What?! No “love” for John Brown?!

Posted on May 16, 2010 by


Just an observation, but May 9 came and went a week ago today with not so much as one post about John Brown. Actually, until earlier this week, I didn’t have a clue that JB was born on May 9 (hmmm, a stubborn Taurus…). Rather, Brown had been defined, at least in my “memory”, by his efforts at Harper’s Ferry.

This year marks his 110th birthday, but, I suppose as America’s most well-known domestic terrorist, he won’t be getting his own day on the National calendar. Before anyone flies off the handle here, let me be clear. For his raid on Harper’s Ferry, I see JB as guilty of treason, of that there is no doubt. Likewise, I believe that he was beyond passionate for his cause, even fitting well into the definition of fanatic. On the other hand, I see his cause (an explosive catalyst in the road to the freedom of slaves) as having foundations in the law of morality… but then, I’m writing as someone who lives in the beginning of the 21st century. I would say that the majority of us find no sympathy for those who wish to hold others in slavery, but would we go so far as to advocate something akin to John Brown’s raid (and his extended plan) today? Best not to answer that, because we cannot today, put ourselves anywhere near the mindset that existed at the time. I would be willing to bet that my own people from that time, from the central Shenandoah Valley, to western Maryland, and into southern Pa., were incredibly unnerved when word of Brown’s efforts hit the streets.

Yet, May 9 is not the date on which this event took place. It is his date of birth, and with it comes a curiosity for John Brown, the overall man, not simply defined by one or two events in which he was the central figure. I think the first time I became aware of Brown was when I was quite young, watching Santa Fe Trail. Thus, Raymond Massey’s portrayal of Brown set my tone of understanding, at least for a number of years. That long, intense gaze cut through the air like a laser and gave the impression that Brown was quite mad.

This started me thinking… has anyone really ever completely nailed a portrayal of the man in any big screen or television performances? Frankly, I think it would be hard to say if anyone ever has or ever would. We have various works that help to frame a picture for us (…and since we are in the midst of David Hunter Strother’s “Recollections of the Civil War”, take a look at the account of events as written by David Hunter Strother, and introduced by Boyd B. Stutler in his article from 1955 for American Heritage Magazine), and we even have a criminologist who gave us an interesting behavioral analysis. So, allow me to rephrase my question… based on the compilation of written works, has anyone come close to giving us a good on-screen picture of Brown?

The first real screen portrayal that comes to mind is Raymond Massey in Santa Fe Trail (1940). Despite criticism of the comments of one of a portrayal of a female slave in the film (specifically, her comment, “Mr. Brown done promised us freedom, but… if this is freedom, I don’t want no part of it”), I believe that those held in slavery at the time had mixed opinions, and this comment could well reflect one of those opinions. (I prefer the B&W version over the color, and this clip happens to be in B&W… much better!).

Also in that year, there was a brief appearance by John Cromwell as JB in Abe Lincoln in Illinois (apparently, this was so forgettable that I need to go back and see it again just so I can see how little space is taken-up by the portrayal). Sorry to say, I can’t find a clip of Cromwell’s performance on YouTube…

I have yet to see Seven Angry Men (1955) in which Raymond Massey reprised his role as Brown, but, in the second performance, I understand that he gave “the role the right mixture of fanaticism and normality the part requires”… (fortunately, someone was obsessed enough with Debra Paget to want to post at least portions of this movie in YouTube). I am planning on watching this film for the first time in the coming week.

Then, in 1982, there was the portrayal by Sterling Hayden in The Blue and the Gray (1982)… another performance that doesn’t seem to stand out in my memory. (As in the case of the Brown portrayal in Abe Lincoln in Illinois, I can’t find a clip for this movie on YouTube).

Finally (I believe, at least so far), we have Johnny Cash as JB in Book 1, Episode 5 of North and South (1985).

So, who does it best? All the other historical inaccuracies aside, who is closest to the real John Brown?

Oh, and on a side note… it appears that Quentin Tarantino stated on two occasions (2007 and 2009) that he would like to write, direct, and star in a film about JB. I think this is probably more than a little disturbing to a number of folks who would prefer a historically accurate portrayal of Brown, based on solid studies.