‘The Ballad of Davy Crockett’ Review: Passable Historical Drama Imagines an Early Adventure of the Legendary Frontiersman

For audiences of a certain age, it might be amusing, or maybe even disappointing, when, early in “The Ballad of Davy Crockett,” the eponymous hero skins a raccoon to fashion a bandage for a serious leg wound, rather than to make a hat of the sort famously worn by Fess Parker when he played the character in enduringly popular Disney miniseries and movie spin-offs. Maybe this is writer-director Derek Estlin Purvis’ way of winking at the audience. Or, more likely, it’s his way of letting us know from the get-go that this will not be your father’s King of the Wild Frontier.

William Moseley (“The Chronicles of Narnia”) is effectively earnest as the legendary frontiersman in Purvis’ leisurely paced but sporadically exciting historical drama, which focuses on the period when Crockett, then a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for Tennessee, became an outspoken critic of the 1830 Indian Removal Act pushed by President Andrew Jackson (played, fleetingly, by Edward Finlay with enough makeup to make him resemble a waxworks figure). But it’s co-star Colm Meany who dominates the film with his robustly villainous turn as Caleb Powell, a blustering rogue who operates his Middle Tennessee crew of trappers for the Northeast Fur Trading Company with a whim of iron.  

While Crockett is away on business in Washington, D.C., his young sons William (Nico Tirozzi) and John (Wyatt Parker) inadvertently incur Powell’s wrath by helping themselves to a raccoon caught in one of his company’s traps. Mind you, the boys aren’t thieves; they’re simply desperate to provide food for themselves and their bedridden ailing mom, Polly (Valerie Jane Parker). They figure no one will miss just one pelt. They are sadly mistaken.

Crockett gallops back home when he receives word of his wife’s illness, but is interrupted along the way by a wolf attack — hence the need for the coonskin-bandage — and a sidebar adventure during which he defends a stray Indian (Grey Wolf Herrera) against an assault by murderous members of another tribe. (Not surprisingly, his beneficence cues a final-reel payback.)

By the time the frontiersman gets back to the family cabin, Powell has already tracked down the boys, whom he wrongly accuses of pilfering dozens of other pelts, and proclaimed they will have to work off their debt to him. When Crockett objects, Powell’s men give him a serious beatdown that ends only when they assume he is dead. This, too, is a big mistake.

Throughout much of “The Ballad of Davy Crockett,” it’s hard to shake the impression that an hour’s worth of plot has been padded to feature length. On the other hand, the expansion gives Purvis sufficient time to dwell on period-establishing and character-developing details often glossed over in films depicting the struggle for survival in 19th-century frontier days. History buffs probably won’t be the only ones fascinated as the movie slows down to show how Crockett constructs a lean-to shelter in the wilderness while recovering from his injuries, and later manages to coax a wild horse to become his replacement mount.

If impatient viewers prefer to hit the fast-forward button while watching on nontheatrical platforms, well, they can still appreciate DP James King’s handsome lensing of the locales in and around Kingston Springs, Tenn., and Stephen Keech’s appropriately old-school musical score. Taylor Bills also deserves special mention for the dramatically colorful illustrations over the opening credits.

Snippets of dialogue come across as the aural equivalent of purple prose, and it’s much to Moseley’s credit that he maintains a straight face and an authoritative demeanor when he delivers lines like, “I can’t protect my family from civil men. How am I going to protect the nation from savages?” Or, better still, “If I leave you untethered, will I have to contend with you again?”

But Meany remains the main attraction here, playing the Irish-accented and incongruously top-hatted Powell with such scenery-chewing relish that you half-expect to see other actors nibbled upon. When he bellows, “I will have my pound of flesh,” he sounds less like a Shakespearean wannabe than a monstrously ravenous fiend. Deep down, you know someone like that usually gets what’s coming to him in a movie like this. But there are moments when you may wonder: Maybe not this time?  

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