18 April 2004 | theowinthrop
Mr. Massey's second chance at "Old Ossawattomie"
In 1940 Raymond Massey was at the peak of his film stardom. Born in Canada (the half-brother of Canadian Governor General Vincent Massey), he had established his stardom in England, and appeared in the film THINGS TO COME (1936). He appeared on Broadway in ETHAN FROME and ABE LINCOLN IN ILLINOIS, and the latter was made into a film in 1940 that garnered him an Oscar nomination. He also appeared in SANTA FE TRAIL as the abolitionist revolutionary John Brown. He brought a vividness and commitment to that part that made him (not Errol Flynn as Jeb Stuart) the center of attention. But the script, culminating in the attack on Harper's Ferry in October 1859, was wobbly - trying to placate southern audiences by suggesting the South would have solved the slavery issue without pressure from the North or the abolition movement. For most of the film Massey's Brown is a dangerous nut who is threatening the nation's peace - a fanatic that is striving to cause a slave revolt or war, and has killed several men. No attempt at balance is offered, or even any attempt at Brown's medical history (he had insanity in his family). Only in the last fifteen minutes is Massey's Brown redeemed when a worst type of villain (Van Heflin as a greedy instigator and traitor) betrays Brown's cause. We may not like violence, but Massey is supporting a view of life (anti-slave) that we approve of, whereas Heflin would betray anyone for money (he previously worked for Brown).
SEVEN ANGRY MEN (1955) is Massey's second Brown film. Though it still has flaws in retelling Brown's story, it does attempt to show that the forces he faced in Kansas were as violent in a pro-slavery way as he was. We do get a chance to see a cleaned up version of the Ossawattomie Creek massacre, where Brown killed five men (actually cutting them to bits with a sword). And more details are gone into about Brown's planning and financing of the Harper's Ferry attack. Finally, the relations between Brown and his sons, and the sullen dislike of the latter for their father's views, is brought out. Although this is not the definitive Brown film (that still remains to be made) it is a great improvement over the waffling of SANTA FE TRAIL, with Massey still giving the role the right mixture of fanaticism and normality the part requires.