Davy Crockett and the River Pirates (1956)

1955 was a milestone year for the Walt Disney studio. Lady and the Tramp premiered. The Mickey Mouse Club first aired. Disneyland opened its gates…and their second major television series, Davy Crockett, took to the airwaves. The show about the real-life soldier-turned-congressman and his larger-than-life, fictional exploits turned him from a folk hero into a national phenomenon. The theme song, “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” was a number one hit, and at the peak of the Crockett craze, 5,000 coonskin caps were sold A DAY.

In May of 1955, Crockett appeared on the silver screen in his first adventure, Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier. Basically, it was just a bunch of episodes edited together to look like one complete, comprehensive film. But because the fad of the buckskin buccaneer didn’t die quickly, Disney wanted to follow up with another big screen story. Except there was one eensy-weensy problem: Crockett – the character in the show, as well as the real-life person – famously died defending the Alamo in 1836. So instead, the studio applied a tactic that’d be used to a much less effective effect in Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas, Tarzan II and The Fox and the Hound II: make it a midquel.

You know…midquel? It’s not a sequel, ’cause it doesn’t take place after the first movie, just…sometime during? Like in the middle? Hence…ah, you get it.

How does The Man Who Don’t Know Fear stack up against the Original Ringtail Roarer from the Thunder and Lightning Country? Wrangle your river raft runners and rush ’round to this ridiculous rigamarole!

The plot: Crockett (Fess Parker) and buddy Georgie Russell (Buddy Ebsen) are about to take a keelboat to Kentucky along the Ohio River to sell their pelts. They find all the boats are unable to take them because the self-proclaimed King of the River, Mike Fink (Jeff York) has essentially bullied everyone off the river. The irascible oaf refuses to play nice, and gets Georgie so drunk, he lays down a bet: a race to New Orleans. If Crockett wins, Fink gives up his title. If Fink wins, they give up their pelts. With Fink aboard the Gullywhumper and Crockett hiring the Bertha Mae, the two take to the river in a race to the finish.

In the second story, Crockett and Georgie stumble upon a tribe of Chickasaw natives who are about to go to war with the white man over the deaths in the nearby Kaskaskia tribe. Smelling a rat, Crockett thinks there are some white men posing as natives and committing river robberies. They hire Fink to pose as a high-rolling banker so they can lure out the river pirates and take down their criminal enterprise.

How’s the writing?: It’s really good for the most part. There are some real gems here in terms of dialogue, particularly this exchange between Crockett and Fink’s first encounter:

Fink: I am the Original Ringtail Roarer from the Thunder and Lightning Country! I’m a real snorter and a head-buster! I can out-run, out-jump, out-sing, out-swim, out-dance, out-shoot, out-eat, out-drink
Crockett: Out-talk? 
Fink: Yeah! Out-talk, out-cuss, and out-fight anybody in the whole Mississippi and Ohio Rivers put together! 

There is such an indelible charm to the braggadocio and bluster that it has all the gusto Gaston from Beauty and the Beast could ever deliver with none of the skeeze. The only thing better is our heroes’ one-liner responses racked with humility and cheekiness you can’t help but admire their restraint. Fess in particular exemplifies the “not wasting words” attitude, but he makes up for it in a firm but polite demeanor, while Mike just bellows every line like Penn Jillette and Sam Kinison’s love child. At the foundation of all of this is keen understanding of the characters and who they are.

While I’m not a fan of the two stories in one movie format, it works to its benefit here. Plot one is too simple for an hour and a half movie, while plot two might have been made too overcomplicated if treated the same. But due to both being roughly a half hour each, they serve their stories perfectly, but I sort of prefer the Keelboat Race story over the titular River Pirates story. Events work well to each of their structures without feeling rushed or sluggish.

Does it give the feels?: Like any good action story, it’s not so much about feeling emotional over the unfolding of events, so much about who you empathize with and who you want to get beat up.

Again, Crockett comes across as fairly likeable. While he doesn’t exactly radiate personality, he has a John Wayne-like charm, without the inherit racism. He has a strong moral compass, such as helping a man rescue his livestock despite losing the race, and his sense of justice sets of the events of the second story. Even how Crockett concludes the bet is the stuff of classic “better man” finales.

Who makes it worth it?: Jeff York as Mike Fink is a human cartoon character. That is not an exaggeration or a joke.

I’ve seen York in Old Yeller and some episodes of Zorro, and he has the same twinkle in his eye, the same charming smirk, and same endearing demeanor in each one. But in River Pirates, York is let loose. Never once do you doubt his swagger, his bravado, his arrogance, or his intensity. He channels his energy into every gesture, from his rubbery grins to his clenched fists, York is a great to watch.

Best quality provided: Fess as Davy is fun to watch in a muted, witty capacity. You see the wheels turning in every encounter, and despite being known as a tough brawler, he is very clever. He says very little, but he is very direct, and very little nonsense. One scene in the movie is among the best of all of his qualities.

It’s established in this movie and the previous one that most of the stories made up about him are just tall tales. But he neither encourages nor dismisses them. So after Fink and his men sabotage the Bertha Mae, he, Georgie, and Captain Cobb plan to waylay Fink and his crew in a tavern while they swap out their damaged parts for the Gullywhumpers‘. Crockett and Georgie plan a trick shot to fool Fink into thinking he can fire a buckshot, have it ricochet around the bar, and catch it in his teeth. It’s all a clever ruse, but it shows foresight in letting his reputation speak louder than his actions. The scene is shot openly for us viewers to see through the lens of the good guys, but it still looks impressive.

Also, I like the river pirates’ plot involving Colonel Plug (Played by Pinocchio‘s Honest John, Walter Catlett), where he sings to his men about what’s supposedly on the boat to steal. It’s pretty smart, all things considered.

What could have been improved: the climactic fight on the river at the end of the second story is a bit of a letdown. Crockett and Fink has been long touted as great fighters, but the fight itself just kind feels like a lame battle for a preschooler cartoon. Each bad guy gets “defeated” by falling into the water.

The battle drags on as Crockett and Georgie chase the villains deep into the cave, and an explosive finale is in store as some dynamite adds to the tension, but there’s something just forgettable about the fight itself. And that’s sad, because this is Davy Crockett we’re talking about. The “half-horse, half-alligator, and a little attached with snapping turtle” man, who “kil’t him a b’ar when he was only three”. I suppose this was fifties’ kid’s movie standards back then, but man, it feels so lackluster.

Also, sometimes the slapstick falls flat. When the Bertha Mae first launches and the crew one-by-one fall into the water, I have to ask, “Were those guys really that dumb to forget to stop walking when they reached the edge?” Nitpick, but my point stands.

Verdict: if you’ve never seen this movie, but the name “Mike Fink” rings a bell on your Disney radar, there’s a reason. The Mike Fink Keelboats were an attraction at Disneyland, Walt Disney World, and Disneyland Paris.

Since 1955, the keelboats were a scenic tour around the Rivers of America and a staple of the Frontierland experience. However, in 1997, the Gullywhumper capsized and caused several injuries, forcing the attraction to retire. The Florida version was closed due to poor attendance in 2001, and the Disneyland Paris version barely hung on until its permanent closure in 2010. In Florida, its Liberty Square loading dock is an overflow queue for the Haunted Mansion, while the Frontierland dock near Big Thunder Mountain became a smoking area.

I definitely prefer this movie over its predecessor, mostly because it feels much more inspired. It really can be funny, and most of that is due to York’s performance. His theme song is fun, as well as many other aspects of the movie, but still not without some clumsy-feeling slapstick or lackluster action. All told, seven half-eaten hats out of ten.

Want to watch it? Well, make up your mind! You’re keeping me from my drinkin’!

Author: TAP-G

Writer, former podcaster, entertainment enthusiast. Movies and media have the power to shape our world and vice versa. Let’s take a deeper look at them.

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