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"Sleepy Hollow" (1999): Ichabod Crane: The Unlikely Hero


Ash has a bachelor's in English Lit. She loves analyzing fiction and obsessing over books, film, and television.

Sleepy Hollow is a 1999 horror film directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Christopher Walken, Miranda Richardson, and a host of other talented performers.

I remember when this film came out, I was about thirteen years old and on the verge of entering high school. I ordered the book through one of those Scholastic book catalogs they used to give us at school, and because I loved the book so much, I went and saw the film.

Having read the book first really gave me a certain perspective about the film. I saw it in a different light because I already knew how the story was going to unfold. This foreknowledge allowed me to relax and enjoy the misty gothic visuals.

I think I was most intrigued by Tim Burton's version of Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp). And why wouldn't I be? Anyone who's familiar with my articles here knows that I identify deeply with nerdy characters and Burton's Ichabod was very nerdy.

Ichabod was a man of science, logic, and reason. He didn't believe in magic or folktales. He was a man of innovation, and for this reason, was a constant source of irritation for the rest of the police department.

Ichabod lives in a grim world without proper trials or evidence. People are just executed and thrown into pits the second they're accused of something as petty as stealing bread -- which is depicted by the film in a hilarious light but when you really think about it, it's kinda awful.

Because he was such a nerd, Ichabod was an outcast. Watching the film again recently, it suddenly occurred to me that his superiors assigned him to Sleepy Hollow in the hope that he would be killed and they'd never have to put up with his demands for social progress again. The film makes it clear that everyone else in the police department is perfectly content to toss criminals -- innocent or guilty -- into iron maidens and call it a day.

On top of being a nerdy outcast, Ichabod was a squeamish, delicate man. This was played up as pretty hilarious by Depp, who winces constantly at the headless, blood-squirting necks of the Hessian's victims.

The great thing about this, though, is that the movie presents us with a reason for Icahbod's squeamishness. It's not just a running gag. Ichabod actually has a backstory and character development. This is something you can usually count on in a Burton film, which is why the writer in me loves (most of) his films so much.

As the story progresses, we learn that as a young boy, Ichabod stumbled across his mother's dead body after she had been stuffed into an iron maiden by his overbearing and fanatically religious father. The doors of the device actually sprang open and his mother's blank-eyed corpse popped out at him in a splash of blood. Such a horrible thing for a child to see!

Ichabod was so traumatized by the incident that he became a squeamish, nervous person. That, plus the fact that he was raised by his mother's murderer would make anyone bite their nails.

Given Ichabod's backstory, it would also make sense why he would put enough value into justice to become a constable: he watched his father get away with murder.

The remarkable thing about Ichabod is that -- coward though he was -- he was not afraid to face his fears.

After his first encounter with the headless horseman, he hides in his bedroom for days, shocked by what he has seen and refusing to come out. The Van Tassels come up to his room and try to comfort him, but he cowers under the bed sheets while sputtering about the horseman -- only to suddenly faint.

Some time later, however, Ichabod emerges, ready to head into the Western Woods to find the truth, even if he must go alone. Out of all the able-bodied men in the village, the only person willing to go with him is "Young Masbeth" (Marc Pickering) and later Katrina (Christina Ricci), who follows them into the woods intent on helping.

Though Ichabod was wrong about the horseman being a superstition, he was right about the murderer being of flesh and bone. The person behind the killings -- the one who controlled the horseman -- turned out to be Lady Van Tassel (Miranda Richardson), Katrina's stepmother.

I always loved that Burton took what was originally just a short story and turned it into something more involved. He would do something similar later with Corpse Bride.

Having been unmasked, Lady Van Tassel delivers a wonderfully devious speech to Katrina about how and why she used the Hessian to kill virtually everyone in town.

Miranda Richardson kinda has a reputation for playing badass wicked witches and sorceresses, so it was no surprise that she portrayed this character so well: I grew up loving her in Jim Henson's The Storyteller, Merlin, and also this film.

In fact, she embodied the role so well, she made Lady Van Tassel the sort of villain you love to hate. She was just wonderful to watch.


Despite Lady Van Tassel's evil, Ichabod manages to defeat her with his wits: he learns how to control the horseman and then directs him to leave, taking Lady Van Tassel with him to Hell.

Ichabod, Katrina, and Young Masbeth then live happily ever after in New York.

The end.

I always enjoy it when characters use something besides brute strength or physical prowess to win the day. Ichabod is squeamish and cowardly, and yet he stops both the Hessian and Lady Van Tassel with his mind.

Unfortunately, Ichabod didn't save the village. Most everyone in Sleepy Hollow was murdered and in the end, the only people he really saved were himself, Young Masbeth, and Katrina . . .

But hey, at least he saved someone.

© 2019 Ash


Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on April 07, 2019:

@Shepards, good to know.

Sam Shepards from Europe on April 07, 2019:

This is still one of my favorite Tim Burton movies, I also love his batman films. Nice article!

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on April 07, 2019:

Hi, Ash, Johnny Depp, is no-nonsense personality as it seems. But he always appears so. Anyway, he "saved were himself, Young Masbeth, and Katrina . . .

But hey, at least he saved someone." That I agreed. Thanks for sharing with lovely photos. Enjoy the day.

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