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Footnotes to a Square Dance

Footnotes to a Square Dance: Alligator-Horses

Commentary by Johanna Schmertz
Associate Professor, English

Tall, athletic, rough, and full of fire and vitality, the half horse, half alligator type still predominates in the lower and middle classes of the South while a more elegant but equally vigorous physique characterizes the polished, proud, subtle, ambitious, warlike, domineering class who will lead them."  -
David Hunter Strother, 1866

Paralleling the work of the cultural historians it includes (e.g. important figures like Carroll-Smith Rosenberg, Eric Lott, and Richard Slotkin), Brian Huberman and Ed Hugetz's documentary Alligator-Horses writes a cultural history of the violence and class warfare on which the United States has been built. Alligator-Horses may be seen as a chronicle of the dispossessed white male, a figure that moves between poles of savagery and civilization in a contest over the role and definition of masculinity in the United States. Primarily focusing on 1830-1840, the period during which the United States moves toward industrial capitalism, Hugetz and Huberman tell their story through archival materials like almanacs, maps, paintings and penny newspaper stories.

Though - like Ken Burns - they use archival sources to document and depict a time long gone, Hugetz and Huberman resist Burns' linear style of storytelling in favor of a thematic Eisensteinian montage approach in which events depicted "don't belong together and certainly didn't happen one after another" (Huberman and Hugetz). As Huberman's daughter tells him after seeing a rough cut of the film, only the unifying figure of Davy Crockett keeps the movie's broad cast of characters from becoming a set of historical footnotes. She suggests Alligator Horses be seen as a dance - specifically, a square dance (and you'll hear Hugetz talk about what this means for the film's structure).

Hugetz's montage approach allows him to rework history by 1. tracing the mythmaking around Davey Crockett and the continuity of these founding myths in such contemporary contests of male physicality as breakdancing and skateboarding, and 2. foregrounding the implication of the filmmaker in the construction of such  myths. (To make movies is to rewrite history, an analogy Hugetz and Huberman emphasize through multiple non-diegetic inserts of them looking at their own footage). The Soviet-style-montage/anti-Ken-Burns approach to filmmaking allows Davy Crockett to connect with the film's other themes and characters across space and time: Crockett once went to see a blackface performance, thereby offering Eric Lott and other contemporary cultural critics the opportunity to reflect on the cannibalistic and Eucharistic nature of blackface performance; Crockett died the same day as murdered city prostitute Ellen Jewett, thereby inadvertently becoming a kind of footnote to her history and that of the Bowery working class riots; and Crockett's (mythologized, phallic) hatchet appears in various forms throughout the film, connecting all the acts of historical violence the film depicts.

Instead of fighting the forces (capitalism, racism, colonialism) that conspired to confine them to what they termed "wage slavery," the displaced rural white men at the center of Alligator-Horses attacked the "cultured" city elites of their day. (Is this story sounding painfully familiar?) To extend the story past the 1830s, and into recapitulations of similar foundational myths in the era of industrial capitalism, I encourage viewers to read Gail Bederman's Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917.

A viewing tip for Alligator Horses: See early filmmaker James Williamson's (1901) self-reflexive 2 minute film The Big Swallow.  Then, look for the alligator that devours the movie itself in Alligator-Horses!