Revisiting ‘Davy Crockett: King Of The Wild Frontier,’ Disney’s Largely Forgotten Live-Action Blockbuster
(Welcome to Out of the Disney Vault, where we explore the unsung gems and forgotten disasters currently streaming on Disney+.)
It may be hard to wrap your head around, but there was once a time when the Walt Disney Company wasn’t solely dedicated to building out franchises. They were, from a cold and calculated point of view, always dedicated to intellectual property. The animation studio upon which the corporation is built began its feature-filmmaking life by adapting iconic fairy tales that had been legendary for countless years. How those films were brought to life was often stunningly original, even if the source material wasn’t. The success of those films, of course, led to the creation of Disneyland Park in Anaheim, California in the summer of 1955, an undertaking that was coupled with the premiere of the Walt Disney anthology TV series mere weeks before.
Before there was Disneyland, then, there was the Disneyland TV series. Before you could walk through Adventureland, Fantasyland, Tomorrowland, and Frontierland in real life, you could watch episodes of the TV series themed to those areas. In the year 2020, it may be hard to fully reckon with exactly how popular one set of those episodes were 65 years ago. But such was the case for three Frontierland-themed episodes from the show’s first season, all focusing on the historical figure Davy Crockett.
You’ve probably heard of Davy Crockett, a frontiersman who served in the United States Congress and fought valiantly in the Battle of the Alamo before dying in said battle. Those major parts of his life all came years after he became a legendary figure, first in Tennessee and then throughout the expanding country. The heroic Crockett became the central figure of five different Disneyland TV episodes airing between 1954 and 1956, all of which were condensed to fit into two feature-length films. The first of those features, which recently turned 65, was Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier. The three hourlong episodes used for this film were squeezed down so they could fit into a 90-minute runtime for release in theaters.
This choice was nakedly a way to capitalize on the massive success of Davy Crockett as a 50s-era action figure. The character’s theme song, "The Ballad of Davy Crockett", was a cultural touchstone for plenty of kids, from the 50s and beyond. (You may recall that the song appears briefly in Wes Anderson’s stop-motion animated film Fantastic Mr. Fox, and coincidentally, you can stream that on Disney+ right now.) The man’s signature coonskin cap was massively popular among young boys in the 1950s. So while the resulting film is deliberately episodic (and produced incredibly quickly – the third episode that appears in King of the Wild Frontier aired on television just three months prior to the big-screen release), Disney choosing to make hay where it could in the run-up to the unveiling of Disneyland Park was logical.
But what of the movie itself? As I have written at this site, what Disney+ needs more of is historical context surrounding its older releases. Disney+ also desperately needs to add more of its old-school Walt Disney anthology TV episodes. In the last few months, Disney+ has done the same kind of PR blast that other streaming services do, teasing what titles are coming the next month. And in each of those blasts, they have promised a few more Disneyland TV episodes which have still yet to show up. (June promises four more episodes, but I’m not holding my breath for their arrival.) I mention this because if you watch Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier without realizing it’s derived from three episodes of TV, or without a great deal of knowledge about who Crockett was (outside of just a general sense of his place in popular culture), you may well be baffled by the final product.
Directed by Norman Foster, King of the Wild Frontier focuses on three major parts of Davy Crockett’s life (because, of course, so too did the episodes in question). First, we see Davy barter peace between a Native American tribe and a battalion led by future president Andrew Jackson. Next, we see how Jackson is able to convince Crockett to run for and serve in the United States Congress, until Crockett ruins his own reputation by speaking out about the Indian Removal Act (more about which in a minute). Finally, we see what ends up being Davy Crockett’s last stand: his presence at the Battle of the Alamo.
I’ve only seen this movie, and not the full episodes from which it’s derived. (You may wonder why that is: it’s partly because the episodes are not on Disney+. That seems pretty weird!) I can’t speak to what might be missing here in terms of more flavor or personality. The film, in part because it’s essentially three half-hour episodes strung together, doesn’t entirely feel like a full accounting of the life of one of this nation’s most recognizable and revered heroes. But the pace is swift enough, something I presume is less due to Foster’s straightforward, no-frills direction, and more due to the condensation inherent in the film. As Disney’s first serious foray into the Western genre (even though most of the film stays east of the Mississippi), King of the Wild Frontier is a solid opening salvo.
Fess Parker, who became a star thanks to these episodes, is moderately charming as Davy Crockett even though his dialogue often feels a bit more cartoonish than naturalistic. (Words like "bear" and "far" are delightfully mispronounced throughout.) As Davy’s best pal George, Buddy Ebsen – a few years away from his most memorable role as Jed Clampett on The Beverly Hillbillies – is suitably raffish as the comic-relief buddy. Among the rest of the cast, it’s worth noting two other performers: Helene Stanley and Hans Conried. Stanley briefly plays Davy’s wife before she dies off-screen (even though Davy and his wife have children, don’t worry, the kids are being watched after by an also off-screen relative). Conried appears in the final third as a riverboat gambler who joins the Battle of the Alamo. Stanley was used as a live-action reference for some of Disney’s biggest animated films of the era – Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and 101 Dalmatians. And you may recognize Conried’s voice even if you don’t know his face: he was the original Captain Hook in the animated Peter Pan.
You may well have picked up on something in that past paragraph though: the level of interest you may find in Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier is based largely in trifling historical details of its creation. The story itself is moderately harmless hokum, even though the way Crockett’s refusal to accept the Indian Removal Act is dealt with feels a bit fantastical. Crockett gives an impassioned speech about why it’s wrong to force Native Americans off their land, and is greeted in the U.S. Congress by massive applause. It’s a nice sentiment not entirely lining up with the grim reality that our Congress did sign that act into law, one of the worst sins this country has ever committed. If you forget the history of the character, that scene (and the whole film) are perhaps more charming than troubling.
Let’s first talk about the legacy of Davy Crockett, since it permeates this movie. As noted, the film’s final third focuses on the Battle of the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas. You don’t need to be a historian to know, going into this story, that the Alamo didn’t exactly go well for the Americans. And whatever else is true of King of the Wild Frontier (I presume this is equally applicable to the Disneyland TV show), it doesn’t sugarcoat the ending. We don’t actually see Davy Crockett get shot to death by Santa Anna’s forces, but we see just about every other character get shot or knifed and when the camera moves away from Crockett, the last man standing against an impossible amount of Mexican soldiers, it’s…very clear what’s about to happen.
That reality, of course, boxed Disney in somewhat. The three Davy Crockett episodes were so massively popular that it led to the creation of this movie, along with tons of merchandise. But they were also so popular that audiences wanted more of them. Disney would greenlight two more Crockett episodes, airing in the second season of the anthology show. Those episodes were condensed into another movie, Davy Crockett and the River Pirates. As you can imagine, these episodes (and the movie) were prequels to what came in the first season.
Nowadays, the legacy of Davy Crockett within Disney is largely diminished. It’s not entirely absent, of course – if you go to Disneyland, you can try your hand at the Davy Crockett Explorer Canoes. (Literally: you better get ready to grab an oar yourself and start paddling, or else you’ll get some playful responses from the Disneyland Cast Members.) But even though Davy Crockett was the first multimedia franchise for the Walt Disney Company, he’s something of a ghost now. The song shows up in an indie animated film, as a kitschy nod to the past that adults recognize. And you can watch these movies on Disney+, hopefully preparing yourself for a 50s-era depiction of this country’s dark past with Native American culture. This is where context would be key: it wouldn’t make Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier a better film, but a more fully rounded experience.