Here Nelson develops some casting ideas for a feature film adaptation of his book:
The John Henry that worked alongside a steam drill between 1871 and 1873 was five feet 1 and 1/4th inches tall. It seems impossible, but it turns out that short stature was a necessary attribute for tunnel drivers. I could see Ving Rhames in the role, of course, but that would be the John Henry of myth, the powerful steel drivin’ man that emerged by the 1920s. Given that John Henry was a convict and quite young, we can’t assume that he had Rhames’s build. While neither actor is that short, I could see the actors Andre Braugher (of Gideon’s Crossing but also the movie Get on the Bus) or D.B. Woodside (who was the President Palmer in 24 and Principal Robin Wood in Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Both have the dramatic range to appear wounded, angry, and tragically courageous. What would motivate a man to engage in a contest with a steam drill? Certainly he could have been forced to, but there would also have to be a little hubris and perhaps the understanding that his victory might make him the subject of a hundred folk songs.Learn more about Steel Drivin' Man at the Oxford University Press website.
Who could play Polly Ann, the woman, a convict herself perhaps, who drove steel after John Henry died? I imagine her as light-skinned, blue-eyed, and a good dramatic actor. Theresa Randle (of Girl 6 fame) or Rosario Dawson (of Sin City and Men in Black II) would be terrific I think.
As for Lieutenant Burd, the man with the hole in his forehead who put John Henry in prison on what appeared to be trumped-up charges? It would have to be a high-energy, but controlled and slightly disturbed character: Eric Stoltz, perhaps (remembering Pulp Fiction and The House of Mirth) or even Kiefer Sutherland.
I have always seen Harvey Keitel in my mind when I think of Major C.R. Mason, the ex-Confederate contractor who drove the workers back into the tunnels after the nitroglycerin blasts. A reporter described Mason as “a short, stout, firmly built man, with a head like a Senator’s, plain of dress, direct and brief of speech, with that undeniable air of ease that comes to a man who has acquired all he knows from experience….” To me, that sounds like Harvey Keitel, a man who plays ruthless, unpolished characters.
Collis Potter Huntington, the man who made a second fortune from John Henry’s tunneling would have to be withdrawn, intense, smug, and entirely unprincipled. It would be a good dramatic role for Steve Martin, who resembles him very slightly, though a more obvious choice would be Philip Seymour Hoffman (who starred in Capote and was Reverend Veasey in Cold Mountain).
My students at William & Mary have told me that if I were to appear in the film discovering the postcard that led to John Henry’s burial place that I would have to be played by Will Ferrell who the students say looks like me. I can’t see the resemblance myself.
A lot of folks have suggested that the story of John Henry as I’ve reconstructed it is structured like a movie. After I won the National Award for Fine Arts, I heard that one of the judges, Joyce Carol Oates, thought that the story was so moving and dramatically paced that I should give up history and become a novelist. If only I could! While I like thinking about character and motivation, I cannot plot the way a novelist can. I think the strangest, most horrible and beautiful plots come from actual events. That makes history the best place for me. I will keep my day job.
Who would direct the film? Spike Lee would be a great choice, as would Brian De Palma. But what do I know? I’m only a historian.
The Page 69 Test: Steel Drivin' Man.