WITH DANIEL BOONE THRU THE WILDERNESS (1926)

Scene Analysis

The Legend Lives On

[1]    The scene that best exemplifies so many of the different historical issues at play within With Daniel Boone Thru the Wilderness is the scene titled "And Again…" in the Scene Log (Scene Log 1:15:22).  In this scene, Daniel Boone returned the recently captured villain Simon Gerty to Chief Grey Eagle for punishment. The Indians freed Jim Bryan, a Boone idolizer who was soon to be Boone’s brother-in-law, once they received Gerty and realized that he was the true villain.  Gerty was the one who plotted against the whites, kidnapped and tried to rape Rebe Bryan (Boone’s beau) as well as the Chief’s daughter, killed the Chief’s son, and tricked the Indians into believing that the settlers were behind this murder.  After Gerty was tied up and burned at the stake, Grey Eagle stood over the corpse of his dead son, looked up toward the sky, and said in a scripture-esque manner, “As man liveth so shall he die.”

[2]    The implication that Chief Grey Eagle has been taught the ways of the Bible is no small message.  Earlier in the film he also said, “A life for a life,” which closely resembles the Old Testament concept of “an eye for an eye.”  (Key Passages 1:04:56)  With this ideological and religious conversion of the Indian leader one can begin to notice a recurring trend or belief that can be seen throughout every film, TV show, and piece of literature that seeks to glorify the great frontiersman legend of Daniel Boone.  The belief was that Indians were inferior to whites but could be useful to the whites with proper guidance.  This blatant manipulation of the Indians was deemed necessary, for if “good” whites did not convert them into Christians and otherwise “civilize” (read "conquer") them, “bad” whites certainly would.  And when bad whites like Simon Gerty befriend, and thus control, the Indians, they become reckless, enraged savages.  The ways in which the “good” whites manipulate the Indians, however, are more insidious than Gerty’s blatant conversion and evil usage of the “crazed savage.”

[3]    Take, for example, the fact that Boone didn’t kill Gerty in this scene.  He let the Indians do it.  In other words, he got the Indians to do white man’s bidding, but at the same time he washed his hands of the responsibility for the punishment of Gerty.  This film depicts a Boone who valued the lives of all whites more than that of any Indian.  Earlier in the film Boone actually said, “I’ll spare you because you’re white, Gerty,” after Gerty’s attack on Boone’s cabin.  Yet two minutes before he made that statement, Boone shot a fleeing Indian in the back, after the Indian was no longer an immediate threat to Boone.  Clearly the Indians are less respected than the whites here, but they are apparently not completely without value.  As this film unwittingly depicts, the Indians proved to be a useful resource for any white man who took the effort to train them.

[4]    The historical frontier view of the Indians was that they were savages, primitive people that could be taught to behave, and manipulated easily by more “civilized” people.  The key was to reach them before evil whites could.  As is seen in this film, when Simon Gerty, the “renegade white,” befriended Indians, they instantly became reckless, stealing, fighting, kidnapping, screaming, berserk people willing to do the evil bidding of the evil white man.  But when Boone-the-courageous saved the day and convinced the Indians of their mistake, as happens in this scene, they instantly converted and became “good” Indians again, willing to do Boone’s dirty work and remove all guilt from his shoulders.

[5]    It may be worthwhile to note that once Gerty was tied up to be burned, the always-innocent Boone gave Chief Grey Eagle Gerty’s pistol.  This pistol was supposed to represent the friendship and bond that now existed between the Indians and the settlers.  It is not difficult to see, however, that this gift of the pistol could be interpreted this way as well: you do as we want, we give you guns.  Classic Pavlovian theory.

[6]    The pistol is also a perfect symbol of European expansionism.  The Indians have often been said to have been corrupted by the settlers, for Indians did not have powerful, long-range weapons such as rifles and other firearms until the whites arrived.  They also did not have horses, science, or fear-based religions until these things were forced upon them (not to mention rats, multiflora rose, small pox, and the bubonic plague -- and what wonderful introductions those were).  Some historians have argued that the Indians got along fine without these things, and the seeds of their ultimate defeat and “culture-cide” sprouted the moment they began to accept these “gifts.”  These were gifts that acknowledged Indian acceptance of the terms in which the culture war would be fought.  Granted, they didn’t have much choice in the matter, but the fact remains that the Indians found themselves in a battle they didn’t have the resources or technology to win.
(Check out comparable perspectives of colonialism with respect to these other cinematic/historical subjects:  Columbus, Cabeza de Vaca, General Custer, Pocahontas, Wyatt Earp, the Jesuits, the Pilgrims, and the story The Last of the Mohicans)

[7]    The bond that was created when Boone gave Chief Grey Eagle the pistol was more than a bond of friendship, it was a bond of restraint and oppression.  It was a bond that restricted any possibility of the continuation of native American culture as it existed for centuries.

[8]    The pistol and the Biblical references represent the subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle manipulation of native Americans by the European settlers.  Boone was glorified as a hero while the Indians were forced to comply to his and the settlers’ wishes or else be killed, even shot in the back when necessary.  Sadly, this undercurrent perception of Daniel Boone and the native Americans was still alive and well in America in 1926 when With Daniel Boone Thru the Wilderness was made.  Even the more popular 1956 film Daniel Boone- Trail Blazer and the 1960 Disney four part television series: Daniel Boone portray this same brand of white  ethnocentrism.  Today’s history textbooks still perpetuate the myth of Daniel Boone and try to justify Manifest Destiny (see Lies My Teacher Told Me by James T. Loewen to further explore this subject), and they always will as long as Americans refuse to take a close look at the so-called objective histories that have been taught for generations.

[9]    After all, how can a nation hope to learn from its past mistakes if it refuses to acknowledge that mistakes have been made?
 
 

Copyright © 2000 by Matt Sparks, Undergraduate at Lehigh University

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