Wednesday, 28 January 2015

The Historical Davy Crockett - Part 2

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 devote 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 Appalachians and into Native territory without formal land surrender through signed treaties. 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 Russell 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 you 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? Disney's response is unambiguous.

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. Even then, the sense of disconnect between the government collective and the American individual is also a part of the culture. 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. Mannequins 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 vilified 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, Jiminy 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-style 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.

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 Russell 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.

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