Swamp Fox, Swamp Fox, tail on his hat
Nobody knows where the Swamp Fox’s at
Swamp Fox, Swamp Fox, hiding in the glen
He rides away to fight again
If you have seen the show, I have just gotten that song stuck in your head, where it will likely remain for days. If you haven’t, you are looking at this blankly. This ditty, sung by none other than series star Leslie Nielsen, is the most insidious Disney earworm this side of Small World. It’s also one of those songs that’s in-universe; the characters sing it as sort of a Carolinas version of “Yankee Doodle.” It’s intended to get under the skin of the Redcoats, presumably because they themselves will not be able to stop singing it.
This show was, in my opinion, yet another attempt on the part of the fine folks at Disney to reproduce their unexpected success with Davy Crockett. In this case, we bring you Revolutionary War general Francis Marion, brought to the small screen by everyone’s favourite Canadian immigrant. (Nielsen was, I believe, a US citizen by this point.) He uses his wily guerilla tactics to outwit Colonel Tarleton (John Sutton) and General Cornwallis (Robert Douglas) in the cause of American independence. His betrothed, Mary Videau (Barbara Eiler), is for most of the series believed to be a Tory and therefore is able to funnel him information.
The problem, of course, is that the historical Francis Marion isn’t the charming, rather Zorro-like figure we get here. The historical Francis Marion was, not to put too fine a point on it, a terrorist. Which is why he’s kind of an odd choice for this treatment, even in the ’50s and ’60s. The South Carolina government actually gave him orders to execute any escaped slaves fighting for the British, and he was apparently not exactly sorry to be going against the Cherokee. After the war, he apparently actually borrowed money to buy slaves to replace the ones who had escaped while he was fighting the British.
I actually groaned out loud when I discovered that his first biography was written by Mason Weems, in fact. Mason Weems, also known as Parson Weems, is one of the great liars of American history. Half the lies accepted as history about the Founding Fathers seem to stem from Weems; if there’s a charming story you’ve heard about George Washington, Weems probably made it up. No wonder we remember the dashing outlaw type, not the man who offered the plunder of Tories’ property as an incentive to join him.
All in all, you kind of wonder why they didn’t just finish fictionalizing him. It’s hardly surprising that no mention is made of the fact that Mary—who, yes, he did end up marrying—was his cousin. And the “s-word” is never mentioned; those are servants. What else could they possibly be? Heck, it’s definitely possible, in most episodes, to read Oscar (Smoki Whitfield) as being a freeman who was fighting on the side of the rebels because he believed in American independence. Indeed, the show even goes out of its way to give Joseph (Clarence Muse) room for his grief when his son is killed for carrying messages for Marion. It’s a little less heartwarming when you know that Marion was killing other men’s sons for carrying messages for the British.
Clearly, this is why the series has never received a proper release and is unavailable on Disney+. In fact, I was unable to watch the full series in preparation for this—I found it on YouTube, which is why I’m writing about it. Someone had recorded it off The Disney Channel, I strongly suspect when they did Vault Disney in the late ’90s and early ’00s, and you can see in the video where the tape ran out. It’s missing about the last ten minutes of “A Case of Treason” and is missing “A Woman’s Courage” and “Horses for Greene” entirely.
Divorced from Francis Marion, the show is really exciting and entertaining. It actually gives its black characters personality—at least as much as most of the white characters have, anyway, which is admittedly not much. Mary is bright and clever, as is Delia (Louise Beavers). There are a few unexpected twists to the story. And if the garrison in the episode I couldn’t finish looked not unlike the cuartel from Zorro, well, those sets were well constructed, and why not reuse them?
It’s got a really grim sequence wherein his orphan nephew, Young Gabe (played by Disney regular Tim Considine), is found in uniform. He is captured, flogged, and executed. The killer, who is also responsible for the death of Joseph’s son, is then killed by Gwynn (Hal Stalmaster, who played Johnny Tremain) in revenge for the death of Gwynn’s family. Not exactly light fare, here. At least, not entirely. Mostly, it’s a lot of gallivanting around the swamps of South Carolina, trying to confound the British. There’s absolutely no reason to tie it to real history and quite a lot of reason not to.