I’m planning to visit Sleepy Hollow, New York, in about a week, and it’s got me thinking of an issue that my wife and I recently debated: Is Brom Bones, the character in Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” a bully? She says he is. Ever eager to pick nits, I say he’s much more a rascal than a bully. Something like Tom Sawyer using his wits to trick other boys into whitewashing a fence, Brom perceptively targets Icabod Crane’s gullibility when duping him into leaving town. Though he’s described as burly, even Herculean, Brom never uses physical force. And he’s far more clever than cruel, far more mischievous than malicious.
Of course, all of this hinges on the idea that Brom masquerades as the Headless Horseman at the tale’s denouement, and Irving leaves the door slightly open in regard to who or what chased the terrified Icabod on that fateful night. But I see Irving’s 1820 tale as fundamentally similar to other ghost stories from the early 1800s in that it provides a rational explanation for the ghostly encounter. There’s “The Barber’s Ghost,” for example, or the literary legend of Antoinette du Ligier de la Garde Deshoulières. Like the protagonists in these narratives, Brom is the skeptic who knows the ghost isn’t real, though Irving makes his cautionary tale about the folly of superstition a lot more memorable.
I began to wonder what gave Brom the reputation of being a bully, and movies came to mind. The film versions of Frankenstein appear to have convinced many people that electricity is central to bringing the creature to life in Mary Shelley’s novel, even though it’s not mentioned there. (There’s the important young-Victor-observes-a-tree-struck-by-lightening scene, but that’s electricity bringing death. Otherwise, Victor is adamant about not explaining how his experiment succeeded for fear that others might reproduce its monstrous results.) Assuming that a movie titled Headless Horseman, from 1922, is one of the very first cinema adaptations of Irving’s story, I gave it a look.
First, it’s not a great movie. Yeah, it’s interesting to see Will Rogers play Icabod Crane, though it’s not clear why he was cast other than his star power. There are only fleeting scraps in the script for him to be funny, and he doesn’t fit Irving’s description of the teacher: “He was tall, but exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, feet that might have served for shovels, and his whole frame most loosely hung together. His head was small, and flat at top, with huge ears, large green glassy eyes, and a long snipe nose, so that it looked like a weather-cock perched upon his spindle neck to tell which way the wind blew.” Much better casting came when Jeff Goldblum took the part in a 1980 television movie.
Brom Bones, on the other hand, is played by an actor named Ben Hendricks Jr. He’s more in keeping with Irving’s portrait of the “burly, roaring, roystering blade,” “the hero of the country round,” with his “bluff but not unpleasant countenance [and] mingled air of fun and arrogance.” With a “Herculean frame and great powers of limb,” Brom is well-known as a skilled horseman and as an “umpire in all disputes, setting his hat on one side, and giving his decisions with an air and tone that admitted of no gainsay or appeal. He was always ready for either a fight or a frolic; but had more mischief than ill-will in his composition; and with all his overbearing roughness, there was a strong dash of waggish good humor at bottom.” In other words, Irving’s Brom might be intimidating physically, but there’s really no need to worry. Sure, he taunts Icabod with pranks, but remember that Icabod keeps order in his classroom with the constant threat of “a ferule, that sceptre of despotic power; the birch of justice[, which] reposed on three nails behind the throne, a constant terror to evil doers.” In other words, while one pulls pranks, the other threatens with physical pain. Who’s the bully now, buster?
Unfortunately, the 1922 film adds a scene to the original story that changes all of this. It involves a boy claiming that Icabod bewitched him, the gullible townspeople coming very close to tar-and-feathering Icabod, and at the pivotal point, the boy confessing that Brom paid him to pretend to be bewitched. The boy even says that Brom made him drink something that made him sick! As I say, this act of cruelty toward the boy and toward Icabod is nowhere in Irving’s story, which is curious because otherwise the script is reasonably faithful. Confusingly, screenwriter Carl Stearns Clancy makes Icabod, Brom, and even Katrina Van Tassel — the three corners in the love triangle — downright unlikable characters. As I say, it’s not a very enjoyable film.
I have to watch more movies to be sure, but I suspect that this film was the first step in portraying Brom Bones as a bully. I’ll be watching and blogging about subsequent movies — both cartoons and live action — to see if there was a trend toward adding bullying to Brom’s character. Until then, this is the best quality copy of the 1922 movie that I can find online, and be aware that there’s a scene involving actual cockfighting. Here’s a smart review of it, too.
In addition, reading “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” in its original form is never a bad idea.