DAVY CROCKETT RETURNS (ON DVD)
It has been said that of all the screen interpretations of the complex events leading up to the siege and fall of the Alamo, the most influential have been John Wayne’s (in his 1960 film The Alamo ) and Walt Disney’s. Of the two, Disney’s is the more widely seen and remembered. After all, Walt Disney inspired a Davy Crockett craze; John Wayne’s clunker brought it to a close.
It is not true that Davy Crockett was forgotten until Disney Studio’s Davy Crockett, Indian Fighter aired on ABC (which coproduced the episodes with Disney) late in 1954. But the old bear hunter turned congressman turned cracker-barrel philosopher had slid into something of a down period. He had been the subject of perhaps two dozen feature films before Disney, but most of them had been made in the silent era. The closest thing to a recent major movie had been Davy Crockett, Indian Scout , with George Montgomery, in 1950.
In his 1954 book, The Forgotten Pioneer: The Life of Davy Crockett , Marion Michael Null touched a nerve by sounding a lament for the supposed loss of innocence represented by the passing of Crockett’s frontier. Almost as if in response to Null, Disney’s first three installments, ending with “Davy Crockett at the Alamo” early in 1955, didn’t merely rejuvenate Crockett but turned him into television’s first major merchandising fad, with coonskin hats
appearing virtually overnight on the heads of millions of American boys. Had Disney known how successful the series was going to be, he would never have killed off his hero after three episodes. That didn’t stop him from bringing back the stars Fess Parker and Buddy Ebsen for two prequels, “Davy Crockett’s Keelboat Race” and “Davy Crockett and the River Pirates.” And that was just the beginning. In 1955 some marketing genius at the studio realized that most Americans were unaware that all five episodes had been shot in beautiful Technicolor. The studio refitted the five into two feature films, Davy Crockett, King of the ‘Wild Frontier and, later, Davy Crockett and the River Pirates . The productions stand as the only hugely successful TV movies ever to become major hits on the big screen.
The new two-disc DVD release Walt Disney Treasures—Davy Crockett, the Complete Television Series tells you why. You can park historical accuracy at the door (though it’s nice to know that some of the nobler sentiments of Fess Parker’s Davy, such as his opposition to President Andrew Jackson’s treatment of the Cherokees, are based on fact). This is the American frontier as an idealistic 11-year-old would have it. Noble white and red men end bloody wars over peace pipes and work together to foil the schemes of evil white traders trying to exploit Indians. The grateful red men even send one of their own—Nick Cravet, a former Burt Lancaster stunt partner—to fight at Davy’s side at the Alamo. The Alamo sequence is a model of restraint and efficiency that often manages to hide the fact that there are more Texans defending the walls than Mexicans climbing them. The chapel and surrounding barricades are gorgeous, and overall, this one part of one Disney episode manages to suggest more of the desperation and heroism of the defenders than the ponderous John Wayne film does at five times the length and 20 times the budget.
All in all, it isn’t wrong to say of Disney’s Davy Crockett, the Complete Television Series what the historian Frank Thompson wrote of the Alamo segment: “There is little that is ‘historical,’ but there is much that is true."
Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, America’s original practitioners of extreme travel, are the subjects of Lewis & Clark: Great Journey West , produced by National Geographic Television and Film and narrated by Jeff Bridges. Shown on a huge Imax-like screen, the 40-minute documentary, which retraces the two men’s epic 1804-6 journey across the Northwest with the U.S. Army Corps of Discovery, opens on April 20, in Omaha, Nebraska. Stephen E. Ambrose, a frequent American Heritage contributor and the author of Undaunted Courage , about the expedition, acted as a consultant to the production.
Ansel Adams first saw the Yosemite Valley in 1916, when he was 14, and “from that day,” he later wrote, “my life has been colored and modulated by the great earth-gesture of the Sierra.” A 90-minute documentary by the award-winning filmmaker Ric Burns, to air on April 21, traces Adams’s life and photography from his birth in San Francisco through that teenage awakening and his productive decades to his last years, when he was more legend than active artist. The show will afford a rich appreciation of the life and work of a man who altered the way we see the West.