March 21, 2010

America changed with Davy Crockett

Continuing the discussion I began in Ups and Downs of Hollywood Indians. Here's more on how movie and TV portrayals of cowboys and Indians mirror the nation's political climate.

An Appreciation:  Fess Parker's Davy Crockett was a hero when we needed one.

The actor's character embodied courage and common sense in the uncertain '50s.

By Neal Gabler
[E]ven Parker understood that Davy Crockett wasn't just manufactured by mass culture. It struck a much deeper chord in the American psyche.

Some at the time attributed its success to the country's need to assuage its self-doubt after the Joseph McCarthy red-baiting debacle earlier that year and during the struggle against the Soviets at the height of the Cold War. Others thought that Crockett was an example not of inferiority but of American self-confidence. He was courageous, resolute, plain-spoken, common sense, transparent--the perfect American to contrast with our wily Soviet enemies. Time magazine, surveying America in this period and extolling her virtues, even called it "Davy's Time."

And yet, if Parker had some John Wayne in him, he also had some Jimmy Stewart. Wayne had no modesty. Parker did. His Crockett was kind, temperate, sensitive, tolerant--less an Indian fighter in the Wayne mold than an Indian mediator. He was also something of a renegade, opposing authority and challenging the system. That enabled him to bridge political and ideological divides or, rather, to blur them.

Conservatives claimed him--and Parker was a conservative himself who was a friend and neighbor of Ronald Reagan--but so did liberals. He belonged to everyone.

In fact, after he left Disney because he was tired of being typecast as a frontiersman, Parker starred for one season, from 1962 to 1963, in a television version of "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," which only showed the continuity between his Crockett and 20th century Frank Capra populism.
Comment:  Before Davy Crockett, we had the classic era of Western movies, with Indian fighters in the John Wayne mold. The Indians were little more than predatory animals. Not coincidentally, we faced intractable enemies in the real world: Nazis, "Japs," and Commies.

"Davy's Time" coincided with the end of the McCarthy era--a diminishing fear of a Communist takeover. The Civil Rights movement gathered steam, as did the move toward revisionist Western movies and TV shows. Even John Wayne's characters became something akin to Indian supporters.

And in the '60s Camelot era, with JFK as president, we started getting urbane, sensitive cowboys like Ben Cartwright on Bonanza. Not to mention urbane, sensitive space cowboys like Captain Kirk. He usually stood up for the savage alien races he met, even if it meant overthrowing their superstitious religion (computer) and bringing them civilization (the Federation).

So cowboy characters (including proto-cowboys like Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone) became more thoughtful and sensitive. And Indian characters became more complex and human. And this coincided with a decreased fear of foreign attack and an increased understanding of US minorities. Was this coincidence a coincidence? I think not.

For more on the subject, see The Best Indian Movies and TV Shows Featuring Indians.

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