July 9, 2020
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – US, 1960
A narrative has emerged recently that slavery should be presented on screen as it truly was. I understand these sentiments, and over the years many such depictions have stayed with me, from the shocking scenes on the slave ship in Steven Spielberg’s Amistad to the willful cruelty depicted in 12 Years A Slave. Understandably, I wouldn’t want my five-year-old daughter to see such images, and that begs the question: Just how do you begin to let children know that mankind has not always been civil to its fellow man? Well, showing them Michael Curtiz’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is one fairly sanitized option.
Why sanitized exactly? A few reasons. First, there’s the complete absence of that particular word that has caused Mark Train’s book to be the subject of conversations about book banning. Second, the film takes place in Mississippi in 1851, yet the biggest threat to slaves seems to be that their shackles will be too tight. Oh sure, there’s a remark here and there about being whipped as punishment, but that possibility never elicits much of a response, not even by the character most likely to be on the receiving end of the torture. And then there’s the comedy. This comes in many forms – Tony Randall and Mickey Shaughnessy as con men trying to swindle money from two young ladies who have recently lost their father; Buster Keaton as a lion trainer/snake charmer who keeps talking about radishes; and, it goes without saying, the character of Huckleberry Finn, one of the more ingenious ones ever created. Huck has the mind of a master improvisationalist, impressively finding creative and humorous fixes for life’s everyday problems – well, his life’s that is.
Like the book, Curtiz’s film is essentially a boy’s personal awakening to the evils of slavery. In an early scene, Huck loudly proclaims “I ain’t no abolitionist,” and despite the fact that he says that to an abusive father with a real loathing for such people, the sentiments are his. He expresses the same ones later on to his friend Jim, who just happens to be one of his aunt’s slaves. To escape his father’s drunken violence, Huck stages his own death; meanwhile, Jim, upon hearing that he could be sold, decides to run away. Together, the two of them board a raft and head down the Mississippi River, each in pursuit of a freedom that neither has really known. As the journey progresses, we witness Huck’s evolution on one of the most important issues of his and our time.
Twain wrote The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in the first person, thereby enabling readers to follow along with Huck on his personal journey, and in perhaps its most famous passage – and the one that I have vivid memories of my old friend Tarrus Baker so elegantly reading in a high school English class – Huck narrates his sudden awareness of the similarities between him and Jim. In doing so, he is recognizing Jim’s humanity and sensing the righteousness of his quest for freedom, and that shapes Huck’s actions from that point on in the story.
Screenplay writer James Lee elected not to have Huck narrate his adventure, which makes sense if you want to avoid using offensive language or make Huck likeable right off the bat. However, to have the same effect of the printed word, the film needs a number of powerful close-ups of Huck - upon hearing of Jim’s daughter, upon seeing a row of runaway prisoners being marched back into bondage, upon seeing Jim in chains. Alas, most such moments are shot from a distance, enabling the audience to see all of the key characters, but robbing them of the raw emotions that would have been apparent had the camera simply rested on Huck’s face for a few seconds.
So, the film is not as effective as the book, and Curtiz’s momentary insertion of musical numbers is simply perplexing. Twice, Jim sings a few bars of a song seemingly entitled “Huck Finn.” For what purpose, I’m not entirely sure. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the discomfort that some might feel during Huck and Jim’s circus performance toward the end of the film, for while I’m sure there were acts like theirs, it is harder to watch them nowadays without cringing.
Eddie Hodges plays Huck exceptionally well, perfectly capturing both his easy-going nature and his creative genius. However, the film is Archie Moore’s on account of his brilliantly nuanced performance as Jim. Here is a character living in a society that has legally stripped him of power, but not been able to bend his will. Sure, there are times when Jim appears to be ignorant of common things, which, if true, is not entire unexpected when people are denied an education and not allowed to read. Still, he knows how to survive, and this can involve playing naive at critical moments. Moore’s face often hints that Jim knows a bit more than he lets on. He doesn’t overplay the moment when Jim thinks he sees a ghost, and he absolutely nails the conversations in which he opens up about his personal failings. We see why Huck would change. The final exchange between the two characters is just beautiful, perfectly conveying the bond that has developed between them, as well as their understanding that this is likely the last time they’ll ever see each other.
Inevitably, such films as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are made for kids, and as such they are stepping stones in their understanding of human beings and history. Young viewers will leave the film having seen a transformation akin to the one America experienced in the years preceding the American Civil War and which readers have personally witnessed in the years since the release of Twain’s book in 1884. The film is not perfect, but at a time when protesters are taking to the streets to draw attention to the inequality that still exists and demanding that society recognize the value of Black lives, it tells a tale that demonstrates the value of listening and being willing and able to see our common humanity. Huck puts himself in Jim’s shoes and is a better person for it. That remains a valuable lesson. (on DVD)