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Western Animation / The Legend of John Henry

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The Legend of John Henry is a 1974 animated short film (11 minutes) directed by Steven Weiss.

It is one of many adaptations of the John Henry myth. John Henry is a steel-drivin' man, with a wife named Polly and a baby. As a child he pounded the rails with his hammer, and when he grew up he became a railroad worker. One day, the railroad John was working on came up to a mountain. The railroad bosses decide that the train must go through the mountain, and so John Henry and the rest of the crew go to work. When the bosses, unsatisfied with the pace, decide to employ a steam drill to drill through the mountain, John Henry takes it as a personal challenge, and decides to beat the machine.

Other animated shorts based on John Henry include John Henry and the Inky-Poo and Disney's John Henry.



  • Animated Adaptation: Of the John Henry legend.
  • Downer Ending: John Henry dies, with his hammer in his hand.
  • Dreaming of Things to Come: Polly dreams of John Henry lying dead on the railroad tracks. When he refuses her plea to leave the steam drill and come home, she leaves, knowing that he will die.
  • The Ken Burns Effect: Most of the cartoon is animated, but there are some scenes that use still drawings. Those drawings are always lived up by panning or zooming Ken Burns-style.
  • Man Versus Machine: One of the iconic examples. John Henry takes on a steam drill, and wins the race by drilling through the mountain by himself, only to keel over and die immediately after winning.
  • Named by the Adaptation: Here, the steam drill is called the Inky-poo.
  • Narrator: Roberta Flack! Flack, then a queen of easy listening FM radio, narrates all the action (there is no dialogue), mostly in song.
  • Advertisement:
  • Pyrrhic Victory: Certainly not worth it.
  • Repeat Cut: Two repeated shots of John Henry keeling over in death after hammering his way through the mountain.
  • Staggered Zoom: Three staggered shots into John Henry's face after the railroad boss says the railroad will have to go through the mountain.
  • Tempting Fate: John Henry says that rather than allow the steam drill to beat him, "I'll hammer myself to death." He does.