"Davy Crockett and the River Pirates" is actually a recobbling of the last two of the five Davy Crockett television shows presented by Walt Disney. The first three, which were on during the 1953-54 television season, had to do with the actual Davy Crockett, with the final one of those three shows ending with our hero's death at the Alamo. However, the character was so popular with audiences--every boy in America started sporting a coonskin cap--that Walt presented two further episodes the following season, dealing with the legend of Davy Crockett. Later these two episodes were joined together into a full-length motion picture called "Davy Crockett and the River Pirates."
The two episodes of this picture are very distinct in tone, with the first half being a lighthearted comedy centering around a boat race between Davy Crockett and his friend George Russel on the one hand, and riverboat captain Mike Fink, an historical figure, on the other. The second half keeps the three major characters together in a much more serious story as they outwit and defeat a team of bad guys who are making it dangerous for others to travel the Mississippi and also straining relations between the folks traveling the river and the Native Americans.
We are definitely in a man's world here. There are very few women in the picture and the ones who briefly appear have no lines. So it is up to the men to carry the story and they do so for the most part admirably.
Fess Parker certainly looks the part of Davy Crockett although I found his portrayal somewhat undernourished. Perhaps he came across more strongly in the three episodes from the previous season which I have not seen. And then again, he may have just been personifying the "strong, silent" type which was the masculine ideal of the time. Parker's portrayal stands out in further relief here by being up against the charismatic George Russel of Buddy Ebsen and the over-the-top Mike Fink of Jeff York.
I understand that Ebsen was originally scheduled to play Davy Crockett and was "demoted" to the sidekick role after Parker was discovered in a small role in a marauding-ant film called "Them!" Poor Buddy Ebsen, always losing out on plum roles; first the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz and now this. At least he finally got his revenge with The Beverly Hillbillies and later Barnaby Jones. And here we do get to see him let out with a couple of Jed Clampett-like whoops along the way.
Jeff York as Mike Fink steals every scene he is in. He is nominally the villain in the first half of the film, although it is impossible to dislike him, even when he is busy doing such dastardly deeds as sabotaging Davy's boat. His evil laugh goes so far that it strains credibility, but it doesn't matter. In the second half of the film, he ends up as Davy's and George's ally in defeating the bad guys. For me at least, he was the one of the three lead characters who stood out most strongly. I suspect that if the series had continued, that Mike Fink would have played an important role in any future stories. I wonder why Jeff York who plays Fink didn't have a bigger career than he did.
The minor characters are very well drawn, especially in the first half of the film. One of the standouts in this first half is Kenneth Tobey as Jocko, one of Fink's boatmen. Diminutive in stature, he nevertheless seizes the screen each chance he gets. Certainly his scene in the bar with Ebsen, where the latter is buying him drinks and trying to talk him into joining Davy's boat crew, is one of the highlights of the film. It's curious that most of the boatmen from the first half been replaced by much more anonymous characters in the second half. I wish they had kept Tobey around at least.
Overall, the second half of the film does not maintain the momentum or the interest of the first half. The first half gives some wonderful comedic opportunities to our trio of leads, while the story line of the second half is too serious to allow for much comedy. And then again, perhaps the character of Mike Fink works better as an antagonist than as an ally.
The film is very much a product of its time and so scenes depicting heavy drinking are numerous (although Ebsen does a marvelous job as the chandelier-riding Russel), as are scenes depicting our heroes as somewhat trigger-happy. These are the reasons that I gave the film four stars. I probably would have given it four and a half if I had had that option. And since these films are aimed at a somewhat younger audience, parents would be well advised to discuss these scenes with their children.
A couple of decades later, there was much ado about the concept of the "buddy film." This film may well have been one of the originals of that genre, as Davy Crockett and George Russel are obviously devoted to each other. To see an example of this, watch the scene where Davy sobers George up, forgives him for wagering the furs they are trying to sell on a boat race with Fink, and then sends the appreciative George back to the boat to sleep it off while he stays up through the night putting together a boat crew. Even though there is temporarily room for a third party such as Fink in this friendship, each of the two halves of the film ends with Fink going his way. The farewell scene midway through the picture is quite touching in fact. The emphasis that the film places on friendship, and friends looking out for each other, is probably the most positive aspect of the film. Even the drinking and violence in their own way play a part in promoting the theme of friendship.
I found this film very enjoyable both in itself and as a nostalgic throwback to the more innocent, if in some ways less enlightened, age of the 50s. I certainly recommend it, especially for family viewing.