Tap Roots (1948)
Directed by George Marshall
After the Boffo box office success of Gone With the Wind, Hollywood tried to parlay the moonlight-and-magnolias myth of Southern life into megabuck sequels. Producer Walter Wanger contributed to the frenzy with Tap Roots, a bodice-ripping romance masquerading as Civil War cinema.
The story is taken from James H. Street’s 1942 novel, loosely based on local legends of the “Free State of Jones,” a rebellious Mississippi county lorded over in 1863 by Newton Knight and his merry band of freebooters. Knight’s men defied local authorities and evaded Confederate units sent to quell them, but they were mainly renegades and not Union loyalists.
In the film, the denizens of Lebanon Valley try to secede from their state and remain neutral when war breaks out. Local patriarch Hoab Dabney hates slavery and promises, with the help of his faithful Indian friend Tishomingo (a heavily made-up Boris Karloff), to protect the valley from the Confederates. Also helping is local newspaperman Keith Alexander, who is in love with Dabney’s daughter Morna. But Morna is betrothed to Clay MacIvor, a dashing Confederate officer who soon strays into the embrace of Morna’s younger sister, Aven. They elope when war is declared, and MacIvor, an ardent secessionist, is banished from the community.
MacIvor plans an attack on the valley when Alexander and a band of locals head off to procure provisions. Morna learns of the scheme and rides to the Confederate camp to seduce her former lover, hoping to buy time for the supply party. The party returns in time, and as the Rebel attack begins, Alexander orders his men to retreat into the swamps. In a beautifully filmed battle, the locals are defeated, but Alexander still manages to kill MacIvor.
Morna returns home to find that her father now considers her a traitor. Alexander, however, proclaims she is a hero and openly professes his love. With the Dabney plantation in ruins, old Hoab dies, but Alexander reassures Morna that her family legacy will survive as long as the tap root they planted in the rich Mississippi soil lives on.
Originally published in the May 2010 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.