American idols

Davy Crockett and Wild Bill Hickok spurred generations of boyhood fantasies. The dark side of these cowboy heroes depicted in "Deadwood" and "The Alamo" are just what America needs to see today.

Allen Barra
April 10, 2004 9:54PM (UTC)

[Spoiler alert: Plot twists in HBO's "Deadwood" are described throughout this essay.]

Two great American icons cash in their chips this week.

This weekend, Billy Bob Thornton goes down swinging -- or at least hollering -- in the controversial and much anticipated "The Alamo." Sunday night Keith Carradine, holding those fabled aces and eights at the poker table, is assassinated by that dirty little coward "Jack McCall" in the most talked about new cable series of the year, HBO's "Deadwood." It looks like a bad week for American idols.


Actually, the two greatest legends of the American frontier have never had it so good. Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier, and Wild Bill Hickok, Prince of Pistoleers, have, between them, been portrayed more than 100 times on stage, screen and television, but they had to wait until the western was supposedly dead to get their best representation.

Of course, as the current incarnations of Crockett and Hickok illustrate, the western is very much alive. Though in recent years Sunday arts-section stories on "What Happened to Westerns?" have outnumbered the westerns, the truth is that the frontier West is as much a part of our national consciousness as ever. The great historical theorist of the American frontier, Frederick Jackson Turner, knew this when, at the 1893 meeting of the American Historical Association in Chicago, he introduced his landmark thesis on what came to be called "The Significance of the Frontier in American History." Historians have argued over Turner's main points ever since, but his contention that the frontier is the defining element in the American character seems as solid today as it was when Turner first proposed it. And the primary medium for popularizing Turner's concept was one he couldn't possibly have envisioned in 1893: the western movie.

The western as a genre is no worse off than the other traditional staples of the Hollywood film industry -- the horror story, detective story and sci-fi flick -- which is to say they've all been turned into action movies. (Occasionally two genres bump, as in "The Mummy," where cowboys show up out of nowhere for a shootout with Arab bandits, or "Wild Wild West," where giant robots walk the prairie.)


Westerns go through cycles to match our moods. In the '50s and '60s they were seen as stand-ins for everything from McCarthyism ("High Noon") to America's Cold War resolve ("Rio Bravo," "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral," et al); in the late '60s and '70s westerns were analogies for our involvement in Vietnam ("Little Big Man"). Early into this century the western has gone east: to Arabia in "Hidalgo," to Japan in "The Last Samurai," and to North Africa in "Secondhand Lions." In a couple of cases the East came west, as in the Jackie Chan-Owen Wilson movies "Shanghai Noon" and "Shanghai Knights." (We'll probably be seeing essays any day now on how these films parallel our "cowboying" of the East.) Whatever we use them for, and however we reinterpret our frontier legends, westerns keep coming back. As a nation, we've become like the detective in "Memento": our memories stop at a certain point in the past and we seem incapable of creating new ones.

Whenever we come back to westerns, we come back to those whom the first western myths were built around. Those who were born around the turn of the 20th century are now old enough to have witnessed the third or perhaps the fourth cinematic turnaround for David (as he preferred to be called) Crockett. As America made its entrance upon the world stage, its most famous frontiersman seemed a fitting symbol of national pride, the folksy face of Manifest Destiny triumphant. The pioneers of the silent film industry naturally chose the opening of the frontier as a subject, and Crockett was featured in at least seven silent films, played on one occasion by Dustin Farnum and on another (according to some film historians) by John Ford's brother Francis.

Davy became a national craze in late 1954, when Walt Disney Productions, looking to fill the frontier segments of the Disneyland TV series on ABC, opted for Crockett rather than his predecessor Daniel Boone, who, as one consultant phrased it, "was too arcane, too closed-in, and too mysterious" to be easily accessible to audiences, "especially child viewers."


Crockett, cleaned up and fictionalized and portrayed by a likable James Stewart-like Texas actor named Fess Parker, starred in "Davy Crockett, Indian Fighter," which aired late in '54, "Davy Crockett Goes to Congress," in January 1955, and "Davy Crockett at the Alamo," which debuted a month later. If Disney had had an inkling of the nuttiness that was to follow, it never would have had Crockett killed off so soon. Edited and repackaged for movie theaters, the Crockett films became huge box office hits, propelled "The Ballad of Davy Crockett," sung by Bill Hayes, to No. 1 on the charts, and had hundreds of thousands of American boys wearing phony coonskin hats -- including myself, if our home movies are to be trusted -- and shooting plastic cap-firing flintlock rifles.

If Crockett was being used by Disney as an unspoken cold warrior, John Wayne put words in his mouth. Wayne's 1960 epic, "The Alamo," was self-conscious campaign propaganda for Richard Nixon. A three-page ad for "The Alamo" in Life magazine -- on the Fourth of July, no less! -- announced that "very soon the two great political parties of the United States will nominate their candidates for president ... a man who knows that when our house is in order no man will ever dare to trespass. In short, a Man ... There were no ghost writers at the Alamo, only Men." The "ghost writers" reference was to the rumor that John F. Kennedy's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "Profiles in Courage," had been ghost-written. Kennedy refused comment.


Wayne would have spun in his grave had he read Paul Andrew Hutton's 1989 essay "Davy Crockett: An Exposition on Hero Worship," in which he argued that it was a combination of Crockett and Kennedy that inspired a generation to fight in Vietnam. When Kennedy "issued a clarion call to fight for freedom in a distant land, they eagerly followed him. They knew well what he was talking about, for they had been brought up on those same liberal values by Disney's Davy Crockett."

Forty-two years later, when the new Alamo project was announced, Michael Eisner proclaimed that his studio's film intended to "capture the post-September 11 surge in patriotism." David Crockett, it seemed, would once again be called on to justify the cause of fighting for the freedom of the downtrodden in a foreign land.

Crockett himself would have been quite amused by all of this, though perhaps a bit bewildered. A Tennessee backwoodsman blessed with considerable hunting skill -- he was said to have killed 105 bears in one season -- Crockett had parlayed a gaudy if superficial war record (under Andrew Jackson, fighting Indians in Alabama) into a seat in Congress. Tocqueville, writing in 1831, was appalled: "Two years ago the inhabitants of the district of which Memphis is the capital sent to the House of Representatives in Congress an individual named David Crockett who has no education, can read with difficulty, has no property, no fixed residence, but passes his life hunting, selling his game to live, and dwelling continuously in the woods." (None of that was true, not even the hunting, which Crockett had given up when he left Tennessee years earlier.)


What Tocqueville and many Eastern politicians had failed to understand was that it was Crockett's simplicity that endeared him to his constituents -- in fact, to an entire nation, so much so that for a few brief mad moments in the 1830s, Crockett's name was actually bandied about in discussions of presidential candidates. But Crockett was too guileless and too honest to be an effective politician. He ended up alienating both Andrew Jackson and many of his supporters by expressing sympathy for land squatters and, most unforgivable of all, for the Indians -- "the poor remnants of a once powerful people," in his words -- who were being evicted by the Jackson administration from their settled homes in the eastern states. His political philosophy, as such, was that government should "at least, occasionally, legislate for the poor." As one of his biographers, William C. Davis, phrased it, "He could never fail to empathize with anyone who was poor, downtrodden, and helpless." When Crockett lost his congressional seat, he told his former constituents that they could go to hell and "I will go to Texas," a line that Billy Bob Thornton repeats with delicious gusto in "The Alamo."

When he left for the Alamo early in 1836 Crockett was, with the exception of Andrew Jackson, the most famous man in America. He was the country's first celebrity politician, and, thanks to the Davy Crockett Almanac (inexpensive books filled with sayings popularly attributed to him as well as advice on planting crops and hunting), the godfather, in the words of historian John Myers Myers, of "America's first purely indigenous literary movement." Or stated another way, there is a straight line from the Crockett Almanac to Oprah's O magazine.

In Crockett's own lifetime, an actor named James Hackett made a living playing a caricature of him on the stage named Colonel Nimrod Wildfire, a cross between Daniel Boone and James Fenimore Cooper's Natty Bumpo -- in other words, the popular image of Crockett. (In "The Alamo," a frontiersman asks Thornton's Crockett where his famous coonskin cap is. "I only started wearing that thing," replies Thornton with a grin, "'cause that feller onstage started wearing one.")


Simply put, he was our first media star, but one created out of genuine substance, a man characterized by one frontier historian as "a pioneer turned politician who symbolized frontier egalitarianism and the democratic spirit and who came as close as anyone to defining the essential American character."

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Less than a year after Crockett's death at the Alamo in 1836, his successor, James Butler Hickok, was born. Within 30 years, Hickok's fame would officially mark the transition of the western hero from frontiersman to gunfighter.

The medium for Hickok's ascendancy from Civil War scout, Indian fighter and buffalo hunter to national celebrity can be traced to the trend started by the Crockett Almanac. George Ward Nichols, a former Union Army officer under Sherman and one of the fathers of celebrity journalism, wrote a long, fanciful profile of Hickok for Harper's new monthly magazine. The story was filled with lurid nonsense. (Sample: "Yes, Wild Bill with his own hands has killed hundreds of men. Of that I have not a doubt. 'He shoots to kill,' as they say on the border.")


But the Eastern audience lapped it up. Somewhere in New York, a crooked political ward boss (or so cited by Herbert Asbury in "The Gangs of New York") named Edward Z.C. Judson took notice. Within a year, Judson, renamed Ned Buntline, had sought out Hickok and birthed the dime novel, which would make Hickok and his friend, William "Buffalo Bill" Cody, internationally famous for killing Confederates, Indians and buffalo. How famous? Henry Stanley, of "Doctor Livingston, I presume?" fame, went out West just to meet him.

The real Wild Bill wasn't wild. (He wasn't even a Bill; presumably he got his nickname because it had more of a ring to it than "Wild James.") A somber, reflective man, he had an extraordinary talent for drawing and shooting the new Colt revolver and not much else. Once he became famous, there wasn't much else to do but become a celebrity peace officer, a job for which he was temperamentally unsuited. One frontier chronicler estimated that on his own merits Hickok "would have had a hard time getting a job as a dog catcher."

By 1871, his nerves had begun to give out. In one celebrated gunfight, he killed an unreconstructed Texan named Phil Coe and then accidentally shot his own deputy. It was time to get out of "lawing," but where could a famous gunfighter go to make a living? Crockett watched an actor play him onstage, but Wild Bill played himself -- or at least Ned Buntline's bowdlerization of him.

Unlike Buffalo Bill, though, he had no flair for the stage, particularly when it came to mouthing such lines (penned by Buntline) as "Fear not, fair maid! By heavens, you are safe at least with Wild Bill, who is ever ready to risk his life in defense of weak and helpless womanhood!" Once in a New York theater he forgot to substitute blanks for live rounds and nearly killed a woman in the audience. His last few pathetic years were spent struggling with poor eyesight -- something of a serious handicap for a gunfighter -- and his ineptitude at poker, which, in his own words, was "more of a passion than a profession."


Crockett went to Texas to turn his fortunes around. Hickok went to Deadwood, S.D., the prototype of the wild western mining camps of all Hollywood films, where the inevitable happened: An itinerant gambler named Jack McCall, the spiritual ancestor of would-be assassins Arthur Bremer and John Hinckley Jr., shot Hickok in the back of the head for reasons never determined. Wild Bill was 39 when he passed into legend.

As Clyde Edgerton once noted, "You're legend a lot longer than you're fact." Like Crockett, Hickok was a natural for the early silent screen. In the words of True West magazine editor Bob Boze Bell, Wild Bill was "bigger than life, a strutting peacock crossed with a killer hawk. Now there was a bird to behold on a movie screen." He was first portrayed by the most popular of early western film stars, William S. Hart, and over the next 80 years he was played most notably by Gary Cooper ("The Plainsman"), Jeff Corey ("Little Big Man"), Jeff Bridges ("Wild Bill") and Sam Shepard ("Purgatory," a 1999 TV film). He was even a character in a musical, played by Howard Keel as Doris Day's secret love in "Calamity Jane." His ineptitude as a peace officer forgotten, he became, like Crockett, a television hero of grade-school kids in the '50s. Peddling Kellogg's Sugar Corn Pops and played by amiable B-movie actor Guy Madison, Wild Bill became safe enough for the Eisenhower era.

Which was fitting, as Dwight Eisenhower was raised in Abilene, Kan., where Hickok had once been a marshal. Ike once instructed people to "Read more westerns" about Wild Bill. Lyndon Johnson grew up steeped in the mythology of Davy Crockett and the Alamo. One wonders how they would respond to the most recent manifestations of their boyhood heroes.

Keith Carradine's sad, fading Hickok in "Deadwood" is the Wild Bill Hollywood has never had the courage to put on-screen. (Carradine played Buffalo Bill to Jeff Bridges' Wild Bill in Walter Hill's '96 film, "Wild Bill.") Likewise Billy Bob Thornton's Davy Crockett, a man thrust into the impossible task of living up to his own popular image. Stripped of the pulp heroics that inspired children, might their stories now be seen as cautionary tales for adults?

Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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