Years ago I was standing in line to see the movie “Excalibur,” director John Bormann’s excellent and very stylistic version of the Arthurian legend.
I don’t remember everything about the film, but a conversation I overheard while I waited in line for the movie has stuck with me ever since. There were a couple of guys about my age a few steps down, engaged in the typical talk one hears when they are waiting in line for a movie.
But then one of them asked their friend what “Excalibur” was about. The response was, and this is probably a 99 percent accurate quote, “It’s kind of like an old fashioned ‘Star Wars.’”
I resisted the temptation to give up my place in line and throttle the “expert” for not having the slightest clue where this movie’s theme generated from, and for thinking “Star Wars” was anything other than an old-fashioned B-movie serial with a big budget.
When it comes to cultural illiteracy, things haven’t gotten much better. And now that “Star Wars” is in the hands of the Disney Company, there will be more generations of people who think Disney stands for “Star Wars.”
Thanks to television, especially the PBS series “The American Experience,” there is hope that people may learn a thing or two about uniquely American personages who were bigger than life and who forged a path that, even if someone doesn’t realize it, is impacting them today.
Recently, “The American Experience” highlighted the life and career of Walt Disney in a two part, four-hour program where we learned all about what made this man tick, what motivated him and what drove him to never stop creating up until the day he died.
When it comes to television and its imprint on our culture, there are few pioneers as big as Walt Disney. By the time he came to the medium, he had already created an animation dynasty where, against all the better judgment of cooler heads, he was convinced there was a future for full-length animated films.
He was a man of incredible energy and single-mindedness who also believed he had a higher obligation when it came to producing entertainment for the masses.
A cynic might just say Walt Disney was monetizing “morality” or that he was cashing in on providing less-than-edgy entertainment that was “safe” and non-offensive.
“Fantasia” and the early films, like the equally financially disappointing “Pinocchio,” were artistic masterpieces and told quite edgy stories about a whole slew of edgy topics in their own way.
And as far as the non-edgy stuff, personally I loved Sunday evenings and the “Wonderful World of Disney” when the stories were about kids spending a summer with their grandfather or aunt in some cool New England town with a lighthouse finding pirate treasure.
I never did care much for the animal shows Disney fixated on and I can attest that raccoons are not the rascally good natured scamps he portrayed, but rather vicious beasts with fangs, claws and opposable thumbs that wreak havoc in innocent people’s backyards … but I digress.
Like a lot of great men, Walt Disney was a combination of contradictory traits. He was a man dedicated to the quixotic quest for artistic perfection while at the same time demonstrated the cold bloodedness of a titan of industry.
In the ensuing years after his death in 1966, the reputation of Walt Disney has gone up and down like the Dumbo ride at Disneyland.
The documentary goes into some of these peaks and valleys. He was not a friend of communists or labor unions, but the labor strife that rattled his studio in the early 1940s was seen by Disney more as a personal betrayal than a labor action.
He apparently never got over it and could remain bitter and hold a grudge with the best of them.
Disney’s small town America maybe only ever existed in his imagination and on Main Street in Disneyland, but so what. I never subscribed to some critics who denigrated Disney for his particular brand of entertainment.
By all accounts from the documentary and from other sources I have read, he loved his family and did as best as he could by them despite his affliction of being a workaholic.
Something someone said toward the end of the PBS documentary caught my attention and I think it summed up Disney quite nicely, if somewhat sadly.
In a fit of melancholy, he confessed to a friend that “Walt Disney doesn’t smoke … but I smoke. Walt Disney doesn’t drink … but I drink.” Some might consider this hypocrisy, others, creepy third person references from a man filled with self-importance.
I see it as bittersweet. He was committed to providing a certain kind of entertainment and determined to play a part to keep the “image” alive.
There is something of value there, as the image was of kindness and curiosity for the world and a very real desire to bring joy to others. If that makes “Uncle” Walt, the smoker and the drinker a fake, I’ll take it.
And now the company which bears his name but not his inner sense of decency takes on the “Star Wars” franchise.
Maybe sometime in the future, there will be a couple of guys waiting in line to see “Star Wars” and when one of them asks what the movie is about the response will be, “It’s an old fashioned Disney picture.”