Mighty Man Born with a Hammer Right in His Hand

Walt Disney’s “John Henry” (2000).

Disney classics are known to put a fairytale ending into serious and sometimes gruesome stories. This makes it easier for parents to allow their children to watch and absorb the information given about these characters. Growing up in America, Disney becomes the central program that shares old stories in a way people in the current generation would enjoy, whether it is through TV shows on the channels or movies/films. As a child, I grew up watching Cinderella (1950), The Little Mermaid (1989), Mulan (1998) and many more Disney movies thinking that all of these characters were made to live happily ever after.

It’s disappointing to discover that Disney lied to these kids (including me), protecting them from the harsh truth. The original stories take on a whole different persona with a dark twist/end. Cinderella’s step sisters didn’t just try on the glass slipper and accept the fact that they did not fit into it. They chopped off toes and spilled blood to marry this supposed Prince Charming. Ariel was not magically given human legs from her father; she sold her soul to be with one who did not love her then died later on (Grimm’s Fairy Tales). Mulan very much so a hero in all versions of the story but was not unskilled in weaponry nor did she replace her father in the war against Mongolians (Scribe). Childhood ruined.

I wanted to go through the list of films that were ruined because of its hidden truth. The Disney writers created a short animation film called John Henry (2000) and sprinkled their fairytale dust into the story. The director, Mark Henn, said that the legend of John Henry was one of his favorite stories as a child. After his finished production of Mulan, he wanted to bring the John Henry tale to life. During the process of creating this film, the crew visited the site in which the tale was born, Tolcott, West Virginia (Walt Disney Animation Studios Short Film Collections). I won’t criticize the entire piece because they did keep parts of the film accurate with the time period, but there are changes that were made to make it “Disney approved”.

Disney’s ten minute short film, John Henry, is a tall tale about an African American man freed from slavery. He happened to fall into a railroad track building project. Land was promised to the workers if they were able to complete the railroad passed the mountains before the sun sets. With the upbeat songs, John Henry is depicted as a large man wielding a steel hammer capable of producing the amount of strength equal to ten workers. He continued the labor of building the railroad when the other workers were tired and unable to finish the task, risking their chances of owning 50 acres of land each. John Henry’s presence revitalized the worker’s energy, helping them move on with the project. The end was bright with hope when a steam powered hammer suddenly arrives to replace the men, burning the contract promising them the land. John Henry challenges the steam powered hammer to a race; man versus machine. The machine unexpectedly broke its way through solid rock of the mountain, forcing John Henry to do the same with two hammers. Man wins this challenge in the end but sacrifices its biggest asset. John Henry collapses into his wife, Polly’s arms and passes away from over-exhaustion with a hammer in hand. Because of his efforts, his wife and son are able to live a promised-land life with the thunder in the sky to remind them of his mighty swing of the steel hammer.

Some minor tweaks to the story were made to keep it PG. The film made it seem like the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves and therefore all people were no longer bound to slavery. Polly, John Henry’s wife, even mentioned it a couple of times to emphasize the fact that they were legally free. They were married in the South and travelled to the North where they stayed. It was known during the late 1860s that it was not easy for Black people to travel freely as Polly and John Henry did. Black codes after 1865 were just as harsh as slave codes. It’s also important to mention that keeping in contact with loved ones was difficult while enslaved. Spouses lost contact with each other ¾ of the time (Pittman, 2015). Unless the couple was on the same plantation, which was rare, I think there would have been more of a struggle to find their spouse. Just sayin’. Another part Disney changed was the way John Henry died. Yes, his heart gave out from the stress of powering through solid rock, but Polly told her son in the film that John Henry died with a smile on his face and hammer in hand. The tale of John Henry didn’t mention anything about a smile. I’m sure he was exhausted by the time he got to the other side of the mountain.

Scenes from “John Henry” (2000).

The opening scene did an excellent job adding in details about African American cultural practices during slavery. Quilting was a common form of preserving a story as well as providing hidden hints as to an escape route. The title of the film was stitched into the quilt as the narrator, Polly, told of the struggles as a slave. She and her man, John Henry, were born into slavery as per slave code during that year. They were kept apart from each other, again due to slave code. At that point, the film showed a white man’s hand holding a whip with the whipping sound in the background to indicate that there was punishment for them being seen together. This was a slave owner’s way of not recognizing the slaves’ marriage and controlling their lives in a total institution (Pittman, 2015). The next part was the 13th amendment signed by Abraham Lincoln freeing the slaves. John Henry is shown breaking the chains that bound him to slavery. Polly took those broken pieces and forged them into a steel hammer as a wedding gift. They married and completed the ceremony by jumping the broom, a ritual African American slaves carried out to make the marriage complete (Dunaway, 117-118). Off to find a job when they come across the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway, a railroad sight built from 1869 to 1873 (Wikipedia). The poor treatment of these working men was clear when the deadline was moved to a ridiculous time, ridding them of their chances of owning land. Most of those men were Black or mulatto, working their way to the “promised land”. African American people, although legally free, were still trapped under the racist Jim Crow laws, giving them little freedom and respect as they worked laborious jobs.

This tall tale was passed down from generation to generation through poems, stories, song, and other forms of art. Disney included an upbeat song to communicate the tale to the younger audience. As an adult, I found it quite catchy. The main points of John Henry were pretty much on target but seeing as though it was meant for children, the writers couldn’t add in the gruesome details of the slave’s lives and how they were treated. Typical for Disney films. Now I’m wondering what other children films are hiding when they retell folklore.


Written by: Alina Chuong


Dunaway, William A. “Reproductive Exploitation and Child Mortality.” The African-American Family in Slavery and Emancipation. N.P.: Cambridge UP, N.D. 117-118. Print.

Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Web. 15 November 2015. <http://www.grimmstories.com/en/grimm_fairy-tales/index>.

Pittman, LaShawnDa (2015). Paradigm, Diaspora, and Constraints [Prezi Presentation].

Scribe, The. The Ancient Standard. Lifeline Design, 17 June 2011. Web. 15 November 2015. <http://ancientstandard.com/2011/06/17/the-real-story-of-mulan/>.

“John Henry (folklore).” Wikipedia. Web. 15 November 2015. < https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Henry_(folklore)>.

Walt Disney Animation Studios Short Films Collection: John Henry. Dir. Henn, Mark. Perf. Woodard, Alfre, Jones, Geoffrey, Hodge, Tim, Murray, Dave. Walt Disney Pictures, 2000. Film.

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