“I could count myself king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams."
Angels & Ages
[Essay published in The Journal Of The Abraham Lincoln Association — August 2014]
At 7:22 a.m. on April 15, 1865, as Abraham Lincoln drew his final breath, all the worthies who had crowded into the little back bedroom in the little back boarding house across the street from Ford’s Theatre turned to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton for a final word—no else dared speak. Stanton, who after faulty beginnings had come to revere Lincoln as a friend and a politician, who had played watchful Fool to his tragic Lear, choked behind his long, matted beard—hot tears streaming down his face—and then said, simply, “Now he belongs to the ages.”
Those six soft words constitute what’s likely the most famous epitaph in American memory, and still perhaps the best, in their stark and sanctifying evocation of Lincoln as a man now reigning long in the lees of eternity, a man—in all his foreshortenings and depths—now part of history. Now he belongs to the ages. At least, that was the message according to some of the historians who tell it, for, in fact, Stanton’s sixth word was mumbled between sighs and sobs. Indeed, other scholars, such as James Swanson, have recounted the vigil scene somewhat differently: “the minister…summoned up …a stirring prayer…and everyone murmured ‘Amen.’…Again Stanton broke the silence. ‘Now he belongs to the angels.’” Angels? Angels! There’s almost a Mel Brooks element here (“That’s not what I said! I said the sheriff’s a [clock bell chimes]”). Which is it then? Angels or Ages. Painfully, the two readings couldn’t have been more different—the latter, invoking Lincoln as belonging to God; the former, invoking him as someone tantamount to God Himself. If only Stanton had clarified.
Then again, it’s only fitting that Lincoln passed amid such paradox—for his entire appeal has been besmirched by multiple readings, multiple showings, multiple Lincolns—all since birth. At the age of seven, the young Abe poked his rifle through a gap in his family’s cabin and shot a turkey. By his account, he never again “pulled a trigger on any larger game.” And indeed when he was twenty-three, he captained a militia to fight Indians in Illinois but never saw action. “I had a good many bloody struggles with the musquetoes [sic],” he joked. Three decades later, however, he presided over a war that killed more Americans than any other before or since. “Doesn’t it strike you as queer,” he asked the Indiana congressman, “that I, who couldn’t cut the head off of a chicken, and who was sick at the sight of blood, should be cast into the middle of a great war, with blood flowing all about me?”
There is Lincoln—tender, soulful, the figure of almost saintly probity and forbearance who ended chattel slavery in its paramount vestiges. Or, there is Lincoln—a stoic emperor in a stovepipe hat, sinister in his methods, daring in his conceits, steadfast to guarantee the unity of America as one nation, under God. His faith has been tried and claimed by the secular and the religious alike. He’s been dubbed the South’s greatest enemy and their greatest ally. (Thomas Dixon, the infamous white supremacist author of The Clansmen, declared that when Lincoln was murdered the South lost its best friend.) Even the content of Lincoln’s language has been questioned in paradox—at Gettysburg did he actually say, “conceived in liberty” or, as some newspapers reported it, “consecrated in liberty”? His antagonists too have been plagued to their own double roles—“Sic semper tyrannis,” professed John Wilkes Booth after lowering his hot derringer—or was it, “The South is avenged”? Even in the immediate aftermath of Lincoln’s death—hardly the time to form a just estimate of his place in history—editors, politicians, poets, portraitists, and preachers began to essay the task of defining Lincoln. Though the marks of his life are innumerable, he was soon cast to them the Savior, the Great Emancipator, the Man of the People, the First American, the Self-made Man. His words and deeds filled libraries as poets, like Whitman, and scholars, like Arthur Schlesigner, Jr., attempted to interpret and reinterpret him. Certainly this duplicity was a result of misreporting, bad information, and wayward projection, but underlying all of it was the indisputable fact that Lincoln had lived in such a curious, private, almost contradictory way so as to invite such mixed interpretations. “In a crisis,” wrote W.E.B. DuBois, “[Lincoln] was big enough to be inconsistent—cruel, merciful, peace-loving, a fighter, despising Negroes and letting them fight and vote, protecting slavery and freeing slaves. He was a big man—a big, inconsistent, brave man.”
When Lincoln stood at the podium on October 4, 1854, he wore a short-sleeve shirt, looking an uncharismatic challenger to his campaign rival Stephen Douglas, but once in repose, his face was “so overspread with sadness,” the Chicago Tribune reporter Horace White noted, that it seemed as if “Shakespeare’s melancholy Jacques had been translated from the forest of Arden to the capital of Illinois.” And when he began to speak, White observed, “this expression of sorrow dropped from him instantly. His face lighted up with a winding smile, and where I had a moment before seen only leaden sorrow I now beheld keen intelligence, genuine kindness of heart, and the promise of true friendship.” The numerous recorded testimonies of those who met Lincoln run the gamut, calling him, in one case, “the very impersonation of good-humor and fellowship” while, in other cases, claiming his wealthy fizzog to be careworn, bilious, anxious, haggard, impossibly that of a happy man. “In private life, his disposition, unless report and physiognomy both err, is a somber one,” one reporter claimed, “but, coupled with this, he has a rich fund of dry, Yankee humor, not inconsistent, as in the case of the nation itself, with a sort of habitual melancholy.” In many ways his appearance further deepened his enigmatic allure, rather than revealed it. “It has been the business of my life to study the human face,” stated the painter Francis Bicknell Carpenter, “and I have said repeatedly to friends that Mr. Lincoln had the saddest face I ever attempted to paint.” Quite alarmingly, it turns out that a Lincoln for the ages and a Lincoln for the angels are only two of perhaps hundreds of versions and variations of Lincoln that history has come up with. Not only has this almost assuredly frustrated and upset the many biographers, it has rendered the task of portraying the sixteenth president in politics, culture, and art all the more impossible.
Such an extended introduction is hardly necessary for the topic at hand, but it is helpful to have in preface to any discussion of Lincoln’s portrayal in film—for film, more than any other art form, has seen the rise and fall of multiple Lincolns: a Lincoln for the ages, a Lincoln for the angels, a Lincoln perchance for both. My interest is in pinning down Lincoln as a paradoxical character in cinema. It’s a topic made all the more redolent by the peculiar fact that Lincoln is one of the most portrayed film characters of all time. Overall he comes in eighth at 263 appearances, preceded only by Dracula at 274, Hitler at 335, Napoleon at 337, God at 340, Jesus at 350, Santa Claus at 814, and the Devil at 848. Counting out the supernatural, preternatural, and downright fictitious, however, we might more safely place him at third, and not too far behind those grand conquerors.
A Presidential Muse
A number of factors help to explain the film industry’s ongoing fascination with Lincoln. He was born, first off, in the era of early photography and was the first widely photographed president. In fact, despite constantly joking about his homely appearance, Lincoln loved being photographed; he willingly sat for an array of painters and sculptors and photographers before and during his time in the White House. He is said to have remarked that Mathew Brady’s 1860 picture of him, taken at the time of the Cooper Union speech, had helped make him President. Apparently it had that kind of effect. Leo Tolstoy recounts travelling in the Caucuses in 1901 and meeting a Muslim chieftain, who, upon recognizing a photo of Lincoln that Tolstoy had with him, said,
But you have not told us a syllable about the greatest general and greatest ruler of the world. We want to know something about him. He was a hero. He spoke with a voice of the under; he laughed like the sunrise and his deeds were strong as the rock and as sweet as the fragrance of roses. The angels appeared to his mother and predicted that the son whom she would conceive would become the greatest the stars had ever seen. He was so great that he even forgave the crimes of his greatest enemies and shook brotherly hands with those who had plotted against his life…. Tell us of that man.
Such mythic, almost messianic renderings of Lincoln are invited by his profuse presence in cellulose acetate. In any event, his distinctive face became known to millions around the world, and quickly became a natural subject for motion picture when the artform was invented at the end of the 19th century. Additionally, the fact that the Civil War itself was the first war to be documented so completely in photographs lent further to the medium’s influence on filmmaking, as directors could use those images to stage their films with some degree of historical accuracy.
Correspondingly, because the Civil War was such a crucial and dramatic period in American history, coupled with the fact that it had taken place only several decades piror, it was perfect subject matter for the new entertainment industry. Even as years passed and the industry grew, the tragedy and heroism of the era continued to fascinate the American public, their fascination in part fueled by such great films as Gone with the Wind (1939).
But perhaps the most significant factor explaining the film industry’s obsession with Lincoln was simply that he had become something of a legend in the minds of so many Americans (and apparently of those in the Near East, Tolstoy found). They viewed his life story as personification of an American story: hardship, check; law, check; war, check; freedom, check; love, check. Lincoln’s life captured the imagination of millions, and after initial successes filmmakers were quick to realize that films about him would appeal to a vast audience, and turn vast profits.
But how does one portray a man who remains an enigma to historians? A man whose life and body are viewed in a hundred different ways? As Mark Reinhart states in his Abraham Lincoln on Screen filmography, “Lincoln’s life has been examined from every conceivable angle: a godlike leader, a folksy man of people, a depressed man driven by the dark sides of his personality.” We’ve seen Lincoln heralded in the taciturn stoicism of Henry Fonda and Raymond Massey. We’ve seen Lincoln constructed in bare-bone animatronics for the 1964 World’s Fair before being moved to headline the Hall of Presidents with faux speeches and small hand gestures in Disney World. We’ve seen him take heed from Doctor Who, haunt Scooby Doo, team up with Star Trek’s Captain Kirk to explain the concepts of good and evil to the aliens of Excalbia.
How did we get here? In the battle between fact and fiction, Lincoln’s is history’s greatest casualty. That said, the facts and fictions span the genres. Ben Walker’s accent in the “badass” semi-comedic counterfactual Abraham Lincoln’s: Vampire Hunter is no less authentic than Walter Huston’s in D.W. Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln. It turns out the mysterious man is the easiest to write. Because of his plasticity and ambiguity, Lincoln has been manipulated, mutilated, decorated, and somaticized in film. His categorization and re-categorization is the result of filmmakers and actors picking and choosing which facets of Lincoln they want to accentuate, which of version they believe is most aesthetic or intriguing or profitable. In the filmographic history of Lincoln that follows, I show how Lincoln’s portrayal in motion picture has changed in response to such factors.
The Silent Era (1900-1928)
The first known use of Lincoln’s image in film was in the 1903 Edison Film Company short Uncle Tom’s Cabin, produced by Thomas Edison and directed by Edwin Porter, the pioneer of one of the first dramatic films ever made The Great Train Robbery (1903). The 20-minute vignette was based on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel of the same name (first published in 1851), and features Lincoln, as a specter of freedom with his hand over a slave, in its closing tableau shot of Uncle Tom’s death. This, of course, was an embellishment of Stowe’s novel—for it was published almost a decade prior to Lincoln’s election to president—but it set the stage for Lincoln’s first role as a pardoner. In this case, he grants symbolic reprieve to Uncle Tom in his death, showing him that his efforts in life help yield to the eventual liberation of his entire race.
Roughly fifty-four Lincoln films would follow in the Silent Era, over half of which no longer exist in public record. Of the ones we can recount, only a handful put Lincoln in a main role; the rest keeping him to incidental appearances, often only to appear, act in some official capacity, and then hastily depart. A great number of these films continued the trope of ‘Lincoln the Pardoner’—he would be shown granting clemency to one of the characters in the production, usually someone who had been unjustly sentenced to death by a military court for, say, mistakenly being convicted for being rebel spies, or falling asleep while on guard duty, or deserting their posts due to circumstances beyond his control. And always, Lincoln saves them. In nine films Lincoln pardons Union sentries. He pardons Southern officers (including Shirley Temple’s film father, John Boles, in The Littlest Rebel (1935) in seven films. He pardons “the man without a country,” Philip Nolan, in three films and a miniseries. And, somewhat differently, in Of Human Hearts (1938) he tells Jimmy Stewart that he will not pardon him unless he writes to his mother, which he later does. (Some of these films were produced long after the Silent Era, but still the great majority came before 1929.)
As so many of these films arrived in the lifetime of those who lived through the Civil War, and certainly those still scrambling through Reconstruction, it seems likely these films found favor as a sort of remedy or retribution for the 600,000 lives lost in the war. Seeing Lincoln save the lives of so many people on screen must have given pause to those who’d lost so many friends and family. The myth of Father Abraham was thus nurtured and burnished in these films—a myth based on “the gentle legend” of Lincoln put forth by Merrill Peterson in Lincoln in American Memory. “Stories of his pardons and reprieves, of his acts of kindness to soldiers and mothers, lovers and widows, were well known at the time of his death,” writes Peterson, “they increased manifold afterwards.” Indeed, government documents from the Civil War period, many of them written in Lincoln’s own handwriting, show that he often responded favorably to requests for clemency. So indeed this trope was historically accurate, and was one that was favored by ex-unionists and ex-confederates alike—that after the war the nation would spurn further bloodshed and accept reunion, as Lincoln puts it in the final words of the Second Inaugural Address, “with malice toward none; with charity for all.” Such sentiment emerged in the kinship between Lincoln and a certain legion of loyalists; they trusted him as he trusted them. As Barry Schwartz more succinctly puts it, “Clemency narratives are about compassion and sympathy overriding the demands of justice. They say nothing about the society, but their themes typify the political context in which they are told.”
Among these films featuring Lincoln in this pardoning role, Vitagraph’s The Reprieve (1908) is based on an actual, rather famous incident concerning a Union soldier, William Scott, who in 1861 fell asleep on guard duty and was sentenced to death. The film is most notable, however, for being the first performance of Ralph Ince as Lincoln on screen. Ince’s performance in the film was so well received, that he would go on to play the role in nine more films over the next ten years, making him one of the most prolific screen Lincolns of all time. He was also, notably, one of the least accurate visual stand-ins for the president—short with broad shoulders and a narrow nose. However, the combination of high-grain, low-resolution film stocks as well as what’s rumored to be an especially powerful performance (no copies of his films are easily available) likely covered up such inaccuracy.
Mark Reinhart calls attention to the rather interesting detail that despite the fact that Ralph Ince’s brother Thomas was a very successful film director at the time and the most serious rival to legendary filmmaker D.W. Griffith, he for some unknown reason, chose not to cast his brother in his own Lincoln war epic The Battle of Gettysburg (1913), which was a film that would partially inspire Griffith to create his own Civil War epic two years later—his masterpiece, Birth of a Nation. Based on Dixon’s The Clansmen, Griffith’s 1915 film is considered one of the best and worst silent films of all time. A textbook of revolutionary filmmaking techniques, the film was a sensation released to a gape-mouthed audience of over two hundred million in the years following its release. In the film, Griffith, a white supremacist himself, depicts slavery in a halcyon light, showing African Americans to be good for little else than subservience and labor; it put forth the claim that radical Republicans had misinformed the slaves into asserting an abusive dominion over Southern whites. The film has typically been received as horrid and racist, doubly so to any modern audience, but among its more noteworthy points, surprisingly, is its glowing portrayal of Lincoln.
In his first appearance, barely a minute long, Lincoln signs a document requesting for more troops. Ten congressmen surround him: He is sitting, then stands and gets the document, sits again and signs it. Pained by his murderous decision, he then takes off his glasses, wipes his eyes, clasps his hands, and begins to pray. In the second appearance, roughly two minutes long, Lincoln is sitting in the same office receiving visitors. Two of the film’s main characters, Margaret Cameron and Elsie Stoneman, come in, seeking “The Great One” (per the intertitle) to pardon Cameron’s wounded and hospitalized son. Upon greeting the two women, Lincoln immediately signals ‘no,’ but then right as they’re about to leave, reaches out to Mrs. Cameron’s arm, and with a “Great Heart” changes his mind. In a third scene, Lincoln meets with Austin Stoneman, a diehard Unionist, who argues, “[The Confederate] leaders should be hanged,” to which Lincoln conciliates, “I shall deal with them as if they have never been away.” Finally, in his fourth and last appearance, at about four minutes in length, Lincoln’s murder in Ford’s Theater is graphically and accurately depicted.
In each scene we see some of Griffith’s greatest innovations: under-acting, a new lexicon of gesture of movement introduced to counteract the hackneyed theatrical modes of pantomime, and the principle features that would soon underpin all saga—melodrama, suspense, disaster, love. The view of Lincoln advanced was less groundbreaking, reflecting the way in which many Southerners at the time had come to view Lincoln as a reaffirmation of the values of an older America and the greatest ally the South had moving into Reconstruction. This is “Lincoln the Pardoner” at its most extreme, wherein he is depicted as a reluctant abolitionist. Griffith’s Lincoln, ironically, is presented as a hero to the hostile Southerners, an almost Moses-like figure—unable to reach the Promised Land he helped to create. The film further suggests that had Lincoln had lived, this new (white) American nation would have been born much sooner. In practice, of course, there’s little evidence to say this would’ve been true. While Lincoln did indeed hope to treat the South with considerable leniency, he never directly expressed sympathy toward its supremacist factions.
A final film worth noting from the Silent Era is The Dramatic Life of Abraham Lincoln (1924), which was one of the first films where George Billings would take the role of Lincoln—as he would do on half a dozen other occasions. The film also remains one of only two biopics that attempt to tell Lincoln’s story from birth until death. Unfortunately the film was not available for viewing, but Reinhart is particularly adamant in calling it “a thoroughly researched and lavishly produce depiction of Lincoln’s life.”
The Classical Era (1929-1939)
With the rise of the talkies in the late 1920s, Lincoln films made two dramatic shifts. First, as the witnesses to the Civil War gradually passed on, Lincoln became more of a memorialized figure and less of a martyred one. In a way it was a sore loss, too—many of the early films were made only 50 years after Lincoln’s assassination. In their more personal understanding of the context, it could be argued that such films capture Lincoln’s image better than any modern work.
In the meantime, sound, the second catalyst of change, presented an unforeseen challenge in attempting to portray Lincoln realistically. Actors and filmmakers assumed that a man so godlike in action must’ve had a godlike voice. Beginning in the this period and lasting only until recently, the vast majority of actors who’ve portrayed Lincoln have delivered their lines just as people expected to hear them—in deep, resonant, and wholly unrealistic tones. In fact, by all contemporary accounts, the opposite was true: he had a shrill, high-pitched, piping, almost falsetto voice that could be heard a long distance. Taking note of its “involuntary comical awkwardness,” a New York Herald reporter once noted that although “sharp and powerful,” Lincoln’s voice had “a frequent tendency to dwindle into a sharp and unpleasant sound.” It starts out “thin” and “squeaky,” said another, “It seemed to me pitched most uncomfortably high, and to come out with labor.” In 1929, Billings reappeared as Lincoln in the American Film Foundation’s sound short Lincoln where he was featured standing in front of a dark background, delivering the Gettysburg Address. Billings, according to Reinhart, was one of the first actors to fall into the trap of thinking that Lincoln’s voice had to sound deep and overly dramatic. Reinhart notes, “as he delivers Lincoln’s most famous speech, he sounds as if he is trying to impersonate God Himself, not an actual human being.”
Following Billings, the Classical Era also saw the rise Frank McGlynn Sr., who would go on to play the character in thirteen films (in addition to a slew of stage performances), making him the most recurrent screen Lincoln of all time. His most famous performance would be in the Shirley Temple Civil War drama The Littlest Rebel (1935). In the film’s climactic scene, reminiscent of the “Lincoln the pardoner” trope found in so many early silent films, he authorizes the release of Shirley Temple’s father who has been unjustly sentenced to death for his Confederate allegiance. McGlynn’s interpretation of Lincoln, no better exemplified than in The Littlest Rebel, might best be described as that of grandfather of the nation. As “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” swells solemnly in the background, he pulls Shirley Temple onto his lap, and in Santa-like fashion asks her what he can do to make things right.
The Classical Period is, in large part, this: Lincoln was glorified in film as wise and honest politician arriving, quite fittingly, in the midst of the Great Depression when it seemed to so many Americans that their politicians were anything but. Peterson draws our attention, quite acutely, to Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), which tells the story of idealist senator Jefferson Smith, played by Jimmy Stewart, who arrives in Washington, gushing patriotism, only to have his dreams destroyed when his bill to build a boy’s camp is ruined by the corrupt elite. Shattered, Mr. Smith makes a nighttime pilgrimage to the Lincoln Memorial. Peterson goes on,
He stands before the statue, he reads the words engraved on marble, and he is inspired to persevere. “That Lincoln Memorial — ” he says to his hardboiled aide Saunders, played by Jean Arthur, “gee whiz! Mr. Lincoln, there he is looking straight at you as you come up the steps. Just sitting there, like he was waiting for somebody to come alone.” And Saunders replies, “Mr. Lincoln…was waiting for somebody. He was waiting for you, Jeff.”
Lincoln, just as he was conceived by Mr. Smith, became the peroration of honor and patriotism, cast mightily against the jingoist chorus and abusive oligarchs then in Congress. All negative, perverse, and propagandist connotations were stripped during the Classical Era. As the country descended farther and father into the Depression, Lincoln ascended as a reminder of how they could climb back to the top, just as the country had (sort of) done post Civil War.
To drive the point home, we might look at the second and, to date, the last attempt to chronicle Lincoln’s life from birth to death in film — D.W. Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln (1930). Walter Hurston, who had portrayed Lincoln in The Birth of the Nation, was lauded for his subtle and natural reappearance; the film was marred, however, by an overly-simplistic and historically inaccurate script that was unattended to due to Griffith’s descent into alcoholism. Still, the themes were consistent with the era. Unlike The Birth of the Nation, Griffith paid little attention to the issue of supremacy; instead he glorified Lincoln’s life as one founded upon an authentic American experience. Following the assassination, the final scene cuts between the log cabin where Lincoln grew up and the Lincoln Memorial, ending eventually with a backlit aureole of Lincoln’s statue at the Memorial as a chorus swells in the background, signing, yet again, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
The Classical Period ended with arrival of World War II, but not before the premier of two of what are often considered Lincoln’s greatest portrayals: Young Mr. Lincoln in late 1939 starring Henry Fonda in its title role, and Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940) starring Raymond Massey just a few months later. Both films enjoyed critical success and have remained among the most well known and most widely screened Lincoln films.
Despite its entertainment value, however, Young Mr. Lincoln has long been considered an over-romanticized account or canonization of the life of the actual flesh-and-blood Lincoln. Fonda has a long stride, a nose on loan from Pinocchio, and the winning tone of a commoner, which is used to unforgettable effect in his subduing of a lynch mob. He spends the film splitting rails, judging a pie contest, entertaining crowds with surly anecdotes, and, to top it all off, single-handedly saving two innocent men from the gallows. Though the trial is based on Lincoln’s actual defense of the accuse murderer Duff Armstrong in 1858, the film achieves little in the way of historical truth, sacrificing it for the sake of supposedly better drama (note the storm clouds in the final shot). “By gee, that’s al there is to it,” Abe says, musing on a book of law. “I may not know much about the law, but I know what’s right!” he later adds. Interestingly, when Fonda was first offered the title role in Young Mr. Lincoln, he turned it down, being too much in awe of Lincoln to believe he could play the part convincingly. Unwilling to accept Fonda’s decision, director John Ford called the rising young star into his office. “What’s all this bullshit about you not wanting to play Abraham Lincoln?” Ford erupted. “You’re not playing the Great Emancipator. You’re playing a jacklegged lawyer from Springfield, Illinois, a gawky kid still wet behind the ears who rides a mule because he can’t afford a horse!” Ford himself had doubts about the project before he began.
Abe Lincoln in Illinois, based on Robert Sherwood’s adaptation of his own stage play, suffers as well from a largely historically inaccurate script, plagued by a number of popular myths regarding Lincoln’s life such as an overly-dramatized relationships with Ann Rutledge and bitter rendering of Mary Todd. Most critically, Lincoln’s many-faceted personality does not emerge in a script that very much calls for it. He seems dutiful and doomed rather than wanting and ambitious. Still, Massey, in his unfailingly homespun portrayal, conveys Lincoln’s wit and likability near perfectly. And when he debates against Douglas, he does so with sincerest conviction, although the words of the “house divided” speech come from a mishmash of correspondences and writings. Still, Massey garnered an Oscar nomination and his career was forever recognized for the role. The apocryphal anecdote was that he would never be satisfied until he was assassinated.
The Modern Era (1939-1960)
Young Mr. Lincoln and Abe Lincoln in Illinois were the last of their kind. For over seventy years there wasn’t a single major film released with Lincoln in a main role, save a few made-for-television miniseries and a number of Ken Burns and Ken Burnsesque documentaries. We might attribute this decline to a number of factors: our re-exposure to the traumatic realities of war in both World War II and Vietnam; the flattening reputation of the Republican Party amid neoconservative spoilage and Watergate; the emergence of JFK as a new national martyr; the country’s lasting embrace of FDR as a president of equal accomplishment; the arrival of Civil Rights and the fear of it being haunted by Lincoln’s equivocality toward colonization and his original reluctance to free the slaves. Add to these a lapsed constitutional integrity, perversion of executive power, and the waning credibility and crisis of America’s so-called “experiment with democracy,” and it’s not hard to see why Lincoln might’ve fallen off the cannon—not just in film, but in all forms of culture and politics. As Barry Schwartz argues in Abraham Lincoln and the Forge of National Memory:
Between the turn of the century and 1945, Lincoln was idealized. Prints showed him holding Theodore Roosevelt’s hand and pointing him in the right direction, or hovering in ethereal splendor behind Woodrow Wilson as he contemplated matters of war and peace…By the 1960s, however, traditional pictures had disappeared and been replaced by a new kind of representation on billboards, posters, cartoons, and magazine covers. Here Lincoln is shown wearing a party hat and blowing a whistle to mark a bank’s anniversary; there he is playing a saxophone to announce a rock concert; elsewhere he is depicted arm in arm with a seductive Marilyn Monroe, or sitting upon his Lincoln Memorial chair of state grasping a can of beer, or wearing sunglasses and looking “cool,” or exchanging Valentine cards with George Washington to signify that Valentine’s Day had displaced their own birthday celebrations. Post-1960s commemorative iconography articulates the diminishing of Lincoln’s dignity.
Specific to the film, we might also consider the possibility that the film industry had just decided that Lincoln was passé, that he had been ‘done’ and explored in every way possible (which we’ve established is near impossible). Among the scant few films that did feature Lincoln during this period, only a handful are worth highlighting. The Tall Target (1951) was the last of eight films to be made focusing on the events of Lincoln’s assassination. Likewise, How the West Was Won (1964) reprised Massey in his original role and rounded out Lincoln’s eight-film history westerns, in which he only ever acted in cameo, arriving to send along some stalwart like Joel McCrea to save the Union, as in Wells Fargo (1937). This trope, by the way, is the commonest among all president figures in film—the “Your country needs you” / “Unless God help us, you’re the only one that can save the nation” theme we now see recurrent in superhero films, secret agent films, and the like.
The Postmodern Era (1961-2012)
Lincoln’s place in the Postmodern period unfolded in two waves. It began with a brief reemergence of Lincoln as a main character with the notable, but low-production efforts of The Blue and the Gray (1982) starring Gregory Peck, North and South (1985) starring Hal Holbrook, and Gore Vidal’s Lincoln (1988) starring Sam Waterson. Peck and Waterson performances were noted for their accuracy, but they paled to that of Holbrook, who even without his false cheekbones, false ears, false nose, wig, and false beard, would’ve been utterly convincing as Lincoln. Certainly his portrayal didn’t carry the same cinematic weight of Massey’s or Fonda’s, but it was far more accurate. With Holbrook, Lincoln was once and for all attempted in his many complexities, that of a rough-edged man who talked in a high-pitch and whose common exterior disguised an intellectual and political brilliance that often surprised friends and enemies alike. To an audience of keen-eyed historians, there’s no doubt that Holbrook’s performance would be among the most highly regarded.
Among the least regarded, then, would be John Anderson’s in The Lincoln Conspiracy (1977). Released a few years after the Watergate scandal, it presented fraudulent evidence to support the claim that the U.S. government was partially responsible for Lincoln’s murder, incriminating our very own Edwin Stanton in particular. The film says much more about America’s growing distrust for its elected leaders, and the entertainment industry’s willingness to cash in on that distrust at the expense of historical fact, than it does about who really killed Abraham Lincoln.
On the flip side of Hollywood’s manipulation of Lincoln, the Postmodern Era began cast Lincoln in parodies and counterfactuals. In these films, Lincoln’s image was bastardized for it’s outmoded, but ubiquitous appearance; it was reduced to a beard, a mole, an undersized black frock coat covering a gangly-postured and out-of-proportion body, a tall hat with a silk mourning band, and a cashmere necktie over an uncommonly prominent Adam’s apple. Lincoln became a caricature of the inaccurate Lincoln’s of earlier art and cinema—a double reduction. These are the films that play on history for the sake of humor—and, indeed, so many are entertaining to that end. There are eight major films in this category including Lincoln’s Van Helsing alter ego in the recent action-horror Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer (2012) and, most famously, the sendup time traveler in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989), who at the end of the film recites a Gettysburg Address-like speech that’s too good not to quote in full:
Fourscore and…[looks at his pocket watch]…seven minutes ago, we, your forefathers, were brought forth upon a most excellent adventure conceived by our new friends, Bill…and Ted. These two great gentlemen are dedicated to a proposition which was true in my time, just as it’s true today. Be excellent to each other. And…PARTY ON, DUDES!
If the Modern Era was when Lincoln was actively despised, the Postmodern Era was when he was, with some exceptions, either lampooned or disregarded. Ask a classroom of schoolchildren to quote the Gettysburg Address in the early 1990s, and you’d more than likely end up with most of them recounting the Bill and Ted version. The same might’ve been true for children today, if it weren’t for the release and success of the most recent and arguably the overall best Lincoln film portrayal to-date—that of Daniel Day-Lewis in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012).
Finding Lincoln, Lincoln Found
Tall and thin, with big hands, a long neck, and a bone structure of the right, sad concavity, Day-Lewis physically resembled Lincoln more nearly than any of his predecessors. In Lincoln his eyes are tender, soulful, convincingly weary. He’s stoop-shouldered and often lost as to wear to place his hands, sometimes losing track of them in unfinished gesture. He’s neither as zombified as Huston, nor as brash and self-assured as Fonda, nor as stagy and ponderous as Massey. Unlike Holbrook, he’s refined for the camera. Some of his frowns, like his conspiratorial smiles, exist less in response to others than for the benefit of private rumination; the film has barely begun before he is quoting Hamlet, on bad dreams, in the midst of a chat with his wife.
Day-Lewis prepared for the part mostly by reading. He began with Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book—on which the script was based—and then poured over Lincoln’s own writing before finishing up with the Carl Sandburg biography. In an interview with the New York Times, he said he also spent a lot of time studying the photographs taken toward the end of Lincoln’s life by Alexander Gardner. “I looked at them the way you sometimes look at your own reflection in a mirror and wonder who that person is looking back at you,” he said.
It’s clear that Day-Lewis understood that Lincoln wouldn’t easily be placed, and that the best he could do was to amalgamate those features he felt to be the most genuine. In an interview with NPR, he spoke as such:
[Lincoln] has been mythologized to such an extent, and therefore dehumanized. And of course the minute you begin to look for him, you find him very easily, because he’s so accessible. As he was in his life, so he is now. And part of that great accessibility is through his own words and the richness of his writing, both in the beautiful speeches…[and] also the letters as well—the very intimate and personal letters. And they create this wonderfully broad avenue that leads you right to him…Luckily with something of this kind, no one can categorically say that I didn’t [get it right] because there are no recordings, so there’s a great freedom there. But you take all the clues that you can.
It’s hard to compete with an actor often regarded as one of the best—arguably the best currently alive. Perhaps, advantaging him is the fact that, having grown up in the UK, he knew very little of Lincoln before the production—and so Lincoln’s image remained largely unsullied to him. Most impressively, though, against his British accent, he apparently came closer to Lincoln’s voice than any other existing film performance. You can hear Kentucky in his voice, high and tinny and able to carry cleanly across the crowds.
Film scholars can critique an actor’s portrayal of a historical figure on nine clear counts—dress, body, voice, facial expression, clothing, posture, gesture, manner, and oratory. And on all nine, Day-Lewis hits it home. Spielberg’s work, however, doesn’t quite lime. The film’s editing and pacing have been called into question by a number of critics, as has its final scene: Lincoln’s death. Most frustrating was the presence of Lincoln’s son, Robert, in the scene; for in actuality, Robert wasn’t present at the time of his father’s death. Most curiously, however, was Spielberg’s decision to end in a flashback to Lincoln’s Second Inaugural—an address, focused on reunion, that had little to do with the legislative drama unfolding in the film henceforth. Perhaps it was done in an attempt to reemphasize the depth and complexity of Lincoln’s rhetoric (the film opened with the Gettysburg Address). Or perhaps it was an attempt to come full circle on the pardoner and redeemer of the nation theme upon which Lincoln debuted in cinema.
We’ve come full circle ourselves. It’s somewhat too early to tell how the film’s production and worldwide acclaim has and will affect the world’s understanding and the country’s future filmic portrayals of Lincoln. I’m nevertheless inclined to predict the arrival of more historically accurate renderings of Lincoln, replete with all the Jefferson Smith glory he had prior to World War II. If the economic and political downturn then yielded such result, perhaps this new one will as well.
And yet, one can’t help but wince slightly at the last sentence of Day-Lewis’s performance of the second inaugural. “And for all nations,” he says, intoning up as if to leave the sentence hanging, suggesting perhaps that his words were unfinished, that, spoken as a question, they need an answer. So we return to the pedantic fortissimo of looking for Lincoln, to the sustained raking of anecdotes and artifacts—an effort that feels almost archeological. Perhaps this was the film’s final suggestion of Lincoln’s varied and precarious character. Perhaps this was the film’s nod to the fact that Lincoln will never quite be pinned down or summed up. It’s all the more fitting then, that the last line prior to the flashback is Stanton’s: “Now he belongs to the ages.” If Lincoln truly belonged to the angels, his legend would’ve been sanctified in prophecy and rendered absolute. But instead he belongs to the ages, to us—to our impressions and projections, to our eras and epochs—as we seek out that performance wherein the true character of Lincoln may lie and as we watch, on alternating pages, the gradual reassembly of him.