Disney history: how has the corporation shaped our perception of the past?

From Pocahontas to Pearl Harbor, over the course of its near-100 year history Disney has repackaged, or ‘Disneyfied’, a number of real historical people and events. Here, historian Dr John Wills explores how the corporation has turned history into popular entertainment...

Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln. (© Moviestore collection Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo)

The world’s most famous provider of family entertainment for nearly 100 years, the Walt Disney Company has transported the masses to fantasy realms and cartoon wonderlands. From Mickey Mouse’s first sound cartoon Steamboat Willie (1928) to Queen Elsa’s trials and tribulations in Frozen (2013), Disney has gripped us with its unique medley of animation, comedy, music and sentimentality.

Disney has repackaged, or ‘Disneyfied’, a wide array of European folk tales and children’s stories over the years, its chief success being the selling of child-friendly fiction for the masses. Disney has also, I would argue, turned history into popular entertainment.

For decades, Disney has shaped our cultural, environmental and historical lens, and has exercised tremendous power over children’s education. In the mid-20th century, for example, Disney promoted early environmental awareness in the United States through a groundbreaking series of nature documentaries entitled True-Life Adventures that ran from 1948 to 1960. Disney also educated the masses on issues of popular science in the 1950s, explaining to schoolchildren the workings of nuclear energy through Our Friend the Atom (1957), a widely distributed television production and accompanying educational book.

Disney has also influenced popular perception of history. Scholar Mike Wallace argues: “It is possible that Walt Disney has taught people more history, in a more memorable way, than they ever learned in school”. Indeed, as the examples below will show, Disney has routinely dabbled in depictions of the past. While the easiest option might be to label such movies ‘Mickey Mouse history’ and of no discernable value or impact, Disney is an international force in popular education.

So what, specifically, is ‘Disney history’? Disney history is primarily about nostalgia and resolution. Disney offers a sentimental and largely positive reading of the past, often high in visual detail, that promotes the idea of history as leading to happy endings and universal progress. It is utopian and optimistic. As to be expected in child-focused stories, some of the moral complexity of the past is sidelined in the search for a simpler and more comprehensible tale of ‘heroes and villains’ and the triumph of forces for good over evil. 

Storytelling is very important in Disney history. The corporation grasps the importance of narrative, scene setting and characters in getting people interested in heritage, and in recent decades the company has financed a range of serious historical movies. Disney has fuelled interest in historical periods and issues, and most of all made history exciting. However, Disney history has not always proved welcome.

In the 1990s, for example, Disney’s plans for an American history theme park in Haymarket, Virginia, were dashed by an alliance of local residents, environmentalists and academics. Under the banner ‘Protect Historic America,’ around 200 scholars protested what they deemed to be a significant threat to historical monuments in the region. They called the theme park project ‘Distory.’

Here we explore six historical Disney films…

 

Song of the South (1946)

Walt Disney himself was a big fan of the past. He was a deeply nostalgic man, particularly fond of his time growing up in the rural mid-West. He based his original designs for Main Street USA in Disneyland upon his own romantic recollections of Marceline, Missouri: the end result being a highly nostalgic and charming recreation of life in small town America in the early 1900s.

The same year as the release of the cinematic epic Gone with the Wind (1939), Walt purchased the rights to the Uncle Remus stories by Joel Chandler Harris, which are also set in the deep South. Disney set about transforming Harris’s work into a mix of live action and cartoon. In 1946, Disney released Song of the South starring James Baskett. The movie proved highly popular, with Baskett’s rendition of ‘Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah’ a huge Disney hit song – the ‘Let it Go’ of its day. 

Song of the South provided a highly ‘Disneyised’ version of the American South, portraying plantation life as all happy families and bright colours, a world where white boys and black slaves were best friends and African-Americans had a “wonderful day”. As a cultural product of a racially divided nation (with the full impact of the civil rights movement still 10 years away), the Disney film predictably avoided tackling race issues. Instead, it romanticised a difficult past; the Disney South was a world of dancing bees and hummingbirds.

Wisely recognising problems with how the movie presents history, Disney has kept Song of the South in its archive for several decades with little chance of re-release.


Movie poster advertising 'Song of the South' (Walt Disney), 1946. (Photo by John D Kisch/Separate Cinema Archive/Getty Images)

 

Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier (1955)

In the 1950s, Disney assimilated the Hollywood Western – all cowboys and Indians – and transferred it to a new setting. Opened in July 1955, Frontierland in Disneyland granted visitors a fully interactive experience of the Wild West, complete with Mark Twain steamboat, stagecoaches, pack mules and unfriendly Indians.

Used to promote the park (and linked to a finance deal with ABC), Disney’s companion TV show Disneyland promoted both the brand and the fledging parkscape. The programme sported its own full-on Disney Western hero: Davy Crockett. Across a five-part series, initially released in 1954–45, Davy Crockett, starring Fess Parker, related life on the ‘wild frontier’. The snappy tune ‘The Ballad of Davy Crockett’ escorted Crockett everywhere, telling his story and celebrating the man’s triumphs. 

Audiences loved this Disney take on a real Western frontiersman, evidenced by the sale of around 10 million Davy Crockett fur hats and the addition of a Davy Crockett Museum and gift store to Frontierland itself. Humour, bravado and a fair amount of shooting marked the series (and the two films that came from it), and the ‘Disney West’ built on popular versions of American frontier history.


Davy Crockett (Fess Parker) and his sidekick, George Russell (Buddy Ebsen) in ‘Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier’ (1955). (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images)

 

Pocahontas (1995)

As well as ‘Disney cowboys’ there were also Disney Indians, the most famous being the Disney princess Pocahontas, who was the daughter of an Algonquin (Powhatan) chief. In 1995, Disney released its own cartoon version of the classic colonial encounter story. Disney consulted with Native Americans during the making of the movie and cast First Nation actors in key roles.

In many ways Disney’s Pocahontas offered a redeemed narrative of Indians in America, a wholly positive and romantic depiction of native life. Turning Pocahontas into a Disney princess showed a corporation keen to be more inclusive, and welcome America’s first indigenous groups into the Mickey Mouse fold. Disney’s Pocahontas celebrated a group of people largely marginalised in traditional American history, and the movie valiantly attempted to tell ‘their story’.

However, marred by historical inaccuracies (for example, the real Pocahontas was only 10 or 11 when she met John Smith, a character of dubious repute) as well as some old-fashioned stereotypes, the film arguably fell short of its lofty goals.


Pocahontas and John Smith in Disney's ‘Pocahontas’ (1995). (© AF archive/Alamy Stock Photo)

 

Pearl Harbor (2001)

In the Disney Touchstone blockbuster Pearl Harbor, director Michael Bay and producer Jerry Bruckheimer reconstructed the infamous 1941 Japanese attack on American soil into a story of romance, drama and visual spectacle. Despite protestations by Disney financiers, the movie proved highly expensive, with $8 million alone spent on constructing a giant water bowl for filming at Honolulu. 

Great expectations surrounded the movie. However, upon release, critics were quick to attack Pearl Harbor, labelling it an insult to national history. As one Washington Post journalist bemoaned, “although this Walt Disney movie is based, inspired and even partially informed by a real event referred to as Pearl Harbor, the movie is actually based on the movies Top Gun, Titanic and Saving Private Ryan. Don't get confused”. The National Geographic channel even commissioned a documentary to highlight the movie’s errors.

Such a critical reaction reflected the hallowed status of Pearl Harbor in American history; an event that was, even 60 years on, unsuited for action movies, however patriotic they might be. Cognisant of growing criticism, Jerry Bruckheimer admitted “it’s certainly not meant to be a history lesson”.

Despite the criticism directed at the film, Pearl Harbor proved a massive commercial success, recording $450m at the worldwide box office.


Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett in Pearl Harbor (2001). (© United Archives GmbH/Alamy Stock Photo)

 

National Treasure (2004)

Released in 2004, National Treasure quite candidly turned historical documentation into action adventure, and promoted history as something so exciting to kids that it’s a wonder every child doesn’t want to be a historian.

In the style of Indiana Jones (which Disney had options on but ultimately rejected) and the videogame/movie franchise Tomb Raider, National Treasure related the search of renegade US historian Benjamin Franklin Gates (played by Nicolas Cage) for Freemason artifacts.

National Treasure resembled an old-school Disney family movie: full of fun, charm and wit, presenting history as exciting and alive. It intriguingly depicted history as a ‘treasure hunt,’ a task rife in conspiracy and even necessitating a criminal heist in the National Archives. All old pipes, clues and riddles, Cage’s Gates, frowned upon by the historical community, demonstrated keen knowledge of George Washington’s campaign buttons and knew more about the Declaration of Independence than most, including the ‘invisible treasure map’ on its back. Nostalgic for the past, Gates read aloud the Declaration, lamenting how “people don’t talk that way anymore”.

National Treasure effectively cast the search and study of history as pure entertainment and successfully spawned a sequel.


Nicholas Cage as Benjamin Franklin Gates and Diane Kruger as Abigail Chase in National Treasure (2004).  (© ZUMA Press, Inc./Alamy Stock Photo)

 

Lincoln (2012)

Steven Spielberg provided his own sentimental, eminently weighty version of presidential history with the epic Lincoln in 2012, which was distributed by Disney.

Applauded by the mainstream press but criticised by some historians including Eric Foner from Columbia, Lincoln is a historical biopic rich in emotion, detail and subtlety. The film offers a rare feeling of filmic immersion in American history, making viewers feel as if they were actually there witnessing the depicted events.

Spielberg’s movie oversimplified the historical record, especially on the key issue of slavery, but Lincoln nonetheless highlighted how well Disney could ‘do history’ for a mainstream audience. As part of the film campaign, Disney Educational Productions gave DVDs and teaching guides (‘Stand Tall: Live Like Lincoln’) to thousands of secondary schools in the USA, making Disney history a standard education for schoolkids.

Dr John Wills is senior lecturer in American history and director of American Studies at the University of Kent. He has published four books on American popular culture and environmental history, recently completing his fifth on Disney culture for Rutgers University Press.

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