The Real Tall Tale of ‘John Henry and the Railroad’ – A Short Film

In most versions of the famous tall tale, John Henry was 7 feet tall and could drive a hammer faster than any man alive. When a powerful machine threatens his job on the railroad, Henry competes against the machine and wins. Although Henry takes a beating and inevitably dies after the competition, his story is one of hope and perseverance. In the short film John Henry and the Railroad, filmmakers Brandon McCormack and Nicholas Kirk choose to tell the story a bit differently.

This is not the actual true story of John Henry; it’s the ‘real’ tall tale… which means it’s still a tall tale. Not much is known about the real man, although some think he was a prisoner assigned to work on a railroad tunnel near West Virginia (or possibly Alabama). The theory is that the real Henry did compete against a machine, but not much more is known beyond that.

In the short film John Henry and the Railroad, Henry is a smaller man who takes a job with the railroad after being freed from slavery. He is good with a hammer and earns the respect of his co-workers almost immediately. It’s been promised that if the men can lay track fast enough to reach their target goal, they will each be given land of their own. Henry and the team work mercilessly to achieve their goal when a machine threatens their jobs. As expected, John Henry takes on the machine, but what happens as a result is something you’ll need to see for yourself:

This is the tale of John Henry. The one from the railroad story. Legend goes that John Henry was a freed slave. John took his only son out looking for work. He was out to make a new life for himself. He heard somethin’ about railroad work needing to be done. So that’s where he went. But trouble was just around the bend.

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