Some years ago I happened across a fascinating book titled Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild. If you have any fondness for Mark Twain (as I do – I own and have read the complete works), you need to read this book. The book is an extended argument that Twain’s late-Victorian portraits of river life were a form of rosy-filtered nostalgia for a pre-Civil-War reality that was quite a bit more wild, colorful, squalid, violent, and bizarre.
The river is tamed now, corseted by locks and levees, surrounded by a settled society. It was already nearly thus when Twain was writing. But in and before Huck Finn’s time (roughly the 1840s) it had been a frontier full of strivers, mad men, bad men, and epic disasters like the New Madrid earthquakes.
Random evocative detail: there was a river pirate named John Murrell who operated out of a section of the river called Nine Mile Reach and often masqueraded as a traveling preacher; his gang was called the “Mystic Clan”, and it was for years believed that he had a master plan to foment a general slave insurrection. But that last bit may have been fabrication by a con man with a book to sell. Whether true or not, it led to riots in various cities and a mob attempt to expel all gamblers from Vicksburg based on a rumor that some of them had been part of the plot.
The book is full of you couldn’t-make-this-stuff-up stories like that. And then, much more recently, I learned about Abe Lincoln’s flatboat voyage.
In 1828, at the age of 19, young Abraham Lincoln was the junior member of a two-man crew that made a flatboat trading voyage down the Mississipi from Indiana to New Orleans. This was not a particularly unusual thing for the sons of upriver farmers to do in those days, at least not if they were thought to be resourceful enough and trusted with the trade goods of a whole town. Abe must have done well, because his town sent him south again in 1831.
These voyages traded everything the upriver farmers could sell – including the wood in the flatboats, which were generally broken up in New Orleans – for cash money and “civilized” goods that couldn’t be made in the frontier country. For so Indiana was at the time; the last Indian war in the territory was not twenty years gone when Lincoln launched.
Lincoln never wrote about the voyage itself in detail, so we only know a few specific things from other remarks and the chronology. It was his first time away from home. The boat was at one point attacked by escaped slaves, and the attack fought off. What Lincoln saw in the New Orleans slave markets kindled in him a hatred of slavery, and could be regarded as the lighting of the fuse that would eventually detonate in the Emancipation Proclamation.
There is a nonfiction book, Lincoln in New Orleans which meticulously reconstructs the world surrounding that 1828 voyage – what he would have seen, where he must have gone, what the flatboats traded, how it all worked. The book even contains instructions on how to build a flatboat.
OK, so here is what I want to make of this. “Wicked River”, the movie. A big old-fashioned historical adventure film with modern production values. The elevator pitch is “Abraham Lincoln fights the river pirates”, but the idea isn’t to produce a comic book like that vampire hunter movie – rather, to stick to the sorts of things we know that a 19-year-old boy on the wicked river in 1828 really could have gotten mixed up in, and probably did.
River pirates, con-men, grifters, escaped slaves, black-powder pistols, bad weather, the Mississippi itself – no shortage of scrapes for Abe to get into along the way, and plenty of options to foreshadow the leader he would someday become. Yes, we can drop in homages to Mark Twain; why ever not? And at the end, the farm boy comes to New Orleans – gorgeous, bawdy, decadent New Orleans – and something he sees in the slave markets changes him forever.
Barring incompetence in the production pipeline, how is it even possible for this not to be box-office gold? More than that; this doesn’t have to be a glittery Michael Bay trashfest, it could have substance and heart, even a profound moral center. I think it could be not just fun, not just good, but genuinely great cinema – something everyone involved would be proud of for the rest of their lives.