Plus or Minus #022: Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier

Plus or Minus is a series detailing and analyzing every feature film now streaming on Disney+. It combines the unique history all these films share, their cultural impacts, and their qualities, or lack thereof. From timeless classics, to acquired hits, to DCOMs, no stone will be left unturned.

Plus or Minus serves as a history series. A unique look into all the unique facets of Walt Disney Productions and its numerous divisions. And for this new Plus or Minus, on Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier, we are now intersecting with another important division of Disney. Specifically, Disney and their television production company. King of the Wild Frontier isn’t a movie in the traditional sense. Rather, this serves as a compilation of three episodes of the Davy Crockett television series, edited into one movie. Even today, as film and television intersect more and more often, a bunch of TV episodes on the big screen seems ludicrous. How can people accept watching something they already saw at home?

To understand why Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier exists, it’s important to discuss the series and its legacy. Both to Disney and television as a whole.

The Power of Television

First finding life when he took his daughters to Griffith Park, Walt Disney had interest in making his own theme park. A place where adults and children can have incredible fun together. And also a place where he can promote his movies, shows, and other ventures. Which was the main thing, really.

However, there was nobody interested in the project. It was such a new concept that it was hard to describe or get investors interested. So Walt Disney would become the first major film producer to go into the strange new world of television.

Sure, movie studios having a TV division is nothing new. But television was something many film executives feared. And while Walt probably would have ignored it if he didn’t want to make his theme park, this was how his dream would come true. The deal was that Walt would produce an hour-long weekly television series called Disneyland for the then-fledgling ABC network. ABC would fund the park, Walt Disney would generate big ratings. This tactic worked like gangbusters, with similar Disney-themed anthology shows still being produced to this very day.

Much of the program was teasing the park, with its new rides and entertainment. But the Disneyland series also created original programming themed around the distinct lands found in the park. Adventureland, Tomorrowland, Fantasyland, and, for our purposes, Frontierland. And it’s here where the legend of Davy Crockett found new life.

The Brief History of Davy Crockett

Born in 1786, the real-life Davy Crockett and his actions have been highly romanticized through decades of stories and dramatizations, especially Disney’s. His time as a frontiersman, a politician, and as a brave hero who died at Battle of the Alamo is well-documented. Not just in his own autobiography, but also in the tall tales made since his death and some even made by Crockett himself. Stories that glorified him as a larger than life figure. Stories that were very compelling to Mr. Walt Disney. And it’s Disney’s stories that helped the legend of Crockett become normalized and popular to this very day.

Disneyland, the series, was created to fund Walt’s theme park. But it also served as a place where Disney could really take advantage of the television medium. And, perhaps, teach the kids a thing or two about American history. So three one-hour programs about Davy Crockett broadcast from December 1954 to February 1955. Each one detailed certain aspects of the real-life figure with its star Fess Parker. Parker would appear in a similar wilderness series, Daniel Boone, in 1964, and also went on to be a winemaker. His sidekick Georgie was played by Buddy Epsen, best known as Jed Clampett on the classic 60s sitcom The Beverly Hillbillies.

A Surprise Worldwide Phenomenon

With these three specials boasting incredible production values and Disney charm and fun, it quickly proved to be a massive sensation that changed Disney and television forever. By the end of the third special, Davy Crockett became the most famous frontiersman in American history. Fess Parker also became a household name, while Disney made oodles of profits from merchandise. By the end of 1955, $300 million worth of coonskin caps and bubble gum cards were sold. The famed George Bruns song, “The Ballad of Davy Crockett”, would be a smash on the billboard charts and immensely popular with schoolchildren. As an aside, I still have that tune stuck in my head since my first viewing.

Image from "Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier". Courtesy of Disney
Courtesy of Disney

It was also an important showcase about what television could be. At a time when movie producers and studios were still unsure about this new medium, Disney created something that had cinematic value and a high budget for television and made millions off of it. Television didn’t have to be cheap-looking fodder, but have cinematic visuals and stories. Davy Crockett was essentially the 1950s equivalent to Game of Thrones when you think about it.

There were still debates and criticisms about its accuracies and whether Crockett deserved this attention. But the bottom line was that the series was a success. So much so, two more one-hour programs were created despite the ending with Crockett’s death at the Alamo. We’ll save the stories for those two later.

So Why Make a Movie?

Even with Davy Crockett’s huge popularity, it’s still a little weird to take those episodes and then edit and compile them into a feature film. Though it’s important to put things into perspective. Television was a different beast in 1955. About 65 percent of American households had a television set in 1955, so a good number of Americans didn’t get to see the Crockett programs yet. And for those who did have a TV, reruns were a rarity. Missing the show meant you missed it forever more or less. So a movie allowed easier access to American viewers and also allowed overseas viewers who didn’t have the Disneyland series broadcast in their country a chance to see what the hype was all about.

But most importantly, this was the only way to see the landscapes of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in color. These episodes were shot in color, but broadcast in black and white. That’s how almost all TV shows were presented at the time. But Davy Crockett gave viewers, newcomers and veterans already into Crockett fever, a chance to see the series in a new, stunning light.

And sure enough, this tactic worked. Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier was a solid box office success, grossing $2.1 million domestically. This only continued the Crockett craze, and led to two more episodes in November and December 1955. Those two would in turn lead to another “episode compilation” movie with 1956’s Davy Crockett and the River Pirates.

The Legacy of the Wild Frontier King

Apart from a short-lived revival series in 1988 and the infamous 2004 bomb The Alamo, Disney didn’t do much else with Crockett. Its job was to sell coonskin caps and promote Frontierland, and it did its job well. But it was the main impetus for the success of Disneyland and Disney in the television medium. This is the reason why Disney is still a powerhouse within television to this very day, whether it be through ABC, Hulu, Disney Channel, FX, or Disney+. And even the idea of compiling TV episodes together into a movie would be an occasional tactic for the Mouse House. TV shows like Zorro, Recess, The Legend of Tarzan, and more would follow the same steps that Davy Crockett took, albeit to nowhere near the same success.

Still, important doesn’t always mean good. Just because something was popular and well-liked at the time doesn’t automatically make it a great watch for 2023 viewers. Nor does it mean there weren’t flaws from the beginning. Which makes watching King of the Wild Frontier…interesting by today’s standards.

The Problematic Aspects

As you might expect from a 1955 Western, the film’s political subtext is not perfect. Specifically, its treatment of indigenous Native Americans. They fit every stereotype you can imagine in Peter Pan, but the film has even more misguided elements in regards to these characters. After the first sequence of Crockett versus the Muscogee, we then follow the second sequence where Crockett…now wants to protect the Muscogee.

Which granted is somewhat explained by a treaty served at the end of the first segment, but it still feels out of left field. And yes, this brings up the unfortunate white savior aspects of the story. It’s not as bad as it could have been, but there’s not too much to distract us from these issues. This is a blatant product of the times.

The Flaws of TV to Film

Television is a great medium of storytelling. But the structure of television is nothing like film. It is a medium that is devised for smaller, self-contained stories and at its best with these tight endings. And trying to take three episodes with their own story and character arcs and put them into one big movie just doesn’t work. And sadly, this is how King of the Wild Frontier functions.

Because of its episodic nature, each third feels clunky as a cohesive story, with characters seemingly changing on a dime. At the beginning, Davy’s in an epic fight against the Native Americans. But by the second act, he’s now defending their land? It’s convoluted and awkward as a singular piece and probably worked better when they were separate entities.

Not All Bad

However, despite all its storytelling flaws and problematic issues, I still found myself enjoying this? Didn’t love it for sure. It is definitely a film where the whole does not equal the sum of its parts. But there’s a lot of parts that are legitimately well-made and fun.

Image from "Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier". Courtesy of Disney
Courtesy of Disney

For starters, the film looks very good. The cinematography, landscapes, and action really do work well as a theatrical release. Everything looks and feels like a big-screen adventure. While the TV broadcasts were in black and white, I’m sure this was mindblowing to see on those CRTs back then. And with this now being in color, it really accentuates the beauty of the wilderness and frontier.

The famed Alamo climax is also very fun and my favorite of the segments. There’s solid tension, plenty of chaos, and a strong, over-the-top conclusion. It’s the best instance of the charm of this piece which is largely consistent throughout. It’s a very corny, romanticized look at the wild frontier that is very inaccurate. Which will not appeal to everybody, especially people who want a more accurate look at the story. And there are some aspects that don’t work very well under this tone. But King of the Wild Frontier doesn’t try to push itself as the real deal and just as a fun adventure. And in that end, it’s never dull and fairly memorable.

Is Fess Parker A Good Actor?

This does lead into a very unique question I have been asking myself since viewing the movie however. Because within the over-the-top antics and heavy romanticism is the lead actor Fess Parker as Davy Crockett. His interpretation of the character is having Davy Crockett be as laid-back and nonchalant as possible. Despite all his amazing feats, Crockett is just chill and indifferent, with a distinct Southern drawl in his voice.

And that is probably the make or break for viewers. Some will probably find him too wooden and stilted for a charming rogue figure. Yet I found myself oddly entranced by his performance? It’s far from anything revelatory, but his laid-back persona works well for the character and kind of unique. Here is a man who is so confident and chill in all his accomplishments that he has no reason to brag. It’s all nonchalant towards him. It’s an interesting dynamic that, yes, while romanticized, is pretty interesting. Plus he has decent chemistry with Buddy Ebsen, an essential part of the film.

Plus or Minus?

Disney’s Davy Crockett, at least the King of the Wild Frontier movie, is a very flawed production. It’s very dated in a lot of areas, it’s a complete romanticization of the actual real-life figure, and the lead hero’s performance might be too wooden for its own good. Yet I still found myself entertained by it all. There’s a silliness here I found endearing, in spite of all its flaws, and the beauty of the forest is on full display. Perhaps I am being too forgiving , but it’s a fun enough wilderness adventure, though it may require suspending your disbelief and it’s probably better to read a history book if you’re looking for authenticity.

It won’t be for everybody. But between Plus or Minus, I’ll give King of the Wild Frontier a mild Plus.

NEXT TIME: We see another all-time Disney classic with Lady and the Tramp. We know it for the spaghetti scene, but is there more to this doggone romance?