Wednesday, 14 January 2015

The Historical Davy Crockett - Part 1

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 changed 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 was born in 1786 to an abusive family from which he fled at an early age. David's father John repeatedly emptied the family bank account, requiring David to be hired out to debtors in repayment. David was enrolled in school but after a fight with a fellow student decided that it wasn't worth his time. When his father tried to discipline him, David simply ran, and kept running. During his sojourn he learned most of his skills as a backwoodsman.

David finally returned home a few years later, in 1808. On his return he was once again hired out to several parties to whom his father was indebted. One of these was the man from whom the family leased their homestead. Once the debts were paid off and David was told by his father to get lost, he went back to work for the landowner. He also fell in love with the landowner's niece, but she was already betrothed to his son. Undaunted, he met another woman at their wedding and got so far as having an engagement contract drawn up. While he was doing this, she was getting another contract drawn up with another young man, and opted to marry that one instead.

Finally he met Polly, who he was set on marrying. Her mother had other ideas, so he got together his wedding party, a Justice of the Peace, and a marriage certificate, and was prepared to haul Polly up on his horse and ride her off into the sunset until her mother apologized and her father pleaded that the wedding be held at their family home. With Polly, David had two sons (who were in the show) and a daughter (who was not). After Polly died in 1815, Crockett remarried and had three more children. His second wife, Elizabeth, was herself a widow and brought three of her own children into the arrangement.

Portrait of David S. Crockett by Chester Davis.

Politically, Crockett did not lead the charmed life that Disney gave him. His days in the Tennessee Militia were mostly spent gathering food than hunting Native Americans, and he had little direct contact with his general, Andrew Jackson. When he moved his family to Lawrence County, Tennessee, he became both a Justice of the Peace and a lieutenant-colonel of the Militia. He quit both jobs, however, when he began to feel the pressure of public life, his multiple businesses, and his family weigh too heavily upon him. In 1821 he was elected to the Tennessee General Assembly, where he first clashed with the politicians endorsed by Andrew Jackson and put his own endorsement behind Jackson's opponents. Two weeks after his election, a flood displaced the Crockett homestead, forcing their move to land owned by Elizabeth's father in the Obion River area. They sold most of that land to pay off debts and settled on the remainder. In the film, this episode is presented as Davy wanting a new life for his family in a new area, when Polly suddenly dies and Davy exorcises his heartbreak by entering politics.

He lost his first bid for Congress in 1824, but was swept to Congress in the election of 1827. David's responsibility, as he saw it, was to support the poor settlers who were constantly on the verge of losing their lands and compelled to bear the unfair brunt of government pork-barreling. Among the bills he brought forward was a motion to abolish West Point, believing it to be little more than welfare for the sons of the wealthy elite. 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. In fact, one sees the pattern of David's constant failures in love and politics, but his constantly pushing forward in spite of it.

Applying the skills he picked up as a member of the Tennessee 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."

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. We will examine this closer in Part 2...

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