Big Stars on the Small Screen: Leslie Nielsen as The Swamp Fox
Leslie Nielsen as The Swamp Fox
A few other things that come to mind when I think of Disney are apparent in the series “The Swamp Fox.” They are the association with music (while both the theme songs are good, Elfego Baca’s doesn’t have the earworm quality of this one. The next is the preponderance of colonial narratives. In looking back you see that Disney dealt a lot both in those times and American folklore and that’s not as common now.
Next, this series does highlight the early dramatic work of Leslie Nielsen. Now in the latter part of his career Nielsen became far better known as a comedic actor. However, in this part of his career he was mainly a dramatic actor with a lot of TV work. Some of his more notable titles were Forbidden Planet and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
However, as I stated about that later work it was this dramatic foundation and aptitude that set the stage for him to help to redefine parodic comedy:
Many cite The Naked Gun series as one of the best examples of this subgenre, and much credit in that case is due to Leslie Nielsen. For as preposterous as what he was saying or doing was he was committed to it, there was a dramatic intent bordering on deadpan that tethered the silliness of the situation to reality.
While this is, similar to the prior series, mainly action plots Nielsen had the dramatic gravitas to pull off the commander role. It was necessary that a kindliness, sternness and capability of valiant behavior shine through whatever actor was pegged for the role and Nielsen encapsulated all of these well. When you’re covering a figure of revolutionary times and establishing how that legend was born casting is that much more important such that the magnetism and whatever other qualities you’re trying to convey about them shine through.
Having seen much of Nielsen’s earlier work lately I don’t want to over-stress how he became most famous. However, this comment is a testament to his fine work here. There are people who bring such joy to film, so naturally funny that you smile when you see them show up (John Candy was one) this role is the opposite example it’s not funny in hindsight. The tone of the piece is well-conveyed and is as serious as it needs to be.
It may be deceptive to watch Nielsen as a dramatic actor because there is such a stolidity to his representation that it can be misread as lacking in range or depth. However, I don’t feel that’s the case, while there’s a dutiful nature to him and many of his speeches deal with his being the moral compass of his band of men it doesn’t carry weight if you don’t see the facets of his character.
Furthermore, what I was able to see in this section is but a prelude. As opposed to the three episodes of Elfego Baca which were somewhat transformative, here the series (as shown on DVD) stops at the point where a major change in the character and his approach to taking on the red coats is about to take place. Therefore, there’s far more of an arc to the series than these episodes show.
There are two Disney and film-related notes I found in watching these titles. Firstly, the more important thing to keep in mind when dealing with historical figures on screen is representation over misrepresentation. Which means that having historical figures conveyed is far more important than nitpicking issues of inaccuracy or dramatic license. Elfego Baca made me want to look him up. Entertainment can be an aid to but not a substitute for education in subject matter such as history. Donald in Mathmagicland is great fun, but it doesn’t mean you can skip algebra. It all seems obvious but these are things that are seemingly forgotten when people complain about historical inaccuracy in film. If people, with all the information easily available to them, take a fictional representation’s word for it and that’s it it’s not the movie’s fault.
In Disney-specific terms Walt Disney Presents was an early case of a work in a visual medium (TV) being influenced by a theme park. Therefore, the adages about nothing being new and history repeating itself are proven true again. This is not that far from Pirates of the Caribbean and the like.
As imported series and streaming services are further shaking up the notions of what constitutes a season of television and other rules. Future templates can be found in the past. More so than in the past perhaps because of current visual conventions the movie stars of tomorrow are the TV stars of today, and vice versa. I don’t know how many people predicted bigger things for Loggia and Nielsen, but having seen these small samples I’m not surprised by their success or longevity at all.