Thursday, 29 April 2010

Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier (1954)

For as impactful a movie as Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier was, it is amazing to consider how little critical thought has gone into it. In Understanding Disney: The Manufacture of Fantasy, Janet Wasko observes that there is a paucity of academic study on this iconic motion picture. Most studies are humble reminiscences of when 1950's pop culture changes practically overnight and every child wore a coonskin cap, whistling the 28(!) stanzas of the famous tune. The major treatment is The Davy Crockett Craze by Paul Anderson. However, as the "Aeneid" of America's own Virgil, Davy Crockett provides a wealth of material for the student of American mythology.

The Davy Crockett franchise began in 1954 with Davy Crockett, Indian Fighter, a one-hour episode in the first season of the Disneyland television series. That classic first season is overdue for release on DVD, containing the first Davy Crockett cycle, Man in Space, promotion for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea numerous True Life Adventures, and bookended by the construction and opening of Disneyland the theme park. Later in the season, Davy Crockett Goes to Congress and Davy Crockett at the Alamo rounded out the story, both introducing and killing off their protagonist. These three episodes were edited together in 1955 for full-colour theatrical release, in an era that predated home video.

The extent to which the King of the Wild Frontier intersects with the historical David Stern Crockett is up to debate. For one, Crockett disliked being referred to as "Davy", preferring his proper given name. He came from an abusive family from which he fled at an early age. During his sojourn he learned most of his skills as a backwoodsman. He did return, fell in love with a married woman, then fell in love with a woman he was going to marry but who left him at the altar. Then he married Polly with whom he had two sons, the three of whom were in the show, and a daughter who was not. After Polly died, Crockett remarried and had three more children.

Politically, Crockett did not lead the charmed life that Disney gave him. He lost his first bid for Congress in 1824. He did oppose Andrew Jackson's "Indian Removal Act", but he didn't willingly leave Congress over it. Instead, he was defeated for reelection in 1831. He was elected again in 1833 and lost again in 1835. At that point he said to Hell with politics and left for Texas. The impression one gets is less that of the man of integrity humbly thrust into and out of Washington and more that of a failed career politician.

Applying the skills he picked up as a member of the Tennesse militia during the Creek Indian War, Crockett signed up to the Texas militia under the promise of receiving land to settle on. As a volunteer, he had his fateful encounter with the Mexican forces at the Alamo. Minor controversy suggests that Crockett was one of a handful of Texans who surrendered and were executed after the battle. It is more likely that he was killed along with everyone else in the old Spanish mission.

Crockett, by all reports, was a folksy fellow and the Disney production took its queue from that. No doubt that the actor portraying him was an equal influence. Fess Parker became a Disney darling after the runaway success of Davy Crockett. Since then, he has been honored as a Disney Legend and one of the few non-Imagineers to be emblazoned on a window at Disneyland. Parker's window is on the second story of Frontierland, in the facade of the "Crockett and Russel Hat Company". Sadly, but after a full life, Parker passed away on March 18th of this year.

After Davy Crockett, the Texas native starred in Westward Ho the Wagons (1956), The Great Locomotive Chase (1956), Davy Crockett and the River Pirates (1956), Old Yeller (1957) and The Light in the Forest (1958). These were often alongside other Disney stalwarts of the era like Tommy Kirk, Kevin Corcoran, Jeff York and James MacArthur. Capitalizing on that success, Parker performed a number of Western records for the Disneyland label, including the Davy Crockett story album, Yarns and Songs (1956) and Cowboy and Indian Songs (1957).

Parker's relationship with Disney came to an end when even he started recognizing that he was playing virtually the same character in every film. He came to represent Disney's ideal American male: exemplifying the virtues of rural humility and simplicity, ingenuity, courage, good humor, perseverance and duty to family and country. This Aenean figure necessitated the changes to the historical David Crockett. Loyal and romantic to a fault, it would only do for him to have married once and never again. Robust masculinity excised his daughter. His integrity and civic-mindedness would require him to be elected the first time around and to voluntarily leave Congress when its corruption threatened his morals.

The ideal American male is a political figure. America is an individualist society and therefore the driving narrative of its politics and society is that of the individual's supremacy and sanctity. The individual, in turn, becomes symbolic of the processes of the State (and one can certainly debate the extent to which the myth of American individualism both obfuscates and hinders the collectivization that makes society possible). So through the King of the Wild Frontier character we learn the politics of the King of the Wild Frontier film. Where many of these alterations to David Crockett, from a historical figure to a proxy of 1950's American politics, come into sharper focus are in the film's representations of Native Americans.

The Native Americans present in the films serve as necessary foils to build up the origin myth of America and how it reflected in the politics of the day. Throughout the first episode and into the second, the American government's treatment of Native Americans is presented as fair, equitable, balanced and ultimately beneficial to them.

Davy Crockett, Indian Fighter focuses on the Creek Indian War in the teen years of the 19th century. The historical conflict began as a civil war amongst the Muscogee nation, initiated by a group of dissenters named the "Red Sticks" who opposed Euro-American enculturation. The government became involved but could not devoted formal troops on account of the War of 1812. This left it in the hands of state militias.

The Red Sticks themselves were urged on by Tecumseh, the foremost Native ally of the British. One of the more obscure stones paving the road to the American Revolution was relative British sympathy for Native Americans. The Royal Proclamation of 1763 decreed that settlers from the 13 Colonies could not expand beyond the Appalacians and into Native territory without proper legal proceedings. Rejection of this principle of moderation and due process became a core part of the American psyche, spurring on later revolution and aspirations of Manifest Destiny. Many Native tribes later joined with the British in the War of 1812 in order to halt American expansionism. The Red Sticks played into this, though none of these issues are brought to light in Davy Crockett.

In the show, the conflict is streamlined. Crockett and his sidekick Georgie Russel are serving as Tennessee militiamen under Andrew Jackson as the company breaks up the war camp of Native leader Red Stick and pursues him into the wilds of Ohio. Complex geopolitics are resolved, not at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, but when Crockett bursts into individualist macho fisticuffs with Red Stick. The chief's motives are also simplified. When Crockett and Red Stick debate the merits of the Indian Wars and surrendering to the American government, the inevitability and Providence of American settlement is implicit. Culpability for the Indian Wars is placed on the Native leaders like Red Stick and the Wars themselves are portrayed as futile.

When Red Stick proclaims that the white man cannot be trusted because he hunts Indians, Crockett insists that they only hunt Indians because they make war on white men, not acknowledging that the Natives are legitimately defending their homeland from foreign invaders. He states that the "good chiefs" have given up because they know that the wars are no good, hinting at the inevitability of American occupation. The virtue of occupation is taken for granted when Crockett affirms that Red Stick and those like him can "live in peace if [they] just listen to reason". Native objections to settlement are presented as unreasonable and the source of unnecessary and unprovoked bloodshed. The rationality of America's efforts are in part justified by its belief in equality, with Crockett proclaiming that "white man's law's good for Indians if you just give it a chance". Nevertheless, "white man's law" is still white man's law.

The central narrative here is America's evangelistic self-perception of equitability and fairness. In Davy Crockett we see a history of spreading equality, justice, and "official" American values rather than a history of warfare, occupation and imperialism. Through the course of the film, Crockett himself makes the seemingly counterintuitive switch from a warrior against Native people to a protector of them. Even within the film, a claim-jumper points out this incongruity, asking "since when did Davy Crockett become a friend of the Injuns?"

However, Crockett's wartime actions are presented as a service to the Native peoples rather than an attack against them. His goal was to eliminate those leaders who were interfering with the peace between Natives and settlers, thus smoothing the way for the administration of American justice through treaties and reservations. Later, when Crockett arrives in Congress and fights against Jackson's Indian Bill, which would see the annexation of reservation land and the sale of it to white settlers, he resumes his role as Anglo-American protector and spokesperson for the Natives. Storming into Washington in his buckskins, he offers up a speech about how dirty politics are corrupting the nation, leading to a defeat of the bill. Davy Crockett as protector of Native Americans comes out again in Davy Crockett and the River Pirates, where he busts up a group of brigands disguising themselves as Natives.

The reason for this lengthy dissertation on Native relations - both in this piece and in the film itself - ceases to be a mystery when one looks at the political environment of the time. Just the previous year, the Korean War drew to a close in the armistice of 1953. That war in Southeast Asia had been raging since 1950, and tensions in the region would continue through the beginning of the Vietnam War in 1959. In the course of it, in the midst of war crimes and Bodo League Massacres, questions rose that would come to roost in later conflicts, from 'Nam to Iraq.

The 150 year old Creek Indian War is invoked, with everything it is interpreted to say about American origins, values and character, in order to soften and answer the questions that were beginning to rise over American imperialism. What are Americans doing in foreign lands waging war on the people who live there? Is it merely the corrupt expansionism of the likes of Andrew Jackson's Indian Removal Act, or is there a more noble motive behind it like those of Davy Crockett? The response is unambiguous, though the outcome has shades.

The King of the Wild Frontier stands against his society both in the broad sense and specifically in his opposition to the Indian Bill. Crockett represents America against the government, and one wonders what exactly the opinion of Washington is. Even then, the sense of disconnect between the government collective and the American individual is also a part of the culture (again, as a part of the obfuscation of collectivism). Regardless, Walsh ultimately endorses a critical justification of American militarism: that no matter how violent or unprovoked, the United States wages war on other countries for their own good.

The ambiguity infuses the representation of Native Americans in Disneyland as well. The connection between Davy Crockett and Frontierland was made from the outset, as the land opened on July 17, 1955 with a performance and speech by Fess Parker in character. Manniquins of Davy, Georgie and General Andrew Jackson occupied Tom Sawyer Island's Fort Wilderness. From that point on, Native Americans were invited for open cultural exchange with the now-defunct Indian Village and Ceremonial Dance Circle but also villified as the backwards resistors of white civilization. The latter Disneyland episode An Adventure in the Magic Kingdom presented young people hiding from invading hostile Natives and shooting at them from the parapets of Fort Wilderness. In the album A Day at Disneyland, Jimminy Cricket celebrates the arrival of Davy Crockett to "deal with those bad actin' Indians." The original Indian War Canoes attraction was rechristened the Davy Crockett Explorer Canoes when the Indian Village closed in 1971.

The issue of why the powerful nation of America is waging war on villagers in huts being dealt with, the emphasis of Davy Crockett's third episode or cinematic act shifts away from "internal" and "ethnic" Native American issues and towards the matter of outward expansion and conflict with external powers. For the sake of argument, we'll excuse that the Creek Indian War and American westward expansion was an external war of conquest against an external power, though it really ought not to be forgotten. That Native American issues are seen as internal affairs is a testimony to persistent parochial attitudes about Native American cultures as being not legitimate in the same way that European ones are.

Nevertheless, this shift is made from talking about the Koreans to talking about the Communists, in the shape of Crockett's fateful date with the Alamo. Like the background to the Creek Indian War, the history behind the Texas Revolution is also ignored. Following the Mexican Revolution against Spain, the new country liberalized immigration laws to Texas, which appealed to large numbers of American settlers. These settlers, who outnumbered Mexicans 30,000 to 8,000, chaffed under numerous Mexican regulations including a prohibition on slaves and being forced to grow agricultural products that were of use to Mexicans rather than European markets. President Santa Anna believed this immigration to be an American plot to infiltrate the country. These factors led inevitably to the Revolution, Alamo, Republic and eventual adoption of Texas into the Union.

All Davy Crockett knows, though, is that there are Americans in trouble and he needs to go rescue them. Making it into the Alamo, he expresses once more his faith in the Divine hand of Providence protecting American endeavours. As Davy goes down swinging his rifle, Ol' Betsy, the last words that flash on the screen are "liberty and independence forever" written in his journal. Indeed, he loses his life as they lose the Alamo, but there is the statement in that as well: America with never surrender, but fight down to the last patriot in the battle against Communism. The Alamo becomes yet another exercise in patriotism and implicit American righteousness, explicitly invoking God in opposition to the faceless foreign adversary.

It should be noted that "In God We Trust" was adopted as the official motto of the United States in 1956. Charles Edward Bennett of the Congress explained it saying "In these days when imperialistic and materialistic Communism seeks to attack and destroy freedom" it is worth remembering that "as long as this country trusts in God, it will prevail." It was only 10 years prior that Walt Disney testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Walt, however, was not originally so keen on the Davy Crockett project. It was largely the brainchild of Bill Walsh, for whom Crockett was a hero and evidently fruitful ground for political commentary. The subsequent craze was so huge that one retailer stated that "Davy Crockett is bigger even than Mickey Mouse." It was, in a sense, the Pirates of the Caribbean of its day (if we take The Mickey Mouse Club as High School Musical and Annette as Hannah Montana).

When Walt was sold on the production and they put it to film, they were faced with an incredible problem. In the words of Disney,
We had no idea what was going to happen on Crockett. Why, by the time the first show finally got on the air, we were already shooting the third one and calmly killing Davy off at the Alamo. It became one of the biggest over-night hits in TV history, and there we were with just three films and a dead hero!

Several more parts were written. Reaching screens in 1955 were Davy Crockett's Keelboat Race and Davy Crockett and the River Pirates, a two-part piece of blatant mythmaking that was collected into the feature film Davy Crockett and the River Pirates (1956). The scale of this adventure was a much smaller folk tale befitting the likes of Pecos Bill or Paul Bunyan. As evidence, we meet folk hero Mike Fink, whom the historical Crockett never met. Unfilmed were How Davy and Russel Met and Davy Crockett on the Great Plains, which sound like they would have been quite interesting. By 1956, though, Disney looked upon Fess Parker as a bankable movie star.


Russell said...

A thoroughly engaging and insightful post! I have nothing more to add but a thank you!

Cory Gross said...

Thank you Russell!