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  • Writer's pictureNicholas C. Breiner

John Henry: A True Tall Tale

(A brief detour from our series on the history of Pixar films, the following was actually written for a class that I am taking on Storytelling for Social Change. The following reflection references the short film "John Henry and the Railroad: A True Tall Tale" from Whitestone Motion Pictures.)

(Statue of John Henry outside the town of Talcott in Summers County, West Virginia)

This short film focuses on John Henry and his son Jack (who is included both as his young self throughout the course of the story as well as his elder self who serves as the omniscient narrator) and primarily includes nameless support characters in the form of railroad workers, the foreman, and the steam-powered rock drilling machine operator. John, a freed slave, is searching for a means of finding a better life for himself and his son. He finds that means in the form of a railroad project whereupon the company promises 40 acres of land to every man who completes it. Initially, the foreman denies John Henry’s application to work on the crew, saying that they have enough men already. John issues a challenge, saying that he can drive three spikes in three swings of his hammer. The foreman accepts the challenge and John, after following through successfully, is accepted on the crew.

It is at this point that there is a bit of a discrepancy as to the setting of the film. The leg of the railroad that is being built is said to be completed at a “Blue Cut Junction” which, by my research, appears to be entirely fictitious. Conversation analysis of the film seems to place the story in the generic south, which would be more in line with what historians have said about John Henry. Likely historical locations for the race include Big Bend Tunnel near Talcott, West Virginia, Lewis Tunnel in Virginia, and Coosa Mountain Tunnel in Alabama. Buford, at one point in the story, discusses the finding of oil in the area where they are to be given land, which would support the film being set in West Virginia, given the regular oil strikes in the 19th century throughout the region. However, when the race is introduced later in the story, the narrator mentions the O&H Railroad being the project they’ve been working on. This would place their project in New York on the Owego-Hartford Line. Most likely an oversight, I imagine the direction of the film was more intended towards the generic south, likely hinting largely at West Virginia.

Later in the story, nearing the completion of the project near Blue Cut Junction, the company sends a steam-powered rock drilling machine (essentially an early jackhammer) that is intended to replace the team for the remainder of the project, meaning that they will not get paid for their work. John issues another challenge to save himself and his comrades from being cheated out of being paid for their months of hard work. He challenges the operator of the machine to a race between him and the machine. If the machine won, he and his crew mates would leave without fuss. If the men won, the machine would be sent back to the company and the crew would be paid what they were due. The race ultimately includes the digging of a tunnel through a mountain, for which John sends Jack to retrieve his “big hammers” and, in so doing, reiterates his earlier lessons to him that, when faced with adversity, you should never quit. Instead, he says, life should be greeted with “grit, sweat, and love” (which ultimately becomes the lesson of the tale). After a hard-fought battle, John beats the machine, securing the hard-earned wages of himself and every man on his crew. The legend says that, at this point, John dies with hammer in hand as his heart gives out to stress. The film, however, goes on to state that John lived a long happy life, re-forged his hammers into a guitar, and passed it down to his son Jack (now revealed to be the narrator) so that he could go forth and sing the Ballad of John Henry.

When we look at the antagonist/protagonist relationship in this story, there can be debate as to exactly who the antagonist is. John, of course, is the hero of our story. Our protagonist. Our antagonist however is a bit more nebulous. Initially, the conflict is presented through the foreman who denies John entry to the crew. Later in the story, the conflict comes from the introduction of the machine and its nameless operator. Neither these men, nor machine, however, are actually the antagonists of this story. The conflict in the legend of John Henry is not Man vs. Man but, rather, Man vs. Society. The story takes place in the 1870s and John, a relatively freshly freed slave, is carrying hammers forged from the chains that once bound him. John is the embodiment of the spirit of determination of the African American people. The world he is thrown into is predisposed to be against him. Every step of the way, John must work twice as hard as the next man to get half the recognition. These are the values that John instills in his son in the film. That, no matter the adversity, “we don’t quit.” Ultimately then, the story becomes a lesson in grit and determination. A message that rings true and valuable for every generation. Our current times, certainly, are no exception.

(The film, "John Henry and the Railroad: A True Tall Tale" is embedded below)

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