, you know? But this restoration makes a lot of sense. You know, there's no other way to do it. And we have this now that looks as close to how it looked in 1984 as we're ever going to get. So let's just be happy with that and use technology any way we can.
Leonard Maltin: Chuck, we haven't heard from you yet. Talk a little about your work on the music.
Chuck Pinnell (music): Oh, well, I guess when you're scoring a film with primarily with acoustic guitar, you don't have a lot of choices. So on the one hand, it's a fairly simple job… or it was for me! And I had Wayne Bell to help shape the whole thing. But really there were only about six cues that we had to come up with. At the same time, we had to create that jukebox, a believable jukebox. And that actually was a bigger job.
Leonard Maltin: [Rick], tell us some of your memories of Eagle Pennell.
Richard Linklater: Oh, wow. Well, I got to know Eagle… so there's so many for you. He had gotten an NEA grant. He did this. And, you know, he had a development deal with Warner Bros. I just couldn't wait to see what he did next. You know, he had a Western he was working on. I met him in 1990. Katie Cokinos, who I was going out with at the time, she had helped produce this film “Heart Full of Soul.” I'm proud to say the Film Society, when we started the Texas Filmmakers Production Fund, the first year we gave grants, Eagle got one for a script he was developing in the grant panel. At this time, Eagle had moved to New York for a while. I think he [was] going to make money hustling as a basketball player. Then I think one day hit the lottery. I mean, there's a million Eagle stories, but have you heard that one? There was some kind of betting pool, and the line was around the block for people who were going to get paid back from Eagle. But I ended up with Eagle going to Europe. I had my first film, “Slacker,” and he had the film I just talked about, and we played in Avignon, France. We went to Munich, we went to numerous festivals. We'd be on panels together, you know, “The Image of Texas in Film.” And Eagle was such a character, and for those shows he'd put on his boots, and he was such a big guy, they just loved him. But I remember that film not going over so well because he was the master of the short Q&A.
Like after the film, “Any questions?” And the way he'd say it was not so inviting, a way to avoid any questions! And then one guy goes, “Why did you shoot in black and white?” "Because it's my favorite color. Any more questions? Okay. See you at the bar!" And he walked off! You know... memorable! Memorable. But what a character. What a guy. I miss him. He didn't get to make those films I knew he had in his heart. You know, we were very different. I was kind of a first generation, more kind of urban Texan or whatever, what I was trying to show in films. But we were very close. We would just talk about John Ford, and we had a lot in common, really, even though we looked and seemed different, I think, to some people. But I really loved his love of film and I felt he was the real deal.
Below: A marvelous documentary about Eagle Pennell, produced by Watchmaker Films.