Talking Pictures

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The Man in the Barn, M-G-M 1937

Posted by keith1942 on September 30, 2019

By coincidence I watched this film on 16mm shortly after I finished my post on The Lincoln Cycle/ The Son of Democracy (USA 1918). The latter is a series of short films which dramatise Lincoln as president but also his earlier life as a motivation for his actions and values. The cycle as unfinished so it never reached the assassination of Lincoln, just as the celebrations started for the defeat of the Confederacy.  The ‘man in the barn’ connects as it is John Wilkes Booth, the assassin. Twelve days after the killing he was cornered by Union troops in a barn in Maryland and, as the barn burned, refused to surrender and was shot, dying three hours later.

This one-reel film comes from a series , ‘An Historical Mystery’. The plot picks up on theories circulating in the early 1900s that the person killed at the barn was a Wilkes Booth look-a-like and that the assassin lived on for years. In the film in 1903 a man on his deathbed  in an Oklahoma town claims to  be John Wilkes Booth but expires before he can explain further.

In the film a series of brief flashbacks dramatise Wilkes escape and the finale at the barn. Then. with a series of close-ups and a comentative voice, question the identification of the man in the barn and the claimant thirty years later. These focus on his physiognomy and scars on his body.

The film does not offer a full explanation as to how Wilkes might have escaped. But three scenes with voice-over comment propose that Wilkes evaded capture because an unseen hand covered his escape route. So here we have a implied conspiracy theory that Wilkes escaped justice because of co-operation by characters who, presumably, exercised power over state actions. And it is true that some factions celebrated Lincoln’s murder, even in Washington. A sign of the enmity that he motivated in many supporters of the Confederate cause.

It reminded me of the conspiracy theories around the murder of John F. Kennedy. In his case we have had several full-length film features on the subject.  In fact a book on Lincoln and Booth, ‘The Lincoln Conspiracy’  was filmed in 1977 but I have never seen this.

I was moved to check out the follow-on from the one other Presidential assassination, William McKinley in 1901. But there does not appear to be conspiracy theories about this event, the President being shot by  a man with associations to Anarchists. Presumably the furores around the actions of both Lincoln and Kennedy are the reason why people suspect the official verdict.

This short black and white film is just a footnote in the cinema of US Presidents. However, it is crisply filmed and works through the subject with economy.  It did not, however, convince me that Wilkes was not the man who was shot ‘in the Barn’.

The film was scripted by Morgan Cox who had a lot of credits in this period: and another writer, Charles Whittaker, is credited with ‘Historical Compilations’, which i think probably refers to the series. The director Jacques Tourneur was an experienced director noted for both horror and film noir; both relevant to this short. I did not catch the cinematographer but the film, as the story would suggest, is a combination of light and shadow. The editing is very well done, covering quite an amount of plot in the running time of eleven minutes.

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