Monday, January 6, 2020

Walt Disney's The Swamp Fox

Leslie Nielsen as Swamp Fox.
During its first decade, Walt Disney's television series featured several action-packed episodes about historic American heroes. The most famous example is Davy Crockett, who was played by Fess Parker in five episodes that aired between 1954 and 1955. Its immense popularity led to shows about Texas John Slaughter (a Texas Ranger), Mexican gunfighter and lawyer Elfego Baca, and Francis Marion, the subject of today's review.

Marion served as a lieutenant colonel in the Continental Army during the American Revolution. After the British laid siege to Charleston in 1780, Marion organized a militia that conducted guerrilla-like raids on larger British forces. Marion's ability to evade capture was party due to his knowledge of the South Carolina swamps. That earned him the nickname of The Swamp Fox.

Leslie Nielsen starred as Francis Marion in eight episodes of The Swamp Fox, which aired as part of Walt Disney Presents between 1959 and 1961. In "The Birth of the Swamp Fox," Marion escorts the South Carolina governor and his family to safety after the British invade Charleston. When Marion returns to his home, he learns that a bounty has been placed on his head. He seeks refuge on Snow Island, where he periodically summons other American loyalists to conduct raids on the British Army to free prisoners, steal supplies, etc. 

Joy Page as Mary.
The key members of the Swamp Fox's unit are: his right-hand man, Major Peter Horry (Myron Healey), his brother Gabriel Marion (Dick Foran), Sergeant Jasper (Richard Erdman), and occasionally Oscar (Smoki Whitfield) and young Gabe (Tim Considine). Marion--or Fran as friends call him--is engaged to Mary Videau (Joy Page), whose parents as Tory sympathizers. Mary uses her access to British Army officers to spy for Fran and pass along tactical information.

There's a whole lot of fighting in The Swamp Fox, though there's also time to sit around the campfire and sing songs such as this one:

Swamp Fox, Swamp Fox, tail on his hat 
Nobody knows where the Swamp Fox is at 
Swamp Fox, Swamp Fox, hiding in the glen 
He runs away to fight again

There's no doubt that Walt Disney was hoping that The Swamp Fox would enjoy popularity on the scale of Fess Parker's Davy Crockett. It's colorful, has a somewhat catchy tune, and Leslie Nielsen wears a three-cornered hat with a fox tail. However, The Swamp Fox never captures the Crockett magic. Part of the problem lies with Leslie Nielsen's performance in the title role. He's competent and makes a believable hero, but he lacks the easygoing charm and sincerity that made Fess Parker a TV star. He also lacks a sidekick as entertaining as Buddy Ebsen.

To its credit, The Swamp Fox features a strong heroine with Mary Videau. She may not have a lot of scenes, but her courage speaks for itself (hey, spies were hanged!). It also provides Smoki Whitfield with the opportunity to sing a few songs.

Incidentally, the character of Benjamin Martin, played by Mel Gibson in the 2000 movie The Patriot, was partially based on Francis Marion. Too bad Mel didn't wear a fox tail in his hat--I thought that was a stylish look.


  1. Swamp Fox spurred my interesting in the history of the Revolutionary War. Encyclopedia entries and Johnny Tremaine (the book) followed.

    The hubby and I can both sing that song. It's funny what we find we had in common long before we met.

  2. Fun Facts about Joy Page:

    - She was the stepdaughter of Jack L. Warner, and was married for many years to Wm. T. Orr, who ran Warner's TV operation formuch of that time.

    - When Joy Page became a Warner, and later married Orr, she began phasing out what had been a fairishly successful acting career.

    - Swamp Fox was her first major acting gig in some years; it was seen as a comeback try, but instead turned out to be the finish of her acting career (it happens).

    1. Interesting information about her! I thought she was quite captivating as the heroine.

  3. I loved Swamp Fox when I was a kid, I saw a couple of episodes a few years ago, and it's still entertaining. Leslie Nielsen had a fascinating career.

    1. I remember when he was cast as a movie mogul in the TV series BRACKEN'S WORLD. His character was only heard in the first season, but NBC wanted the show tweaked for season 2 (which turned out to be its last).

  4. Nielsen, a Canadian, started his career in early 1950's TV but moved on to successful leading parts in the movies, most notably as Cmdr. Adams in the sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet. After finding disfavor with the roles he was being offered and auditioning but failing to get the role of Messala in Ben-Hur (which went to Stephen Boyd), he returned to the small screen to portray Marion in The Swamp Fox. His career continued for many years, but his transition to comedic roles in his later years was a revelation to those of us who had grown used to his many dramatic roles in westerns and elsewhere. A truly underrated talent.

  5. The lack of merchandising hook like a coonskin cap hurt the Fox's appeal, as compared to Crockett. But . . .

    Sometimes the actor makes the part, as in the case of Parker and Crockett. In Nielsen's case, it was the other way around. "Airplane!" was what he needed to bring out his true talent.

    It occurs to me reading this review that I was mostly raised on Disney stories. Crockett, Marion, Zorro, Baca, Hardy Boys, Spin and Marty -- this had more of an impact on me than my parents reading Dr. Spock. At least I remember Disney, while the only Spock I can think of now comes from Vulcan.

  6. Neilsen may not have a foxtail in his hat, but I think he looks pretty dapper anyway.

    It's funny how the costumes in the images you posted LOOK like Disney costumes.

  7. I love this show! All of those early Disney series were great to watch...and I actually think that Nielson was a more engaging hero than Davy Crockett, but he did indeed lack a good sidekick. This series, along with Dr. Syn, were released on DVD but are now rare and very expensive to buy.