Thursday, December 9, 2010

Keel boats: 7.9. Giant Ants: 7.8.

Last week we talked about giant ants. This week, we're talking about Mike Fink and keel boats.

And, yes, according to the Bogart/Karloff Coolness Scale, keel boats score a 7.9, while giant ants come in at 7.8. It has been mathematically demonstrated that keel boats are slightly cooler than giant ants.

Keel boats, by the way, are flat-bottomed craft that was poled up and down the rivers of the American West in the early 19th century. They were a very common means for transporting cargo in those days.

We moved from ants to boats via Fess Parker, whose small role in Them that got him cast as Davy Crockett.

That was inspired casting.  Parker and sidekick Buddy Ebsen played their roles with easy going charm through three episodes of Walt Disney's television show and started a Crockett craze. Kids across America started badgering their parents for coon-skinned hats and Disney quickly re-edited the TV episodes into a theatrical film.

Well, Disney wanted to bring his viewers more Davy, but Davy died at the Alamo in the last episode. So two "flashback" episodes were produced, recounting an adventure Davy and George Russell (Ebsen's character) had along the Mississippi River a few years before the Alamo.These episodes were then themselves edited together and released theatrically.

And Davy Crockett and the River Pirates (1955) is actually my favorite of the two Crockett films (though both are excellent and colorful adventures). Why? Well, because it's got keel boats in it, of course. And the pre-Civil War Mississippi River, which by itself has a Bogart/Karloff Coolness rating of 8.3.

The villain through most of the movie is Mike Fink, who (like Davy) is a fictionalized version of a real guy. There was a real Mike Fink, a keel boatman who was reputed to be stronger and tougher than anyone on the River.He's become a minor legend in American folklore, appearing in a variety dime novels and and other stories through the years.

In River Pirates, Davy and Mike become competitors in a keel boat race from Natchez to New Orleans. Later, the two join forces to smoke out a band of pirates who are posing as Indians. Jeff York plays Mike as a boisterous and full-of-himself bully, but one who eventually shows traits of loyalty and bravery.  York fits the role, both physically and in terms of personality, helping add to the overall sense of gun.

The movie has beautiful scenery, a silly but fun song ("Mike Fink, King of the River") and a unique and entertaining action set-piece at the climax. Mike's boat is besieged in mid-river by pirates in canoes, followed by Davy and George slugging it out with the pirate leadership in a large loot-filled cave.

By the way, Fess Parker and Jeff York teamed up in yet another excellent live-action Disney movie. They always made for a fun pair.

So there you have it. As cool as giant ants are, keel boats (especially if they're piloted by Mike Fink down the Mississippi) are cooler yet.

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