Well, as predicted my resistance to Disney+ lasted all of about 12 hours this past week. The lure of Star Wars was too much to resist. Honestly, for a lifelong Star Wars fan “The Mandalorian” alone probably is worth the price.
Surprisingly, though, that wasn’t the first thing I wound up watching. While browsing through the options after setting the app up, I stumbled across a childhood favorite of a different sort entirely. I’ve had “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” stuck in my head for the better part of a week now.
As a Texas native, I don’t really remember the first time I was told about the Alamo. That story was just always there. The version shown in Fess Parker’s portrayal of Crockett’s life isn’t the most accurate, but it was the first I saw. I’d be willing to bet that’s true of a substantial number of people.
There’s always some risk in watching a childhood favorite a few decades later, especially when you haven’t seen it for a few decades. Sure enough, I certainly wasn’t watching with the same eyes I had all those years ago. The movie probably couldn’t be made today, not without substantial changes. The repeated references to “redskins” in the lyrics and dialogue alone, while accurate enough for the prejudices today, would probably cause companies to shy away from it.
Behind that was something else. The portrayal of the Creek tribe was shallow, but surprisingly sympathetic for its time. Crockett in the movie approached them as near-equals, and didn’t particularly care for it when others didn’t. I’m not entirely sure how accurate that is, but it’s worth remembering that the 1955 film was released little more than a decade after the United States sent citizens of Japanese descent to internment camps during World War II and just months before the Montgomery Bus Boycott began.
Entertainment is, inevitably, a product of its time. If it doesn’t prove popular, it doesn’t succeed. Often the quickest route to popularity is to reflect society in the shallowest of ways. That means it can become acutely uncomfortable for viewers or readers who approach from another point of view decades later.
To my mind that discomfort is worth it, when done right. There’s no doubt Sergei Eisenstein and Leni Reifenstahl were on the wrong side of history with their best-known works. But understanding their work also helps shed light on how two homicidal regimes kept their hold on citizens by means that went beyond their inherent violence.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting “Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier” stands alongside “Alexander Nevsky” in the annals of great film. There’s a place for lesser fare, though, just as there’s a place for the occasional fast food burger in people’s eating habits. The proliferation of fast food will certainly tell future historians something about American culture, just as the sight of Davy’s coonskin cap does today.
One quick side note while I’m here. An Ottumwa reader this week gave me a fountain pen he had used for 30 years, saying he had read about my fondness for fountain pens and wanted it to be used by someone who appreciated it. I was floored by his generosity.
It was also a welcome reminder that working in newspaper has its moments. I am acutely aware of the fact that as editor I am only a temporary custodian of the Courier’s efforts, and that I follow in the footsteps of people who did remarkable work in decades past. I hope to be worthy of both that legacy and by the trust that reader showed with his gift.