Born on a mountaintop in Upstate New York, / Was and still is an unrepentant dork, / Learned to hide Lima Beans beneath his fork, / And runs like a booze-hobbled, gangly stork. / Judge Jeff—Jeff Andreasen—needs some real help up here.
"Make sure you're right, then go ahead."
Davy Crockett lived and died by this pithy wisdom in the early 1800s, following its lead to renown on the battlefield, reputation in the halls of the state and federal legislature, and reward when he signed a deal with Walt Disney in 1954 to have Fess Parker reenact his legendary deeds for the television audience. Speaking of which, though the hit song, of course, is not present in this non-Mouse retelling of the legend, I challenge anyone to watch this DVD and not come away singing, "Born on a mountaintop in Tennessee…"
In previous experiences with Shelley Duvall's Tall Tales and Legends, I've found the more or less straight relating of the tales to screen bland. The watering down of some of the more dated aspects of the tales, and the necessary addition of filler to beef up the running time, led to lightweight narrative that seemed forced and contrived. They were remote, too, with narrators from the present day relating the tales via voice-over, and this wasn't conducive to audience involvement, as it wasn't clear whether you were getting the real deal or just some guy's version of it, amended here and there as he forgot stuff or remembered it incorrectly.
"Davy Crockett" is, so far, the most involving of Shelley Duvall's Tall Tales and Legends. It's also among the better cast, with Mac Davis (North Dallas Forty) as Davy Crockett, McLean Stevenson (M*A*S*H) as Andrew Jackson, Mimi Kennedy (Dharma & Greg) as Ben's Mom, and Michael McKean (This Is Spinal Tap) as the teacher who introduces Ben to the Wonderful World of History. All deliver solid performances that make the fifty-minute running time seem far less. Oh, and Adam Carl (The Monster Squad) turns in a convincing turn as the petulant youngster, Ben.
Our story opens in the present day—or the present day as it was in 1986—at some unnamed junior high school. A class of unruly brats is busy causing a commotion when a man none of them has ever seen strides into the room. He takes his position behind the teacher's desk and declares that he is the substitute while Ms. Penfield is out sick. The substitute? Does he whip out a MAC-10 and blow the kids out of their socks? No, no, this isn't the substitute from The Substitute, it's Mr. Wallace (Michael McKean), and he's just here to see that the kids get an education. Two of these kids, Ben and his buddy, Whitey (don't ask), are more malfeasant than the rest, with ridicule in their hearts and delinquency on their minds.
Mr. Wallace informs the class that they'll be studying the life of Davy Crockett, a true American legend, and passes books out to everyone. To Ben he gives a special edition, one that magically transports the little hoodlum into the world of the book, where he encounters Davy Crockett, working hard to be humble whilst blasting merrily away with his ball and powder musket. Davy discovers Ben and befriends the abrasive youth, believing him to be kin from "back east." It's not long before Ben is sharing in Davy's adventures during the Creek Indian War in 1813 (where he first meets the rather insipid General Andrew Jackson), sharing his heartbreak after the death of his first wife, Polly, in 1815, and sharing his triumph in an oratorical slam-dunk before Congress in the 1830s.
These episodes are broken up by Ben's returning to the modern world long enough to, at first, impress his harried mother with his newfound interest in homework and exasperate Whitey with the same. He becomes preoccupied with the book and decides to skip ahead, thereby dropping himself back into Davy's life years after lengthy intervals. Davy never quite catches on to the fact that Ben never ages, despite the passage of decades between their first meeting and their last, though the canny Andrew Jackson observes it in Washington.
At last, the fateful day comes when the end of the book looms and Ben learns that Davy is fated to die in the battle of the Alamo in 1836. He returns to the past to plead with Davy not to go, but Davy will have none of it. He asks Ben if what he does in Texas will have any bearing on history, and Ben confirms that the United States goes on to defeat Mexico and accept the Lone Star State as the 28th member of the Union. Davy is proud to have lived the life he has and is just as proud to go out in a way that will be meaningful to his friends and his country. He gives Ben a smile and intones his life motto: "Make sure you're right, then go ahead."
Unlike many of the entries in the Shelley Duvall's Tall Tales and Legends canon, Davy Crockett was a real person, not a mythical creation like Pecos Bill, Paul Bunyan, or John Henry. These archetypes lived for no other purpose than to provide grist for the campfire circuit (Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyan), or to give commentary on social mores that seemed universally significant (John Henry).
Davy Crockett, however, was not a figment of the popular imagination designed solely to provide entertainment or commentary on significant events. Davy's life became entertainment and commentary on significant events because his deeds became the stuff of legends, not because his accomplishments were breathed whole cloth into the public consciousness. Pecos, Paul, John, and their ilk exist in a vacuum. They have no past and no future. They exist only for the sake of a particular self-contained episode or statement. With no evolution of character, no reference to bring the listener's understanding of Bill's or Paul's motivations from point A to point B, there is nothing more to involve the listener than the content of the story itself. The involvement of Bill, Paul, or John becomes almost incidental. Kind of like a Steven Seagal movie.
But Davy Crockett is no cipher, and his exploits are influenced by his own evolution as a human being. Gravitas and pathos in Davy's life add significant dimension to his character, as well. He goes from being the carefree frontier bumpkin originally encountered by Ben when he first opens the book, to a heavy-hearted and heroically tragic figure destined for martyrdom when Ben bids him farewell for the last time.
Ben, too, undergoes change, from a self-absorbed, callow punk to a young man who understands responsibility, dignity, and sacrifice. By story's end, Ben has little in common with Whitey, and in fact utilizes one of Davy's tried and true techniques to deal with the bigger boy when confrontation looms.
I was particularly impressed with the manner in which this episode treated reading. It is explicitly inferred in the narrative that Ben physically enters Davy's world when the open book works its magic, though that is hard to credit. For one thing, there is too much in the story that is pure folktale—Davy's pet bear Death Hug, and Davy's catching a comet by the tail to prevent it from striking his homestead—to believe that Ben has, in fact, entered a legitimate history book. For another, in at least one very public instance, Ben is transported into Davy's past while physically present amidst at least a dozen of his classmates. More likely, Ben's transportation to Davy's side is a statement by this episode about the power of a book to draw readers in, to inflame their imaginations and make them feel as though they're part of the narrative, and to impress upon them characterization and development to such a degree that physical changes (anxiety, pain, sadness, etc.) manifest as the storyline progresses. As a writer myself, this is an interpretation I enthusiastically share, and wish could be better received by an American school-age population whose basic literacy rates are in woeful decline.
Where I think this episode is deficient is in the framing device. Ben's behavioral problems and the lessons of Davy Crockett's life don't mesh. Davy did not experience a delinquent youth, working for a living and demonstrating responsibility from his early years. He was not well schooled, having less than six months of formal education. Ben is a youth bored with the life he's living and dismissive of authority figures. As such, this framing device seems more tailored for Shelley Duvall's Tall Tales and Legends: Tom Sawyer than for Davy Crockett. Sure, Ben learns the value of honor, responsibility, and loyalty, but these weren't lessons he seemed particularly needful of. Additionally, it can be inferred that Ben latched onto Davy as the father figure absent from his life, as his mother is single and working. And what does this say about his mindset when Davy insists on going off to die at the Alamo?
Clearly, there's a lot going on in this installment of Shelley Duvall's Tall Tales and Legends…if you want to over-interpret, as I seem to have done above. The bottom line is that there's more substance to this installment of the series than others, and young viewers may come away from a viewing of "Davy Crockett" with more than a simple entertainment fix. At the very least, the message that reading can be not only educational and enlightening, but an immersive, imaginative experience is a very good one, and for that reason alone I can declare the good-value-for-money, short-on-extras-but-long-on-audio-video-quality Shelley Duvall's Tall Tales and Legends: Davy Crockett not guilty and free to patch up the crack in the liberty bell.
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