"TAP ROOT" (1948) Review
I am sure that many are aware of Mississippi-born Confederate soldier-turned-Unionist Newton Knight and his formation of the "Free State of Jones", which opposed Confederate forces during the U.S. Civil War. I first heard about Knight and his men while watching Ken Burns' 1990 documentary, "THE CIVIL WAR". But I had no idea that knowledge of this little corner of Civil War history went back even further.
Recently, Hollywood released a movie version about Knight and his followers in the 2016 historical drama, "FREE STATE OF JONES". However . . . some seventy-four years earlier, a novel titled "Tap Roots", which had been written by James H. Street, hit the bookstores. It told the story of a cotton planter, his family and a newspaper publisher; who had decided to remain neutral during the first year of the Civil War. Unfortunately, their decision to remain neutral led to disastrous consequences for the planter and his family, along with other local men who decided to follow them. Six years later in 1948, Universal Pictures made a movie adaptation of Street's novel.
In a nutshell . . . "TAP ROOT" begins in the fall of 1860. Northern Mississippi plantation owner Big Sam Dabney and his son Hoab express concern over Abraham Lincoln's election as the 16th president and the possibility of Southern states seceding from the Union. Both men begin to consider having Levington County in Lebanon Valley, location of the family's cotton plantation, remain neutral if a civil war breaks out. Meanwhile, Hoab's older daughter, Morna Dabney, becomes engaged with Army officer, Clay McIvor. Younger sister Aven is jealous, due to also being in love with Clay. As for Morna, local newspaper owner Keith Alexander becomes attracted to her.
Before 1860 ends, Big Sam dies, leaving Hoab in full control of the family's neutral stance. And poor Morna has a riding accident, leaving her physically disabled and her engagement to Clay in jeopardy. Apparently, the latter is unable to maintain interest in a disabled woman and transforms his sexual interest to Morna's younger sister, Aven. This gives Keith the opportunity to court Morna and help her recover from Clay's rejection. However, Mississippi secedes from the Union, driving Hoab, Keith and the Dabney family's Choctaw friend, Tishomingo, to organize Levington County's neutral stance and secession from Mississippi.
There are aspects of "TAP ROOTS" that I found admirable. Alexander Golitzen's production designs for a Northern Mississippi community between 1860 and 1861 struck me as pretty admirable, if not mind blowing. I could say the same about Yvonne Wood's costume designs. However, there were some signs of 1940s fashion getting in the way, especially in the men's costumes. The shoulders for Van Heflin's jackets struck me as so wide that I found myself wondering if he had portrayed a time traveler from the 1940s. On the other hand, I found Winton C. Hooch and Lionel Lindon's photography of the Southern California and North Carolina locations rather beautiful, thanks to its sharp color. And I thought director George Marshall did an admirable job with the film's action scenes. I was especially impressed by the final conflict between Levington County's "rebels" and the local Confederate forces. Between Marshall's direction, Hooch and Lindon's photography, and Milton Carruth's editing, that final action sequence proved to be one of the film's finer aspects.
If I must be honest, I did not have any problems with the performances featured in "TAP ROOTS". Well . . . with most of the performances. Van Heflin gave an entertaining, yet commanding performance as the cynical newspaper editor Keith Alexander. Susan Hayward was equally commanding as Southern belle Moana Dabney, who endured her own trials while her own personal life fell apart. I did not care for the character of Clay McIvor, who struck me as something of a jerk; but I cannot deny that Whitfield Connor did a solid job in bringing his character to life. A very young Julie London really held her own as Moana's younger sister, Aven Dabney, who managed to win Clay's love from Moana, following the latter's riding accident. Russell Simpson gave a entertaining performance as Moana's colorful grandfather, Big Sam Dabney. Ruby Dandridge, mother of Dorothy Dandridge, gave a solid performance as the Dabneys' housekeeper, Dabby. And I can say the same about Richard Long's portrayal of Moana's younger brother, Bruce Dabney; Arthur Shields as Reverend Kirkland; and Sondra Rogers as Shellie Dabney.
Despite the solid performances that permeated "TAP ROOTS", two of them proved to be problematic for me. First, there was Ward Bond's portrayal of Hoab Dabney, the Mississippi planter who not only inherit the family's cotton plantation following his father's death, but also the latter's plans for a neutral Mississippi. I might as well say it. I found Bond's performance to be an exercise in histrionics. I found this surprising since Bond has never struck me as a hammy acting. I wish that director George Marshall had found a way to rein in his acting - especially in one scene in which Hoab came into conflict with Moana over her past relationship with Clay McIvor. Alas, I thought Bond gave his hammiest performance in that one scene. The other problematic performance came from Boris Karloff, who portrayed the Dabney family's Choctaw friend and retainer, Tishomingo. Mind you, Karloff gave a competent and subtle performance as one of the few sensible characters in this movie. And although many may have been put off by a British actor portraying a Native American, I was surprised to discover that Karloff had possessed both English and East Indian ancestry from both of his parents. I do not know if that gave the actor a pass, considering he still lacked any Native American ancestry. But if I really had a problem with Karloff's performance is that he had portrayed Tishomingo as if the character was an Englishman. Even if Karloff had been portraying a white American, I still would have found his performance slightly problematic.
And what about the narrative for "TAP ROOTS"? Did I like it? Honestly? No. For me, the 1948 movie had failed to impress me. And this is a pity. I believe the problem stemmed from the movie's original source, the 1942 novel. Author James H. Street had claimed he was inspired by the life of Newton Knight, when he wrote his novel. However, out of fear that Knight's life was too controversial - namely his common-law marriage to former slave Rachel Knight - Street changed the nature of Knight's story. The leading characters of "TAP ROOTS" were portrayed as members of Mississippi's planter class. They opposed slavery - at least one or two characters had claimed this - but also owned slaves. But aside from the Dabneys' "faithful" housekeeper Dabby, all other slaves were minor characters who barely spoke. If a movie is going to have its main characters claim to be anti-slavery, why ignore the topic for the rest of the film? Newton Knight's grandfather was a major slave owner in northern Mississippi during the early 19th century. But Knight and his father had opposed slavery and became yeoman farmers who never owned slaves. Knight had been an Army deserter and managed to successfully opposed the Confederate authority in Jones County between 1863 and 1865. The Daubey family and Keith Alexander had no such success in "TAP ROOTS". And I never understood this. Why did Street and later, the movie's writers did not follow Knight's Civil War experiences? What was the point of creating this story if they were not willing to closely follow Knight's conflict with the Confederate authorities? Why not allow the Daubey family to be yeoman farmers who opposed slavery? Street and the filmmakers could have still kept out Newton Knight's relationship with Rachel Knight.
Instead, I found myself watching a movie in which the main protagonists claimed they opposed slavery, yet practiced it and barely touched upon the subject for most of the film. The movie literally dragged its feet between Abraham Lincoln's election in November 1860 and the outbreak of the Civil War in April 1861. And although I disliked Moana Dabney's romance with the unworthy Clay McIvor, I found Keith Alexander's "courtship" of her rather troubling. In Keith's attempt to get Moana to forget about Clay, he resorted to bouts of manhandling her that seemed to border on sexual assault. For some reason, this reminded me of the Scarlett O'Hara/Rhett Butler relationship from "GONE WITH THE WIND". And not in a good way. I also had a problem with the film's portrayal of Lebanon Valley's citizens. I noticed that the film seemed to portray them as mindless citizens who followed the Dabneys' anti-Confederate stance without any real explanation. Like the Dabney slaves, Hoab's followers lacked any real agency. Did author James Street, along with the filmmakers of this movie really lacked the courage to convey a story about how a Southern-born yeoman farmer and others from his class had successfully fought against the Confederacy? Or even exploring his anti-slavery stance? Back in the 1940s?
In the end, this is my real problem with "TAP ROOTS". James Street and producer Walter Wanger took a historical event from the Civil War and used fiction - a novel and its Hollywood adaptation - to render it toothless. Its main historical figure Newton Knight had been transformed into a borderline hysterical and controlling cotton planter and member of the elite. The story failed to explore what led many of the planter's combatants to follow him. The story barely touched upon the topic of anti-slavery, while including slaves as minor and background characters. And the movie dumped some tepid attempt at a "GONE WITH THE WIND" clone romance to keep movie goers interested. The movie had some virtues. But in the end, the movie vague adaptation of Newton Knight's Civil War experiences simply fell flat. I hope and pray I am never inclined to watch this film again.