So Red the Rose
(1935) Directed by King Vidor
BEFORE THERE WAS TARA, there was Portobello; before Hollywood turned Margaret Mitchell’s novel into a blockbuster hit, it turned Starke Young’s novel into a box office flop.
Nevertheless, So Red the Rose’s sentimental portrayal of disintegrating Southern faux gentility has some good things going for it. Plantation mistress Sally Bedford (Janet Beecher) searching for her slain son on the corpse-littered field at Shiloh showcases King Vidor’s directorial style at its best. Walter Connolly gives a memorable performance as Malcolm Bedford, the julep-sodden patriarch who goes off to war in a cocked hat, and Margaret Sullavan is prettily effective as Valette, the young belle of the household who tries to hold the old ways together through the maelstrom of war and social upheaval.
The true hero of the movie could have been Duncan Bedford (Randolph Scott), Valette’s love-interest and distant cousin, who refuses at first to get caught up in the war fever sweeping across the Mississippi bottom lands. “I don’t believe Americans should fight Americans,” he says. “I can’t kill another American just because he’s wearing a different uniform.” Yet he too soon dons Confederate gray. Before he leaves, Duncan selflessly decides to forgo planting cash-producing cotton in favor of soldier-sustaining corn, something many Southern planters were forced to do.
It’s too bad Hollywood couldn’t shake more of its Lost Cause bias. All Yankees are portrayed as brutes except one wounded soldier dutifully attended by Valette. They kidnap the elder Bedford and force him to serve as a guide, an act that leads to his death. When they burn the family home, one officer innocently utters a line that would become infamous a decade later: “I’m only obeying orders.” By presenting the alien forces that destroyed the Southern way of life as cruel and vulgar intrusions instead of inevitable realities, the film cheats itself of contemporary meaning.
Originally published in the September 2011 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.