Posted by Susan Doll on December 10, 2012
For my last in a series on movie presidents, I return to the cinematic interpretations of the life and career of Abraham Lincoln for a look at the major biopics. The biopics are not a window into Lincoln’s life and times; instead, they are mirror reflections of the issues and problems of the decades that produced the films. Sometimes that mirror is cracked or warped, resulting in fractured or distorted history. But, that is precisely why I like biopics and have a high tolerance for even the ponderously pompous ones.
The Depression era was flanked by three major biopics of Lincoln. D. W. Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln was released in 1930, while John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln and John Cromwell’s Abe Lincoln in Illinois concluded the decade. Released in 1940, Abe Lincoln in Illinois was adapted from Robert E. Sherwood’s Pullitzer-Prize-winning play, which covers Lincoln’s early years in Kentucky, his Illinois law practice, his ill-fated romance with Ann Rutledge, and his debates with Stephen Douglas. Raymond Massey, who originated the role on stage, was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance. Like Frank McGlynn, Massey became identified with the character of Lincoln. He appeared in two television versions of Abe Lincoln in Illinois– an episode of Pulitzer Prize Theater in 1950 and an episode of Lux Video Theater in 1951. Five years later he played the 16th president in a small-screen version of The Day Lincoln Was Shot for another drama anthology, Ford Star Jubilee. As late as 1962, Massey was still appearing as Lincoln, making a cameo in the epic How the West Was Won. Legend has it that Massey loved the role so much that he appeared at parties and Hollywood social events dressed as Lincoln, prompting playwright George S. Kaufman to quip, “Massey won’t be satisfied until someone assassinates him.”
Sherwood’s interpretation of the 16th president was based in part on Carl Sandburg’s poetic 1926 biography The Prairie Years. The image of Abe as a backwoods story-telling prophet who lifted himself up by his bootstraps to enter politics and save a divided America owes much to Sherwood via Sandberg. The subtext of the film and play reflects Sherwood’s socio-political views. An anti-war advocate for several years, Sherwood had changed his opinions by the end of the 1930s, evolving into a New Deal convert and a believer in America’s support of the Allies. In 1938, the year the play opened on Broadway, Germany had annexed Austria and Czechoslovakia—events that focused attention on the world’s stage. In the play and film, Abe is devastated after the death of his first love, Ann Rutledge, which turns him into a passive individual uninvolved and unengaged. A new fiancé, the ruthlessly ambitious Mary Todd, pushes him into politics, because she senses a kind of greatness in him, but he dislikes the idea and breaks off their engagement. After pondering the situation, he returns to marry Todd and jump into the political arena. Near the end of Abe Lincoln in Illinois, Massey delivers Lincoln’s entire “house divided” speech. It’s a rousing answer to Stephen Douglas’s pro-slavery views during one of their famous debates, but his words also expose the perils of maintaining an outdated policy. Lincoln’s decision to get off the fence, as well as his “house divided” speech, represent Sherwood’s views of contemporary world events. It was time for a fence-sitting America to take a stronger stance against Hitler as WWII loomed in Europe.
Young Mr. Lincoln opens with the first stanza of a poem attributed to Rosemary Benet:
If Nancy Hanks
The poem sets the tone for the film, which, like Abe Lincoln in Illinois, chronicles Lincoln’s early days as a youthful lawyer. Ford chooses to depict each event as a foreshadowing of Lincoln’s later greatness. Combined with a lyrical visual style and a career-making performance by Henry Fonda, this approach makes Young Mr. Lincoln a far more satisfying example of cinematic mythmaking than Cromwell’s turgid biopic. Once again, the death of Ann Rutledge becomes an important part of Abe’s maturity. After her death, he visits her graveside where Fonda delivers a touching monologue that serves as Lincoln’s impetus to become a lawyer. The bulk of the film is a trial in which Lincoln defends two brothers accused of murder. Though based a trial that occurred later in Lincoln’s career, the event is used to showcase the attributes that will make Honest Abe a great president—a backwoods common sense, compassion for those less fortunate, and an innate understanding that the law should be based on a moral imperative.
The Ann Rutledge story was a fixture in the early biopics, but it is excluded from contemporary films. The daughter of an innkeeper, the red-haired, blue-eyed Rutledge was supposedly slender, elegant, and beautiful—the opposite of Mary Todd. She died of a fever in 1835. Rutledge’s relationship with Abe was first revealed by Lincoln’s law partner, William Herndon, the year after his assassination. Some claim that he did so out of malice toward Mary Todd, whom Herndon did not like. Recent (male) scholars have dismissed the story entirely as little more than gossip and hearsay collected from elderly New Salem residents by Herndon for his remembrance of Lincoln. I have visited Rutledge’s grave near New Salem, and her gravestone includes a poem by Edgar Lee Masters as an epithet. Perhaps native Illinoisans like Sandburg and Masters, who are poets more than historians, chose to immortalize Rutledge because her story is a local legend in a state where Abraham Lincoln is claimed as a native son, though he was born in Kentucky.
Taking advantage of the publicity over Spielberg’s Lincoln, Kino recently released D.W. Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln on Blu-ray. For decades, this biopic was maligned for its poor sound and old-fashioned tableaux-style staging. With no institution or studio behind it, the film was more or less abandoned to history, and existing prints are not in good condition. The Blu-ray was mastered from a 35mm restoration by the Museum of Modern Art, which is the most complete version of the film to date. Despite the restoration, about five minutes of footage is missing its sync sound. Kino used subtitles to replace the missing dialogue in that scene. Be aware that other DVD versions are missing the scenes that MOMA painstakingly restored, and they do make a telling difference to the film.
I knew that Abraham Lincoln had an abysmal critical reputation, and the film is not “good.” However, many aspects about it surprised me, including the people involved in its making. Karl Struss, who won the first Oscar for cinematography for Sunrise just three years earlier, shot Abraham Lincoln, while poet-writer Stephen Vincent Benet penned the screenplay. I was immediately struck that Benet and Griffith should collaborate on a screenplay, given that Benet had written the epic poem John Brown’s Body that revered the abolitionist Brown as a martyr.
If that is odd, the prologue to Abraham Lincoln is downright shocking. The film opens on a slave ship tossed at sea during a storm. Struss’s expressionist cinematography renders the scene in a soft, atmospheric low-key lighting. Dozens of sick, scared slaves weather the storm below deck, while crew members snake their way through the huddled masses. They select a dead or dying boy and then toss him overboard, presumably to rid themselves of useless cargo. The disturbing prologue establishes the necessity for the Great Emancipator to free the slaves from such cruelty. As the storm continues to rage, the camera pans across the miles to a log cabin in Kentucky where Lincoln is born as an answer to this need. The prologue and a scene in which Lincoln stresses over the Emancipation Proclamation are missing from some prints, presumably cut for later release or for television because of they were provocative. At any rate, both scenes reveal an outrage over the plight of slaves that is unexpected given Griffith’s reputation as an unapologetic Southern supporter. Griffith will never escape the criticism over the racism of The Birth of a Nation, and perhaps that is fair, given the depiction of African Americans in the film. The price paid is that his other films are overlooked or viewed with that notoriety in mind.
Griffith’s biopic chronicles most of the president’s life, while Steven Spielberg’s drama covers only a few weeks in 1865. Yet, several scenes are similar to those in Spielberg’s film, from the president’s folksy storytelling to his pardoning of dozens of young soldiers scheduled to be hung for desertion. Most striking was the recreation of the telegraph room in the White House where Lincoln awaits word on key battles. Each film includes a scene in which Lincoln speaks with a couple of young telegraph operators who watch the lonely president walk across the room and exit through a door in the distant background.
Similarities aside, Griffith’s Lincoln is in keeping with his preference for heroic martyrs as well as a reflection of the renewed interest in the 16th president following the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial a few years earlier. As the story of a leader who tries to secure enough votes to push through controversial, nation-changing legislation, Spielberg’s Lincoln, written by Tony Kushner, echoes more recent issues plaguing America. The film’s constant references to a divided nation, a divided Congress, and the necessity to “compromise or risk it all” could be conversations about the political divisions in this country during this past election year. Now that our differences are color-coded into red states vs. blue states, the rift seems insurmountable. While watching Abraham Lincoln compromise, persuade, cajole, and make promises to various devils in order to pass the 13th Amendment, the struggle to pass President Barack Obama’s massive health care reform, dubbed Obamacare, crossed my mind. In the film, the bombastic oratory by ultra-conservative members of Congress who labeled Lincoln a tyrant and called him Lincoln the Capitulator and Abraham Africanus is as immature as the rhetoric used by today’s Tea Partiers. Well written and beautifully acted by Daniel Day Lewis and a host character actors, Lincoln seems destined to secure its share of Oscar nominations, like Lincoln biopics of previous eras. Yet, part of its appeal must surely be its familiarity and relevancy.
A recent op-ed piece in The New York Times by a professor of history from Northwestern University took Lincoln to task for not including the contributions of African Americans to their own emancipation. The article began with the universal complaint of all historians—the movie is historically inaccurate—before listing several events or characters that Spielberg could have included to make Lincoln the film she preferred it to be. Funny that she didn’t mention this year’s other movie about the 16th president—Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. This film costars Anthony Mackie as Lincoln’s African American friend from childhood through his vampire-killing youth to his presidency in the White House, where he serves Abe as an adviser. I wonder what suggestions Ms. Historian would have for this film.
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter was directed by Timur Bekmambetov, a Russian filmmaker best known for the vampire films Night Watch and Day Watch. Definitely not a biopic, AL: VH is an uneven cross between horror and action. With its lack of pedigree, the movie is the bastard addition to the Lincoln family, but it offers a rich subtext that is fun to consider. At least it acknowledges that all Lincoln films engage in mythmaking as a voice-over notes, “History prefers myth to men.” Like Lincoln, AL: VH references the political issues and economic gaps of contemporary America, including the fact that as president, Abe finds himself “the father of a nation tearing itself apart.” One of the president’s associates turns on him because he is fed up with “the war, which has cost too much money and has resulted in meaningless deaths,” a criticism often aimed at the current war in Afghanistan.
AL: VH makes slavery the central issue of the Civil War, placing blame for the rift between the North and the South with the vampires. The vampires are supporters of slavery and include aristocratic antebellum Southerners as well as Northerners who benefit financially by hunting down runaway slaves, literally bleeding them dry. Northern vampires disguise themselves as regular members of the community—pharmacists, bankers, pastors, innkeepers—suggesting that all of America’s social institutions are infected. Throughout the film, the axe-wielding Lincoln speaks out against slavery, but he is thwarted by the vampire leader who brags, “There are thousands of us. We won’t stop till we have the whole country.” Given the rhetoric, I can’t help but think that the vampires represent today’s radical right-wingers who have made it their mission to thwart progressive change at every turn. The conclusion reinforces this interpretation when the White House lawn of 1865 fades into a contemporary view of the same scene. The image dissolves into a shot of a bar where Henry, Abe’s vampire friend who had taught him how to battle the living dead, chats with the man on the stool next to him. Henry tries to lure the man into the vampire-hunting fold using the same line he fed to Lincoln. With short cropped black hair and protruding ears, the man—seen only from behind—resembles Barack Obama.
Though miles apart in tone and genre, the release of Lincoln and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter in the same year makes perfect sense. Resurrecting the president who kept the country together during its darkest years is wishful thinking for a troubled nation exhausted by war, economic failure, and constant political bickering.
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