Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Ten Who Dared

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Ten Who Dared

Part of the appeal of the Disney brand lies in its familiarity. These films are part of our cultural DNA. You don’t even need to have seen something like Pollyanna to have a pretty good idea what it’s about. But every so often, this column runs into a movie I know absolutely nothing about. Sometimes these obscurities turn out to be hidden gems like Secrets Of Life. And sometimes, you get Ten Who Dared.

Based on the journal of geologist and former Union Army Major John Wesley Powell, Ten Who Dared recounts the picturesque story of the first exploration down the Colorado River into the Grand Canyon. Lawrence Edward Watkin, the screenwriter behind a number of other live-action features including such historical pictures as The Great Locomotive Chase, wrote the screenplay. William Beaudine, who had come to the studio through the TV division, was given his second big-screen Disney assignment after Westward Ho, The Wagons!

Producer James Algar, who had recently wrapped up the long-running True-Life Adventures series, led a film crew to Arizona to shoot background footage. He was accompanied by legendary river runner Otis “Dock” Marston, who Walt hired as a technical advisor. They captured some terrific footage of the area, which is just about the only good thing one can say about the film.

John Beal stars as Major Powell, the one-handed leader of the expedition. In real life, Powell lost most of his right arm during the Civil War but unless I’m missing something, Movie Powell only appears to be short a hand. This wasn’t Beal’s first Disney gig. Years earlier, he had provided the narration for the live-action/animation combo So Dear To My Heart. It would, however, be his last. After Ten Who Dared, Beal worked primarily in television, including a stint on Dark Shadows and the acclaimed PBS miniseries The Adams Chronicles.

Beal received second billing after an actor who will become a familiar face in this column. Brian Keith had been trying for years to breakthrough as a leading man and never quite making it. He’d starred in some low-budget westerns and action films like Chicago Confidential and Desert Hell. He’d also headlined a couple of TV shows, notably the short-lived cult favorite The Westerner created by Sam Peckinpah. His first assignment for Disney, a guest spot on the Elfego Baca miniseries on Walt Disney Presents, led to a lengthy association with the studio. We’ll be seeing a lot more from Brian Keith in this column.

Watkin and Beaudine introduce Powell and his nine other darers in one of the most ham-fisted ways imaginable. At the beginning of the film, a reporter approaches Powell as he prepares to launch his boats. Powell establishes his bona fides, the date and setting, and whatever other exposition necessary to understand the premise. As Powell begins to drift away, the reporter asks who the other members of his crew are. “Ask ‘em yourself,” Powell yells. So he does, going down the bank and shouting his questions to each man as they float past. This happens nine times. It’s one of the most awkward and unnecessarily prolonged introductory scenes in movie history.

For the record, Powell’s fellow adventurers include several other notable character actors. James Drury, most recently seen in Pollyanna, appears as Powell’s brother, Walter, who can’t seem to leave the Civil War behind him. David Stollery, Spin & Marty’s Marty, is Andy Hall, the youngest member of the expedition who smuggles an adorable puppy on board his boat. David Frankham, who will soon be back in this column as the voice of Sgt. Tibbs in One Hundred And One Dalmatians, is English adventurer Frank Goodman. Stan Jones, a songwriter and occasional actor who had appeared on Spin & Marty and in The Great Locomotive Chase, plays Seneca Howland. And beloved cowboy stars R.G. Armstrong, Ben Johnson, L.Q. Jones and Dan Sheridan round out the cast.

It doesn’t take long for the men to start squabbling amongst themselves. After the crew discovers Andy’s puppy, they order him to pull an Old Yeller and shoot the poor thing. Only Major Powell’s last-minute change-of-heart spares the dog’s life. Frank Goodman pointlessly taunts alcoholic “Missouri” Hawkins (L.Q. Jones) into having a drink with him, immediately resulting in disaster when a fight breaks out and they lose one of their boats. And Walter Powell finds out that George Bradley (Ben Johnson) was a “Johnny Reb” and starts plotting to kill him. You’d think Major Powell would have done a better job prescreening the candidates for this job.

Whenever the men aren’t actively trying to kill each other, they find time to gather around the campfire for a singalong. This happens more often than you might think. There are no fewer than three original songs, written by Lawrence Edward Watkin and Stan Jones, sprinkled throughout the movie. Toby Tyler didn’t have that many songs and it takes place in a circus. Evidently explorers in the 1860s really loved to sing.

Eventually supplies run low and a mutiny begins to percolate. Bill Dunn convinces a handful of men to abandon the river and hike out of the canyon to the nearest settlement. Powell remains convinced that the river is their best option, despite the potential danger. The group splits up and Dunn’s party encounters some Indians who suspect them of being responsible for the murder of some of their own. Fortunately, Dunn is able to talk their way out of danger and the Indians allow them to continue on their way.

Meanwhile, Powell and his remaining daredevils run the river. Sure enough, they hit some treacherous rapids but they’re able to navigate them without too much difficulty. The river calms down and the remaining six who dared celebrate the end of their long journey.

At this point, a narrator chimes in to acknowledge this accomplishment over footage of the present-day historical marker commemorating the expedition. As for Bill Dunn, we find out that his fate remained a mystery until a few years later. Turns out those Indians weren’t as forgiving as they appeared. Dunn’s men met with a bad end, stalked across the desert and dying in a hail of arrows. In other words, there was a much more interesting story here that the filmmakers chose not to tell us for whatever reason. Thanks for nothing, Walt.

For much of its running time, Ten Who Dared resembles a glorified orientation film that you might see at the Grand Canyon Visitor Center. Algar and his second-unit team did a nice job capturing footage of the canyon itself. Unfortunately, most of it is relegated to background imagery in some spectacularly unconvincing blue-screen shots. When a movie about river running fails to deliver even one exciting river running sequence, you’ve got a problem.

Watkin and Beaudine are a lot more interested in geographic formations and mapmaking than in the men making the journey. When they do delve into their personalities, the conflicts are dealt with in such a perfunctory matter that it’s virtually impossible to care about their outcome. One second, Walter Powell is taking a shot at George Bradley. The next, it’s all water under the bridge.

These are all good actors, so it’s really Watkin’s script and Beaudine’s flat direction at fault. Brian Keith seems to be having fun. During one fight scene, he sits off to the sidelines muttering commentary like an Old West Popeye. But he’ll be much better utilized in future Disney projects. John Beal, on the other hand, is a bland and uninspiring leader. It’s hard to imagine why any of these guys would follow him on this trip. Even his own brother seems like he’s just barely tolerating him.

Ten Who Dared was pretty close to the end of the line for both William Beaudine and Lawrence Edward Watkin. The prolific Beaudine would continue to work in television for the next decade on such shows as The Green Hornet and Lassie but this would be his last feature for a major studio. Beaudine would ignominiously conclude his feature film career with the ultra-cheap double feature Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter and Billy The Kid Versus Dracula in 1966. Watkin, who had been with the studio since Treasure Island in 1950, would also move into TV. Later in the 1960s, he’d be commissioned by the studio to write a definitive biography of Walt Disney. The book was never published and he’d only write one more Disney feature, 1972’s The Biscuit Eater, before his death in 1981.

To the surprise of absolutely no one, Ten Who Dared is not currently available to watch on Disney+. Nor is it available on Blu-ray. The Disney Movie Club has it as a DVD exclusive but you’d have to be a serious Disney completist to want it in your collection. The folks at Disney don’t always make the right call about what movies to bring to home video. There are certainly plenty of titles in the vault that deserve a higher profile. Ten Who Dared is not one of them. Some movies are just better off forgotten.

VERDICT: Disney Minus

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Westward Ho The Wagons!

Original theatrical poster for Walt Disney's Westward Ho The Wagons!

Fess Parker was right smack dab in the middle of his Disney contract when Westward Ho The Wagons! was released in December of 1956. Already, signs of boredom had begun to creep in. Given the phenomenal success of Davy Crockett, it’s totally understandable why Walt would want to keep Parker comfortably within his wheelhouse. But there’s a big difference between playing to an actor’s strengths and simply repeating yourself. Apart from his choice of hat, Parker’s character here isn’t all that much different from Davy Crockett or James Andrews in The Great Locomotive Chase. At least this time, he gets to sing and play guitar.

Tom Blackburn, the writer behind Davy Crockett, based his script on the kid-lit novel Children Of The Covered Wagon by Mary Jane Carr. Carr specialized in detailed, well-researched stories about the Oregon Trail for younger readers. Carr’s book seems to be told primarily from the perspective of the children themselves. While the kids are certainly still present in Blackburn’s script, they take more of a back seat to Parker’s character, “Doc” Grayson.

Weirdly, Grayson isn’t even the actual leader of the wagon train. That would be James Stephen, played by TV’s Superman, George Reeves, in one of his final roles. Grayson isn’t even a real doctor. He seems to have been the assistant of the company’s actual doctor before his death. But everyone, including Stephen, defers to Grayson in virtually every situation because it’s Fess Parker. Even Superman took a back seat to Davy Crockett in the 50s.

For a movie about a wagon train, Westward Ho The Wagons! covers surprisingly little territory. And for a movie with an exclamation point in its title, it features shockingly little excitement. As the movie opens, the company has already traveled quite a distance. They arrive at Chimney Rock, where the prairies of the Midwest give over to the more rugged territory of the Rocky Mountains. They attract the attention of a Pawnee war party. The Pawnee first steal a few horses, then capture young Dan Thompson (David Stollery, then famous as rich orphan Marty Markham in the Spin And Marty segments of The Mickey Mouse Club), the son of the late doctor. Dan manages to escape and warn the pioneers before the war party can ambush them, barely escaping with their lives.

The wagon train continues on to Fort Laramie and territory controlled by the usually-friendly Sioux. While in the trading post, the Sioux medicine man Many Stars (Iron Eyes Cody) catches sight of Dan’s younger sister, Myra (Karen Pendleton). Many Stars tells his Chief that the girl’s blonde hair and blue eyes would bring powerful magic to the tribe, so the Chief attempts to trade for the girl. When the pioneers refuse, tensions rise between the two groups.

The only people who seem unaffected by the hostilities are the kids. The Sioux children and the pioneers are quick to form a friendship. But when the Chief’s son, Little Thunder (Anthony Numkena) is hurt, the tensions flare. Knowing things will only get worse if the boy dies, Grayson offers to help, convincing Many Stars that “two medicines are better than one”. Anyone care to guess whether or not Little Thunder pulls through?

The bifurcated structure of Blackburn’s script made it easy for Walt to chop the movie in half and air it on television. But unlike the two Davy Crockett features, this was always intended for theaters. Cinematographer Charles Boyle, who had also worked on Davy Crockett, shot the film in CinemaScope (although the only version Disney has released on home video to date is a terrible-looking pan & scan transfer). Matte artists Peter Ellenshaw and Albert Whitlock helped give the picture size and scope. And producer Bill Walsh was finally moving into feature production after successfully launching Disney’s TV division.

Director William Beaudine was also coming from Disney’s TV side, having helmed several popular Mickey Mouse Club segments including Spin & Marty and Corky And White Shadow, a serial about a girl and her German Shepherd that starred another member of the Disney Repertory Company, Davy Crockett’s pal, Buddy Ebsen. But Beaudine was far from being a newcomer. He’d been in the industry since the silent era, working for virtually every studio in town.

Beaudine’s fortunes took a hit in the early 1940s and he found himself working for Poverty Row studios like Monogram. For years, he churned out movies at an astonishing pace, eventually becoming one of the most prolific directors in film history. He became known for making movies fast and cheap, which made him perfect for television. Westward Ho The Wagons! would be a late-career opportunity for Beaudine to make a feature with the kind of budget he hadn’t had in years. But he kept on working in TV and low-budget features right up to his death in 1970. Beaudine will be back in this column.

If you were a regular viewer of either Disneyland or The Mickey Mouse Club in 1956, you’d have been very familiar with most of the actors in Westward Ho The Wagons! As if the prospect of Davy Crockett sharing the screen with Marty Markham wasn’t exciting enough, the film also brings back Mike Fink, King of the River! Jeff York had made a big impression in Davy Crockett And The River Pirates and he continued to have good chemistry with Parker as Doc Grayson’s sidekick, Hank.

Besides Stollery, most of the other children in the cast were kids audiences would have been on a first name basis with. Doreen! Cubby! Tommy! Karen! These Mouseketeers were forever holding the banner high, beaming into audiences’ living rooms every weekday on The Mickey Mouse Club. Walt would later turn other Mouseketeers into much bigger stars. For now, he was just beginning to cross-pollinate features with his available TV talent.

The cast did include a few newcomers to the Disney lot. Kathleen Crowley played Laura, Parker’s love interest and the older sister/guardian to Dan and Myra. Crowley’s film career never quite took off, although she was a regular presence on television throughout the 1950s and 60s. Sebastian Cabot, on the other hand, went on to a lengthy association with Disney. Cabot has a fun role here as the French trader Bissonette, doing his best to broker peace between the pioneers and the Sioux. This column will see (and hear) quite a bit from Cabot.

Unfortunately, all this TV influence prevents Westward Ho from really taking off as a feature film. Again, Disney is doing the movie no favors by releasing it in a pan-and-scan format. Boyle’s cinematography may look great for all I know but you’d never know it from what the studio has made available. But even a fully restored transfer wouldn’t solve all of the movie’s problems, the biggest of which is the episodic script.

Our heroes never really seem to get anywhere. When we meet them, they’re in the middle of their journey. When we leave them, they’re still in the middle of their journey. Between the endless nature of the story and the big cast of characters we’re introduced to, it feels like an extended pilot episode for a proposed TV series.

This might be somewhat forgivable if it weren’t for the fact that the most exciting action sequence comes at the halfway point. Legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt acted as second unit director and staged the rousing sequence where the pioneers release their horses to fend off the attacking Pawnee. It’s an impressive spectacle that the rest of the movie cannot live up to.

Apart from this one exciting scene, Westward Ho The Wagons! might just as well be titled Generic Cowboys And Indians Picture. You know how when you see a character in a movie or a TV show flipping through the channels and they run across stock footage from some old western? That’s essentially what this looks like. Only the most devoted western fan would be compelled enough to keep watching.

With its focus on Parker’s relationship with Stollery and the rest of the Mouseketeers, Westward Ho The Wagons! was aimed squarely at younger audiences. But it failed to generate Davy Crockett-sized business. Parker, at least, got a minor hit out of the song “Wringle Wrangle”.

Wringle Wrangle as sung by Fess Parker in Walt Disney's Westward Ho The Wagons!

Parker had previously hit the charts with his version of “The Ballad Of Davy Crockett”. It was one of the biggest songs of 1955 but Parker’s was just one of several versions flooding record stores and radio airwaves that year. Parker’s release had to play second fiddle to Bill Hayes’ rendition, which hit #1 on the Billboard charts (Parker peaked at #6). But the song obviously did well enough that Disneyland Records kept trying to sell Parker as a recording artist. “Wringle Wrangle” made it up to #12 and that was the end of his time as a pop star.

But despite his growing dissatisfaction with the studio, Westward Ho The Wagons! would not spell the end of Fess Parker’s time with Disney. He’ll be back in this column before long, as will most of the other members of the Walt Disney Repertory Players.

VERDICT: Disney Minus

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