Publication Year: 1820 (Found Among the Papers of the Late Diedrich Nickerbocker)
“…Ichabod quickened his steed, in hopes of leaving this midnight companion behind. The stranger, however, quickened his horse to an equal pace. Ichabod pulled up, and fell into a walk, thinking to lag behind - the other did the same. His heart began to sink within him. There was something in the stranger's moody silence that was appalling. It was soon fearfully accounted for. On mounting a rising ground, which brought the figure of his fellow traveler in relief against the sky, gigantic in height, and muffled in a cloak, Ichabod was horrorstruck on perceiving that he was headless!...”
“Washington Irving.” Many of us know the name, but who was he? Well, in a nutshell, he was America’s first great author and man of letters. Born the year the Revolutionary War ended, named for the first President (whom he met at the age of six), and, by his own admission, a bored student, he began writing for newspapers in his teens. Eventually, he branched out into satire and newspaper hoaxes. (If he were alive today, Irving would be the equivalent of prominent blogger **wink, wink Andrew**, a Youtube celebrity, or cable TV host.) His career included fighting in the War of 1812, nearly 20 years of “backpacking” across Europe, serving with the American Legation in London, wildly popular author in his own time, Ambassador to Spain, and chairman of the Astor Library (predecessor to the modern NY Public Library.)
Today, Irving is known for many things, like the famous novella “Rip Van Winkle.” He created the terms “Gotham” (“Goat’s Town” in old Latin) and “Nickerbocker,” which are now common terms for New York City. He also created that most eternally popular of phrases, “the almighty dollar.” And his satires of popular history (he would’ve been at home writing for ‘Mad Magazine’ or ‘the Onion’ today), are where we get the incorrect notion that everyone except Christopher Columbus believed the world was flat. (Oops!) Yet, despite all of this, it’s this short story about a teacher, a ghost, an heiress, and a jock living a tiny village 30 miles from NYC that serves as his best known work. And it’s so well-associated with Halloween, what better placer to start this series?
…and his famous Short Story
It’s a tale many know well (and if they read the original story, nerds would hate): The lanky, scarecrow-shaped schoolmaster Ichabod Crane (who probably weighed 90 pounds soaking wet), attempts to woo blonde beauty Katrina Van Tassel, daughter of the richest farmer around. In his way stands the linebacker-built, be-letter-jacketed town tough guy Brom Bones and his gang of toadies, the Sleepy Hollow Boys. After enduring some of Brom’s good-natured pranks, Ichabod asks for Katrina’s hand at a harvest party held at her father’s house. Ichabod leaves depressed and looking crestfallen, (she said NO!), and heads home to the school house by way of the trail that runs through the woods of Sleepy Hollow. There, the extremely superstitious principal runs into a man on a horse with no head! The rider chases Ichabod to a bridge by the Dutch Cemetery. However, instead of vanishing like local legend says he should, the horseman throws his head at Ichabod. The next morning, only Ichabod’s hat, horse, and a shattered pumpkin are found. Many believe he was ‘spirited away’ by the ghost. On the other hand, Brom Bones, now happily married to Katrina, always smiles when someone mentioned Ichabod’s disappearance.
However, there are twists and motivations most people don’t expect. Brom, it seems, actually does love Katrina. (His pranks are more mischievous than cruel.) Ichabod is a shameless social climber; he’s more interested in marrying Katrina for the Van Tassel family farm and fortune than out of love for the lady. The horseman is one of the great American specters. A Hessian (German mercenary) who fought for the British during the Revolutionary War, his head was shot off by a cannonball during an “unnamed battle.” It’s said he leaves the Old Dutch Cemetery at night to look for his head, but must hurry back to reach his grave before dawn. And, despite most adaptations portraying the horseman as a genuine ghost, it’s heavily inferred in the story that the rider Ichabod encounters is actually Brom in disguise. (In the epilogue, the narrator bemoans how the ‘old country wives’ maintain that the ghost was real and how that will probably be the history everyone knows.)
Well, that’s the story. So, how has it fared on screens of many sizes? Let’s take a look.
It’s been suggested on this blog that Walt Disney (and those who have kept his vision and outlook going), has done more to shape American culture over the last century than anyone else. I am not one to disagree. Like many people my age, I was actually introduced to this story while watching this version on the Disney Channel back in the 1980’s. And it seems to remain the most popular version of the tale.
For the most part, this version, despite a few liberties, is rather faithful to the story. The Ichabod-Brom-Katrina love triangle remains the heart of the tale. Bing Crosby does an expert and memorable job of narrating (he also provides all the male voices). It’s full of memorable music and songs. (While ‘Ichabod Crane’ is catchy, I’ve always preferred ‘Headless Horseman,’ which Brom sings at the harvest party.) And the chase sequence through Sleepy Hollow itself is one of the most amazing in animation history. The animation is classic Disney for the time. Though not as lavish as Snow White or Fantasia, it’s very reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan. (It seems to have a strong feel of the art work of Disney artist Mary Blair, best known for the Disney short Sleigh Ride and the children figures at ‘It’s A Small World.’) It’s also a popular belief that Katrina may have been an early model for Cinderella.
*- (originally released as the second part of “The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad.”)
The problem with short stories like ‘Sleepy Hollow’ is that they aren’t good material for full-length movies. (The Disney version, for instance, is only a half-hour long.) So, filmmakers inevitably pad out the original tale by adding all kinds of subplots and new characters. That is the best way to describe this made-for-TV treatment.
According to my research, this film was shot in Utah, apparently during the winter since there’s always several inches of snow on the ground. (Oh, I don’t need to think about that right now.) It was clearly made on a TV budget, with most of the money going into sets and little- if any- into special effects. (Hence the horseman’s tiny, cameo-ish role.) The many subplots include: a local elder, Fritz Vanderhoof (John Sylvester White), trying to set up Ichabod with his widowed daughter, Thelma (Laura Campbell); Ichabod being ‘haunted’ by former schoolmaster Winthrop Palmer (Michael Ruud) ,who was allegedly killed by the Horseman; and Squire Van Tassel (James Griffith) constantly having to decide who he wants to order Katrina to marry.
Surprisingly, former Chicago Bears linebacker Dick Butkus does fairly well as Brom Bones. (He studied acting and Shakespeare after his playing days.) Brom is actually much crueler towards Ichabod here, with his pranks meant to frighten Ichabod out of town rather than just poke fun at him. (He actually plans to kill Ichabod by pretending to be the Horseman.)
And, IMO, Meg Foster is just plain wasted as Katrina. She doesn’t have enough screen time. (Full movie on Youtube HERE.)
The big change is that this Ichabod is a skeptic towards ghosts. (The story version of Ichabod is a believer in all things supernatural.) Eventually, after experiencing some supposedly ghostly events (Brom’s pranks), and encountering Palmer (who didn’t really die), Ichabod feels his sanity slipping away. By the end, however, he decides to keep an open mind and is allowed to court Katrina.
‘Sleepy Hollow’ adaptations are hard to come by. And if I didn’t want another example for this article, I probably would’ve stopped watching this thing 20 minutes in. It’s just a mess.
If you’re looking for Irving’s story, you’ve come to the wrong place. This is a detective-searching-for-a-serial-killer slasher flick. (Small wonder. The writer also worked on HBO’s Tales From the Crypt and wrote the screenplay for Se7en.) Tim Burton brings in his usual stable of players- Christopher Lee, Jeffrey Jones, Michael Gough, etc. And like the 1980 version, this feature adds a LOT to make the story feature-length. To that end, we get the hardly unexpected ‘small town hiding a big secret’ motif, a witch, vicious anti-Christian themes, martial arts action sequences, (I don’t recall ninjitsu being popular in post-colonial New York), and numerous exposition scenes. Burton said he wanted to create the feel of Hammer Studios and Italian horror movies. I can’t speak for the Italian style, (why do hipsters love that stuff so much?), but I fail to see the Hammer connection- those films are colorful; this one is gray. I also get the feel that Burton doesn’t like the original story. Like Peter Jackson with The Hobbit, he almost seems annoyed when he has to reference the actual tale, preferring to focus on his added stuff. Brom (Casper Van Diem), for instance, is reduced to redshirt status.
sees the horseman and completely changes). In keeping with Burton’s ‘weird for the sake of weird’ style, he uses steampunk scientific tools and acts quirky. Nothing special here. Oh, and his relationship with Katrina is very uncomfortable given that Christina Ricci’s outfit makes her (and her forehead) look like a 12-year-old.
There is one good note to this Horseman. The filmmakers use CGI well here, giving the first horseman whose actor isn’t hiding his head inside the costume. At least it looks good presentable.