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Based on the true story of the Powell Geographic Expedition of 1869, where ten men under the leadership of university professor and Civil War veteran John Wesley Powell undertook an arduous three-month journey through the yet-unexplored terrain and waterways of the American Southwest, including the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon, Disney’s Ten Who Dared was theatrically released on November 1, 1960. The live action drama is ninety-two minutes in length.
At Green River, Wyoming Territory on May 24, 1869, Major John Wesley Powell (John Beal) and nine other men of varying backgrounds and temperaments—Bill Dunn (Brian Keith), Walter Powell (James Drury), Oramel Howland (R.G. Armstrong), Seneca Howland (Stan Jones), George Bradley (Ben Johnson), Billy “Missouri” Hawkins (L.Q. Jones), Jack Sumner (Dan Sheridan), Andy Hall (David Stollery), and Frank Goodman (David Frankham)—embark on a daring mission that will take them down the Green and Colorado Rivers, hopefully putting them on top of the world at the base of the Grand Canyon. Unfortunately for these men, limited supplies, personal antagonisms, Indians, and the many dangers connected with nature render their survival an extremely dubious proposition. Will they survive?
Of the expedition’s ten participants, John and Walter Powell and Oramel and Seneca Howland are, respectively, brothers. Additionally, Hall smuggles an eleventh being onto the trip: a dog named Jarvie.
The Powell Geographic Expedition marked the first time that white man was able to successfully navigate the entirety of the Grand Canyon. Most of the territory explored by Powell and his companions had been annexed to the United States via the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War. The region’s geologic, geographic, and anthropological features were noted and named by Powell and his team along the way, but detailed observations of their surroundings, including corresponding maps and scholarly reports, had to wait until the conclusion of Powell’s second, better-funded, expedition in 1871. Of the ten men who started the 1869 mission, only six finished—one man, Goodman, feeling that he had “had more excitement than a man deserves in a lifetime,” quit in late June, surviving to raise a family in Utah; and three more, the Howland brothers and Dunn, quit on August 28 at Separation Canyon, just before the final rapids, a calculated gamble that failed when they died in the desert. (1)
Ten Who Dared would have likely been a more engaging movie had Disney used the expedition as one part in a story about John Wesley Powell’s overall life. The numerous players inherent in a movie focusing solely on the 1869 expedition cause overload for the audience—I had to watch the film twice to keep the characters straight. Considering that it was decided to focus the film entirely on the 1869 expedition, however, Disney did a good job of developing the characters through several coherent subplots. Not all of the characters are equally developed—the Powell brothers, Dunn, Bradley, and Hawkins are more deeply understood than their counterparts—but the film is better from this standpoint than might be expected.
When a group of friends agrees to undertake a months-long project, it does so at the risk of eventual disharmony caused by spending too much time together. When a group of strangers undertakes a similar mission, the potential problems are augmented. The latter scenario is the case in Ten Who Dared. Here, the different backgrounds and goals of the adventurers naturally create friction between and among the men. Concerning the different backgrounds of the group, the Powell brothers were Union soldiers during the Civil War; Bradley was a Confederate soldier during the same conflict; Goodman is an Englishman; the Howland brothers are from Vermont; and Dunn is from Colorado. As for the different goals of the adventurers, Major Powell is interested in increasing the scientific and geographic knowledge of the American Southwest for mankind; Walter Powell rides along to hopefully recover from the “shell” he has hid under since being a prisoner of war; Goodman is chiefly concerned with potential glory; and Dunn, interestingly, just wants to get away from people.
Towards the end of the film, Major Powell’s companions begin to wonder if their leader is even remotely considering their lives when he insists upon making pitstops to explore the surrounding geological formations despite the dearth of remaining food available to the party. Although Major Powell mathematically calculates that finishing the expedition via the rapids as planned would be faster than walking overland, the others nonetheless question Powell’s priorities, as well as his sanity. Major Powell is a realist, but his companions consider him an idealist. This dichotomy between idealism and realism is reminiscent of the debates among Aronnax, Conseil, and Land in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) over the possibility of harnessing the evil genius of Captain Nemo for the good of mankind. Said dichotomy also parallels the battles between Walt Disney, the “idealist,” and Roy O. Disney, the “realist,” over the viability of Walt’s proposed projects. As was often the case at Disney, the supposed idealist’s plans prevail in Ten Who Dared.
Aesthetically, Ten Who Dared is a mixed bag. Audiences witness great natural vistas, but most of the closeup shots of the boats during the river rafting scenes overtly incorporate blue screens. The segment towards the end of the film after Major Powell loses his temper about pitstop complaints is especially poor in this regard.
Ten Who Dared has a solid, though not great, soundtrack. The film incorporates two major lyrical numbers: “Jolly Rovers” and “Roll Along.” The former number is a catchy ballad that explains how ten “jolly rovers” lost some of their ranks. Interestingly, the song ends with six jolly rovers, the same number of men remaining at the end of the Powell Expedition. “Roll Along,” for its part, is a soothing number about the beauty of nature. Both songs are enjoyable in the moment, but you will probably not be singing them for hours after the movie ends. The background music, especially the triumphant tune that accompanies the final rapids ride, is well utilized.
Action scenes are scattered throughout Ten Who Dared. Along the way, the men battle swift rapids in rowboats; Goodman and Hawkins fight in their rowboat after the former adventurer refuses to serve Hawkins more whiskey; Dunn sucker punches Walter Powell into the river after the latter insults the former’s hygiene; Bradley, knowing that he is Powell’s true antagonist because of their divergent careers in the Civil War, proceeds to engage in an extended brawl with the Major’s brother; Major Powell and Dunn encounter a snake; and Major Powell must be rescued after slipping off a cliff.
Although Ten Who Dared is not a comedy, the film contains a decent amount of amusing scenes. For example, a newspaper reporter, McSpadden (Ray Walker), awkwardly obtains the names of the ten adventurers; Major Powell and Dunn debate the respective merits of science and astrology; during the first night of camping, “Jolly Rovers” is performed in an attempt to “drown out” Goodman’s unwanted recitation of English poetry; the men play hot potato with a jug of whiskey; the men have fun with the sound effects near Echo Cliff; Dunn swings a snake like Indiana Jones swings his whip; and Dunn and the Howland brothers engage in an awkward conversation with a hostile party of Utes.
Relationship to Other Disney Films
Real events in United States history were also portrayed in Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier (1955), The Great Locomotive Chase (1956), Westward Ho, the Wagons! (1956), JohnnyTremain (1957), The Light in the Forest (1958), Tonka (1958), The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band (1968), and Pocahontas (1995).
Ten Who Dared was the first of seven Disney films to feature Brian Keith, who subsequently appeared in The Parent Trap (1961), Moon Pilot (1962), Savage Sam (1963), A Tiger Walks (1964), Those Calloways (1965), and Scandalous John (1971) for the studio.
John Beal had provided narration for So Dear to My Heart (1949).
James Drury appeared in two other Disney films released in 1960: Toby Tyler and Pollyanna.
Debates between the two sides from the United States Civil War also occur in The Great Locomotive Chase and The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band.
Disney produced a short documentary film “Grand Canyon” in 1958.
In the Parks
Grand Canyon dioramas are featured on the Disneyland Railroad attractions at Disneyland Park and Disneyland Park Paris.
The towering fourth-floor atrium at Walt Disney World’s Contemporary Resort is known as the “Grand Canyon Concourse.”
The American West is the theme for the respective “Frontierland” sections at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom and the Disneyland Parks in California and Paris. The “Westernland” section at Tokyo Disneyland Park and the “Grizzly Gulch” section at Hong Kong Disneyland Park have a similar theme.
Rapids can be tamed by guests on “Kali River Rapids” at Disney’s Animal Kingdom and on “Grizzly River Run” at Disney California Adventure.
Walt Disney World’s “Coronado Springs Resort” and Disneyland Resort Paris’s “Hotel Santa Fe” are themed after the American Southwest.
Ten Who Dared has an overload of characters and subplots, but the story is suspenseful, exciting, and occasionally even funny. In comparison to Disney’s other American history-based films of the period, I would rank Ten Who Dared at the level of Westward Ho, the Wagons! and Tonka. The movie is inferior to Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier, Johnny Tremain, and The Light in the Forest but better than The Great Locomotive Chase. In sum, it is flawed but worth watching, especially if you are a history buff.
I'm a huge fan of the various Disney theme parks and movies. I've made several trips to both Walt Disney World and Disneyland with my family.
Additionally, I'm interested in sports and American history.