Sometimes, as I said when I reviewed the series, “Yancy Derringer” a while back, you can watch a beloved childhood show and be pleasantly surprised. And sometimes the show is just as dumb as you expect. Such is the case with “The Adventures of Jim Bowie,” a two-season series that ran from 1956 to 1958. I streamed it on Amazon Plus.
Simplified and sanitized for a half-hour time period and a kids’ audience, “The Adventures of Jim Bowie” is sort of Bizarro-Jim. A lot of what happens is based on actual events – but they’re usually portrayed the wrong way around.
The very first episode, for instance, explains how Jim designs his knife and gets it made by a blacksmith. His kid-friendly reason for this is given as a need to protect himself from bears. (Wilderness survival tip – this does not work.) In real life, Jim acquired his knife because he’d been in a life-and-death fight with a man and his pistol misfired. Stories vary as to who designed the knife – it may have been his smarter brother Rezin – but it probably wasn’t Jim himself.
Aside from his efforts in the Texan War of Independence, which are genuinely impressive, Jim Bowie’s main accomplishments mostly consisted of criminal activity. He and his friend, the pirate Jean Lafitte (who appears in several episodes), conspired to exploit a loophole in the laws forbidding the importation of slaves. This allowed them to effectively “launder” their human merchandise, and then sell it at a premium. (Look up the details if you’re interested; it’s complicated.) In this series, the issue of the slave trade is generally avoided, except for one episode where Jim risks his life to rescue a slave he has freed from being sold again.
Jim’s biggest scam, though, involved forging old Spanish land grants, which the US government had agreed to honor. Jim created a large number of fake grants (not very skillfully), and managed to tie up quite a lot of land titles for a long time. He eventually lost all his claims in court, but not before many innocent people lost a lot of money. In my memory, there was one episode of the show that dealt with false land grants, but in which Bowie uncovers rather than perpetrates the fraud. However, that must be the one episode that Amazon Prime skips in its rotation, because I didn’t see it here.
The knife that bore the Bowie name, his great trademark, gets flashed a lot in the show, but doesn’t actually get used much for its proper purpose. He throws it often, frequently to disarm other men. But only one opponent gets stabbed as far as I can recall, and that’s pretty much by accident.
A number of historical characters show up – John James Audubon, Andrew Jackson (whom Bowie didn’t support, contrary to the show), Sam Houston, Johnny Appleseed, Jefferson Davis. They are often portrayed in fairly authentic ways (they take particular pains to make Davy Crockett look right. The Walt Disney series was a recent memory then). You could actually learn some fair basic history by watching this show, if you discount the main character himself.
Beyond that, the writing is simple and the plots dumb. This is a garden variety TV western aimed at kids, but without revolving pistols. It’s OK for mindless entertainment, but your life won’t be impoverished much if you give it a miss.
A note on the star: Scott Forbes was an English actor who learned his southern accent from a female voice coach whom he went on to marry. He plays the party pretty broadly. According to one source, he walked off the set just before the last episode was filmed, on hearing that the show had been cancelled. They covered by hiring another actor (not a famous one) to play an outlaw who gets a pardon for going on a mission to Texas in Bowie’s place.