Enjoyment surprisingly found in artful retelling of tall tale

Movie reviewers and film-goers alike, were pleasantly surprised by sincere retelling of "John Henry and the Railroad."

From a war between angels and vampires, to intergalactic infomercials, to the wild west; Block C of the Salt Lake City Filmquest did not disappoint during its showing last week.

Audiences enjoyed eight different short films, all with a unique, fantastic story to tell. But even amid the beautifully crafted "Lessons Learned," which was filmed entirely with puppets, and the uniquely presented "Indigo," which shows the mirrored and incomplete life of two lovers, there was one film in particular that stood out.

"John Henry and the Railroad," directed by Brandon McCormick is exactly what you hope for when you watch a short film. Was it perfect? No, but it was still exactly what you hope for.

The film, as it will so lovingly tell you in the first few moments, is “the true tall tale of John Henry. Yes, that John Henry from the railroad story.”

I don’t know about most people, but there is almost nothing that will make my mind shut off quicker than a miserable, predicable, tall tale. I can probably blame that on a grade school teacher who failed to instill in me a love for them, but regardless, they’re basically the worst. And it seems like director Brandon McCormick is not only aware of that stigma, but also hoping for it.

Right from the beginning he essentially says, “Oh you hate tall tales? Well let me change your mind.” He does this with an innocence and earnestness that is palpable throughout the duration of the 20-minute film.

The film starts with a banjo-holding narrator telling us a bit about the story. John Henry was a freed slave, and he was searching for a new life with his son. One day, they find a group of misfits building a railroad out west. It turns out the government is giving land to anybody who helps complete the railroad in time. John Henry wants to own a nice farm out west where he can raise his son, and he asks to join their crew. With no interest in sharing the land, however, they decline. That is, until John makes a wager. If he can hammer in three railroad nails with three hammer swings, then he and his son are allowed to join the team.

Even without knowing the source material, it isn’t hard to guess that John wins the bet. He and his son begin helping build the railroad, and all seems to be going well. That is, until “the machine” shows up. Unless John and his team can prove they’re faster than the machine, they’re off the job and their future land is gone. Once again, as expected, our hero succeeds and accomplishes his dreams.

The film hits every beat you expect it to, and it offers no surprises. It also explicitly tells us what we’re supposed to learn rather than trusting that we will come up with it ourselves. Basically, it changes nothing about what we’ve come to expect from a fable or tall tale of any kind. Except … it does is so sincerely and unapologetically that it still mostly works.

Through some very honest performances, beautiful visuals, and a memorable soundtrack, the film teaches us that even a tall tale has quite a bit to offer. Even if we see right through the parable, and are left looking straight at the life-lesson, we still might enjoy both the story and the message if we just give it a chance.

Jennifer is the Audience Development Director for the Daily Herald.

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