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"The world needed John Brown and John Brown came, and time will do him justice." Frederick Douglass (1886)

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Saturday, July 10, 2010

John Brown in "Abe Lincoln in Illinois"

A.L. in the ILL

Although both John Brown and Abraham Lincoln have been frequently portrayed in film and television it is no surprise that Brown's overall portrayal has been negative, while Lincoln's has been heroic.  However, from my perspective, one of the most interesting if not positive portrayals of Brown is found in the 1940 RKO Radio Pictures film, "Abe Lincoln in Illinois," starring Raymond Massey as Lincoln, Ruth Gordon as Mary Todd Lincoln, and Gene Lockhart as Abe's rival, the "Little Giant," Stephen Douglas (By the way, I once read a quote from [I think?] Charles Sumner, who described Douglas as being a greasy, smelly man in need of a "shower-bath."  TMI?]  Notwithstanding the license that screenplay writers take with history--including this one by Grover Jones, based upon the play of the same name by Robert E. Sherwood, and notwithstanding my belief that Lincoln is highly overrated as slavery and racism are concerned, this is an enjoyable film.  It certainly shows the frustration that Old Abe had with Mary, who was quite a difficult woman by all accounts.  Students of John Brown's portrayal in film will immediately recognize that Massey switched boots to play John Brown the same year in the horrendously pro-Confederate feature film, "Santa Fe Trail."  Subsequently, Massey reprised his role as Brown in "Seven Angry Men" (1950), equally problematic but at least it was not as worshipful and adoring of the Slave South and its leaders as "Santa Fe Trail."

JB at Hollywood Ferry's Engine House

In "Abe Lincoln in Illinois," there is actually a couple of minutes devoted to John Brown, a vignette that is introduced by a montage of newspaper headlines about the Dred Scott decision, the Kansas imbroglio, and finally John Brown's raid at Harper's Ferry. At this point the portrayal is highly stylized and nothing follows the actual course of events that took place: after the ramming of the Harper's Ferry engine house doors is shown, the marines (looking more like regular army) storm in, without being fired upon; the engine house is huge compared to the actual structure; there are no visible hostages, and only one black man standing near Brown unarmed; Robert E. Lee personally addresses John Brown as his prisoner; there is no violent marine assault, although Brown is portrayed with a big gash on his forehead; instead, Brown stands holding a dying son (who seems to represent both sons lost in the raid), whose body is resting upon some sacks of whatever; then this "informational" dialogue:
Lee:  Are you John Brown?
JB: I am, Sir, “Osawatomie” John Brown. . . .
JB’s dying son:  Don’t try to fight ‘em anymore. . . .
Lee:  I place you under arrest for treason, for bearing arms against the government of the United States.
JB:  I’d like to ask who’s making this arrest?
Lee:  I am Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee of the 2nd Calvary, acting under orders from President Buchanan.
JB’s dying son:  It’s no use, Pa, you gotta give in to them.  Somebody else’s has gotta finish this job. His head drops backward in death.
JB:  Very well Colonel, I submit to this arrest, knowing full well that I shall hang for this attempt to end the evil of slavery.  But after I’m dead, the evil will remain, and you and all other patriots will learn it can be purged from this guilty world, only with blood. (Looking down at the body of his dead boy)  Goodbye, my son.
JB lets go of the body, which falls lifelessly to the ground, and walks determinedly out of the engine house
Obviously the writing here is trite, full of information for the viewer, and intended to validate Lincoln's rising role as the so-called Great Emancipator.  Grover Jones, who wrote the screenplay, particularly does this by having John Brown's dying son say, "Somebody else has gotta finish this job."

For the Record

As the historical record goes, the scene seems a bit silly.  Brown's bloody gash is inexplicable, since he actually received his head wound after the marines broke through the engine house doors.  He did not walk out of the engine house a prisoner, but was dragged out unconscious after being bludgeoned by Lt. Israel Green and probably stabbed by another marine, who fortunately dealt no mortal wound. In fact, the intention of the marines was to give no quarter. (Brown wrote to his wife that he had sustained wounds from a bayonet too--not just the bruises received by Green's sword hilt.)  To be sure, the marines were being fired upon, but their orders were to kill all the white men inside (except the hostages, of course) but to take care not to kill any of the blacks--after all, they were property.  It must be embarrassing to the marines that not even two of them could kill John Brown when he was on the ground, without a weapon, and fairly well laid out.  Semper Fi?  No, Uncle Sam, Deus est imperium.

Somewhat odd too is the presence of a black man alongside Brown and Lee, the whole time looking on without saying a word.  He is a symbol that evidently serves the "official" (i.e., slave master) version of the Harper's Ferry raid, namely, that only few blacks followed Brown, and even they did so out of fear of Brown's violence.  This view, conveyed to the North through the pro-slavery New York Herald, has largely gone unquestioned until Jean Libby, Barrie Stavis, and a few other truth-tellers searched the evidence and found Osborne Anderson's testimony as vindicating Brown's expectations of black support.

Cromwell's Brown

Despite all of these errors and self-serving liberties taken by the screenplay writer, the stylized portrayal of Brown is nevertheless positive and dignified.  Interestingly, the actor playing Brown in this vignette is not even listed in the film credits, but according to The Internet Movie Database (IMDb), the actor portraying Brown is none other than the director of the film, John Cromwell (1887-1979).  This may help to explain the quality of heroism and dignity that Brown receives in this otherwise stylized vignette of the engine house assault.  An Ohioan like Brown, Cromwell was a stage and screen actor as well as a director. Cromwell was president of the Screen Directors Guild from 1944-46, but had to endure political persecution between 1951-58 when he was blacklisted as a result of the so-called House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), a political witch-hunt targeting Leftists that began in 1947 and bullied Hollywood for a decade or more.  Perhaps this helps us understand why Cromwell's John Brown is not a mad, delirious, or raving fanatic.  He is first the father of a dying son, then a man who speaks with a certain authority, and in this case his being presented as conscious and purpose of mind actually serves the facts of history; and despite defeat, Cromwell's Brown walks out of the engine house to face the Virginia gallows with the bearing and dignity that the real John Brown actually displayed from the time of his capture until the moment he mounted the gallows.

Lincoln?  Who's He?

After the John Brown vignette, the movie fades into a scene with Stephen Douglas and democratic associates.  A portion of the dialogue is worth transcribing:
Douglass seated at his desk, reading the paper
Douglass: (Speaking to himself) Another fanatic has gone to meet his maker.  Why can’t these anti-slavery fools mind their own business?
Three associates burst into the room
Associate 1: Senator Douglas, the message you’ve been waiting for.  Telegram from Springfield.  They’ve nominated Abraham Lincoln to run against the Senator this fall (laughs)  My heartiest congratulations.
Associate 2:  Lincoln?  Who’s he?

Associate 3: What are they doing, giving you the election? (laughter)
Douglas: So Abe Lincoln had decided at last to come out and fight—
Associate 1:  It’s the best thing that could have happened to us!
Associate 3:  How does this Lincoln stand on slavery?
Associate 1:  Nobody knows, least of all Lincoln himself.  He’s the most undecided, hesitatingest critter you ever saw!
Associate 3:  Good, we don’t want that slave issue brought up in Illinois this year.
Associate 1:  You can count on old Abe, he’s just what we want—a peaceful man.
Douglas: We’ll start the campaign at once.  I’m going back to Springfield and I want an unprecedented welcome when I get there. . . .
How does Lincoln stand on slavery?  Nobody knows, least of all Lincoln himself!  The facetious remark, portrayed as coming from the mouth of a democrat, carries a lot of historical weight.  Contrary to what many people have been taught in school, Lincoln did not go to Washington D.C. with a personal agenda to end slavery.  He went to save the Union and his position on slavery was subject to the political prerequisites of preserving the Union and the priorities of white society, North and South.  

John Brown went to Harper's Ferry with only one intention: ending slavery. There was no need to speculate as to his position on racism and chattel slavery.  It was his intention to destroy it.  Obviously, Lincoln did not have the political luxury to attack slavery as John Brown did, but it is significant that he showed his willingness to compromise with the South regarding slavery through much of the Civil War.  So one cannot excuse him merely on the basis of the comprehensive demands that the presidency made upon him, in contrast to John Brown's free agency.  What was Lincoln's position on slavery in 1859?  Nobody was sure.  It would take four years of civil bloodletting and the force of history to shove him forward along the path that Brown had long before trod with a willing soul.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Hi Lou,
Thanks for the clip from the movie. It's been so long since I saw that film that I completely forgot our man Brown was in it. And you are absolutely right-the most dignified and sympathetic portrayal of Brown in films of the era despite its rewrite of the historical details. At least the engine house exterior actually looks like the real thing, although once again they give it a vast interior compared to the 'garage' it actually is.
We miss you and Michele. -Greg & Terry