Friday, November 30, 2012

The Lincoln Myth on Film


I'm a drunk, not a historian. I'm not the person with the right credentials to write what I'm about to write, but I'm the only one here so I guess I'll get to it:




Well, it turns out Lincoln was a masterpiece.

It's possessed with the sure hand a great filmmaker achieves on the south side of a long career, like Bergman in Autumn Sonata or Kurasawa in Ran (a film which certainly left a stylistic mark on the opening of Lincoln).

Spielberg is working here with his best cast since Jaws, each actor bringing a rich intelligence to their roles (JGL straight-up is Robert Lincoln). I almost can't believe it works as well as it does. What a task it must've been to weave so elegant and uncluttered a tale of complex political scheming without a second's dragtime. And how about that ability to evoke an era pre-electric lights, those dense and unnerving pools of shadow just out of window reach! Like Spielberg's misunderstood and under-appreciated War Horse, it borrowed John Ford's visual style and subtly modernized it, and like Tony Kushner's seminal Angels in America, it uses a historio-mythic underpinning to tell us a lot about ourselves today.

The Lincoln Myth is good for that.


It's practically out of Homer, isn't it? The great leader unsupported by his allies and his opposition; the legal mind who crafted an easy peace by merely refusing to recognize the legal possibility of dissolution; the tragic agony of Mary Todd, the true abolitionist with brothers in the confederacy; the premonitions of his own death; the rivers of blood spilt for a higher moral calling; and finally the man shot in the theater, the last casualty of the war, dead in the middle of the peace celebration.


See, when Abe Lincoln died, Secretary of State Edwin Stanton said, "now he belongs to the ages," and he was more right than he even realized. There is no Abraham Lincoln anymore. Like any man, the more we try to know him, the less we can truly understand his heart. The historical record is muddied by the wealth of documentation from a thousand sources all revealing a different facet of the kaleidoscopic Lincoln persona. He has become all things to all people, a resilient and malleable source of political and ethical inspiration; a secular American martyr who died that the nation might baptize itself, free (in word if not always in deed) of its original sin.

That's a good thing, I think. Despite the perennial "we're a Christian nation!" shrieking that emanates from the Bible Belt now and again, America is a land without a unifying religious myth. We need a secular one, and Lincoln gives us one to an extent that the also malleable and also resilient Founding Fathers, by mere virtue of their plurality, cannot.

National myths are important because, like Lincoln's famous anecdotes, they can stealthily recast the trials of the present to gain some perspective. You can tell a lot about where we are by our Lincoln of the hour.

Francis Ford's bear-like Victorian Lincoln in When Lincoln Paid.

Ralph Ince played the first known on-screen Lincoln, in 1908's The Reprieve: An Episode in the Life of Abraham Lincoln. The film, a re-telling of a famous poem about Lincoln's known policy of pardoning young soldiers, was remade a few times, most famously as The Sleeping Sentinel in 1914, and Francis Ford's When Lincoln Paid. These films addressed the man directly and with a heavy-handed infallibility, often culminating with Lincoln himself riding to the rescue in the middle of the battlefield. It's typical of the early years of cinema, the lingering embers of sentimental Victorian melodrama.

Then along came D.W. Griffith and Birth of a Nation, the first film screened at the White House. Though many current film scholars (including Martin Scorsese) prefer now to focus on earlier, less successful epics like Cabiria or Griffith's later Intolerance, in a very real way Birth of a Nation is the nucleus of cinema, the birthplace of the film art. It is a film whose ethical grotesqueness is only matched by its artistic perfection. I hope y'all know your way around Birth of a Nation because in many ways we're still living in its shadow, but just in case, here's the short form: its stirring and perfectly composed tale of the "treachery" of black Americans and the "heroism" of the plantation whites revitalized the dying Ku Klux Klan, showed the world how to structure an enthralling three hour film, and broke attendance records even at a premium ticket price that converts to about $60 a pop in today's dollars. I'm sorry for the quotation marks but I just don't have it in me to type that sentence straight.

Lincoln shows up to issue a pardon for a southern guerrilla (ever the Victorian, that Griffith), and then a short time later in Ford's Theater, to catch a bullet and facilitate Griffith's true interest, the rousing and leering Reconstruction half of the film.

Now, Griffith was the son of a Confederate general and despite his protestations otherwise, he had little regard for the Union. One need look no further for evidence than his 1911 short The Battle, one of his few Civil War pieces with a Union perspective. It's listless and uninvolved, like he can't even be bothered to find any grandeur in an army that must have seemed bullying and dishonorable to such a tediously black-and-white mind. It was pretty well-conceded, though, even among 1915 southerners, that the death of Abraham Lincoln was a major blow to the south. Like Sherman, he sought an easy peace, a true reconciliation after the bloodshed. So there's an interesting tension at work in Griffith's film - an Abe Lincoln who was the south's best ally while simultaneously their worst threat.

Look at how differently Griffith shoots Booth, a man, and Lincoln, a symbol.

He's portrayed textually as a hero, first seen pardoning, not just a soldier, but a Confederate soldier unfairly damned by the heartless wheel of Union oppression. Later, he dies in framing that's mostly copied from Currier & Ives, but with the addition of an arch that isolates Abe in his own frame. He's alone and remote. He is always alone and remote in this film, though John Wilkes Booth is afforded the small character bits, like a moment of brief hesitation before opening the door to Lincoln's box. These little asides, a technique Griffith pioneered, serve to humanize Booth and his actions. He's a relatable and fathomable man. Lincoln is a cold and distant symbol.

Birth of a Nation was a major success but also an instant firestorm of controversy. It was banned in Chicago, the NAACP condemned it, it brought riots and occasional lynchings where ever it went. By all accounts, Griffith was shocked at the accusation of racism. This seems stunning when you watch the blackface rape attempts, but let's keep in mind Shelby Foote's frank observations on the era - white supremacy was so ingrained into Griffith that he couldn't recognize it himself.

Intolerance, a finely majestic but cloying sermon about the dangers of Intolerance, came in 1916. It's generally seen as an attempt at atonement for Birth of a Nation, so too is his ahead-of-its-time-but-now-way-behind-the-times interracial platonic romance Broken Blossoms

I rarely hear it lumped in with that crowd, but I believe that D. W. Griffith's 1930 Abraham Lincoln is something of a response to Birth as well. If it's another apology, it's a backhanded one.

Abraham Lincoln was Griffith's first sound film, and it's very difficult to hide behind the stately distance he employed in Birth when you add sound to the equation, particularly when you commit yourself to a whole hour and a half about the man. So Abraham Lincoln was Griffith's first real attempt at filming Abraham Lincoln, as opposed to a live-action Lincoln memorial. It treads the ground most Lincoln films would come to tread, following the man from his tenure as a rail-splitter through his love for Ann Rutledge, through the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and straight on 'til morning when he -- for the second time in Griffith's filmography -- gets it in the brain at Ford's.

Griffith's 1915 and 1930 versions of the assassination. Notice how isolated and remote Abe is in Birth.

It's interesting to compare the two Griffith assassination scenes. Here, Griffith gives both Lincoln and Booth speeches before the big event. Booth, slithery and hammy, talks of how he'd prefer a dagger like Cassius had. Lincoln, over a big American flag and now ensconced in the same arch as his wife, gives an impromptu speech reiterating "malice towards none," to really hammer home what a jerk Booth was being. Booth slinks along the theater hugging the wall, not boldly striding forth like in Birth. Where Birth gave us a man killing a symbol, Abraham Lincoln gives us Evil cravenly killing Good. Fade to a deliberately artificial looking log cabin, fade to the Lincoln Memorial, and he's installed as Lincoln, The Savior.

Griffith's trying.

It's not a good film. It lacks nuance and therefore it lacks passion. Griffith seems afraid to really probe Lincoln as a man, his only real attempts are the early scenes in which he's a backwoods rasslin' weirdo. There's something vaguely dutiful about the whole thing. It doesn't feel like a story Griffith understands or cherishes, but it is one that he, at that time the Grand Mythmaker of American Film, was obliged to love. It's fascinating, though, because Griffith's Lincoln (played with sloppy charm by Walter Huston) seems to age before us, slowing down and straightening out and becoming more and more as the scenes go by the Lincoln of Myth, that almighty symbol who appears in things like The Road Is Open Again (weirdly paired with the white supremacist Woodrow Wilson who was still at that time considered a great wartime president). The Road Is Open Again is a pro-click because it really puts into perspective how complete and overriding our respect for the man is, that we can be made to sympathize with a bill merely by the presence of a man dressed as him. 

The Road Is Open Again, in which Lincoln is used as a political seal of approval.

D. W. Griffith had a protegé, and any of y'all who've been around this site before probably know what's coming. If I was some kind of film critic wrestler, talking about John Ford would be my finishing move, and now it's time for the suplex kids because in 1939 Ford got it in his head to kinda-sorta remake Griffith's Abraham Lincoln as Young Mr. Lincoln.

Well, let's backtrack a bit. Young Mr. Lincoln is actually John Ford's third Lincoln movie. His 1924 historical cavalcade The Iron Horse had Lincoln pop in and out dealing with matters of the Transcontinental Railroad. His unfaltering faith in the importance of the railroad, and his emphasis on matters of peace instead of war,  is early coloring for Ford's version of Lincoln, which is much different than Griffith's. Ford was no son of the south; he was an Irishman from Rhode Island who had Lincoln in his bones. He seemed to relish the sensual elements of bringing his hero to life, focusing on small, almost inconsequential moments in history, to see Abraham Lincoln as a man. In doing so, he did as much as anyone of his century to cement Lincoln as a figure of myth.

Prisoner of Shark Island's sensual approach to history.

Look at his work in Prisoner of Shark Island, an under-appreciated film about Dr. Samuel Mudd. Lincoln appears in this film only briefly, to die. But what's interesting, and what speaks volumes about the impossibly gifted filmmaking abilities of Ford, is that in his few moments of screen-time, Abraham Lincoln does something here he never did in any of his earlier parts - he lives. It's the little things. We see him briefly, half-watching the play, half-flipping through the playbill. That small, human gesture grounds him far more elegantly and touchingly than the entire first act of Abraham Lincoln. Ford focuses on the small and tactile -- Lincoln's dead hand clutching the playbill, the lace curtains gauzily obscuring his weathered face.

By 1939, John Ford was at the top of his game. Young Mr. Lincoln is a stunning inversion of the biopic, one of the few films to play out in future tense, where most of the drama depends on us knowing what happens after it ends (most recently the 2011 prequel of The Thing uses this technique, albeit not as well). Like Griffith, it focuses the early life of the man. It's almost a variation on Griffith's film, like Vaughan Williams elaborating on Thomas Tallis. One of the film's most beloved sequences, the self-deprecating dance between Abe and Mary Todd, was borrowed from a much briefer dance scene in Griffith's film.

John Cromwell's sadly forgotten Abraham Lincoln in Illinois hit theaters the next year, and the two make a fascinating pair. Each focuses on the pre-Presidency life of the man, and each closes with a stirring moment where he leaves the screen to assume his destiny. Ford, once again echoing Griffith, closes the film with a moment of almost Soviet-style bombast. Young Mr. Lincoln climbs a hill, thunderstorm brewing in the distance, until his image fades into the graven Lincoln Memorial. Cromwell's touch is lighter, but no less punctuative. His Lincoln, having won the Presidency, gives a short, sentimental speech on the back of a train car in Springfield, which then chugs off to the White House.

I love both of these endings. In Ford, Henry Fonda as Lincoln talks with folksy heart about "goin' on a piece, to the top of the hill," in Cromwell, Raymond Massey as Lincoln says he hopes the good folks of Springfield "approve of his new whiskers." In both cases, it's an ascension to manhood, a coming-of-age for the man. They are also, in their way, both death scenes. Young Mr. Lincoln dies in thunder, replaced with the image of Saint President Lincoln. Abe Lincoln in Illinois dies as he leaves Illinois, to be replaced with Abraham Lincoln, no longer a country boy but a statesman. They are symbolic assassinations, giving us the the catharsis you need to close a Lincoln movie.

One thing that fascinates me about these two films is that they both came out while we teetered on the brink of a terrible and inevitable war, one which would determine the course of world events and pay off the long brewing sense that America was ascending to its place as the new world leader. Both told the story of a man (titled in diminutive, Abe or Young Mr.) of great character and great strength emerging from the wilderness and assuming his role, knowing full well (though perhaps not as full as the audience) that it would mean a bloody and painful war, but at the end, a stronger and more just world.

Young Mr. Lincoln and Abe Lincoln in Illinois's complementary travel-as-assassination endings.

Another curious thing I've noticed about this films is Lincoln's voice. Real-world Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln Prime, had a high-pitched and nasal voice, a voice that... well, you saw the movie -- Daniel Day's Lincoln voice. We have a popular sense of a bassy, paternal Lincoln, and even to someone with an intellectual understanding of high-pitched Lincoln, the historical voice sounds out-of-place at first. It's like feathered dinosaurs. We know they were real, there's nothing wrong with it in theory, but it's running perpendicular to everything we knew growing up.

Neither Huston, Fonda, nor Massey quite reach Daniel Day's level, but all three have surprisingly high and soft Abe Lincoln voices to modern ears. I wonder about this. Was this because the motion picture Myth Lincoln was still in its infancy? Was this a brief and uncommented-on bubble of historical accuracy? Or was this just a coincidence? I don't know. If you do, let me know. What I do know, though, is that that voice was about to change.

The '50s had its own bubble, a small spate of works about the Lincoln assassination. Anthony Mann led the pack with his terrific 1951 noir The Tall Target, a tense telling of an early, failed attempt on Lincoln's life. Lincoln's mostly in the background. We instead focus on his bodyguard (in an uncomfortable coincidence, he is named John Kennedy) as he does his damnedest to keep Abe alive. It's a temptingly comic story, isn't it? The stirring triumph of a foiled assassination on Abraham Lincoln of all people. But it is without irony. It's a tense, tight procedural that takes death seriously despite its inevitability. 

The Twilight Zone's Lincoln as a benevolent ghost watching over the Union and Rebel dead.

In 1955, journalist Jim Bishop published a really interesting little book called The Day Lincoln Was Shot. It was a minute-by-minute procedural following Booth and Lincoln the day their paths collided. It's a good little book, one of the best-selling and most read of all Lincoln books. In 1956, Ford Star Jubilee adapted it for television. I've never been able to find a copy of that broadcast, but the talent is jaw-dropping: Lillian Gish as Mary Todd Lincoln, Jack Lemmon as John Wilkes Booth, Raymond Massey as Lincoln, and Charles Laughton narrating, as well as the dependable Delbert Mann directing and scriptwork by Denis and Terry Sanders, veteran screenwriters who had a hand in The DefendersNaked City, and Route 66, the three major spokes of intelligent '60s TV drama as well as the underrated War Hunt.

In 1960, One Step Beyond did a terrific ghostly episode about Lincoln's premonitions of his own death, and a year later, The Twilight Zone put out a wonderful episode called "The Passerby," in which a ghostly Abraham Lincoln passes through frame, identified as "the last casualty of the Civil War." This Jim Bishop period gave us some tender and intelligent works about the meaning and circumstances of Abe Lincoln's death.




And then John Kennedy died.

It did not go over well. The end of Camelot and all that. If the Lincoln story is Homeric, the Kennedy saga is a Shakespearian tragedy. I guess it was only natural for America to look backwards towards our other leader taken in his prime. The useful one, I mean. Nobody was making movies about Garfield or McKinley.

Disney defining and codifying a reading of history

They sure got cracking on Lincoln though, and none more dramatically than Walt Disney, who used the fledging field of animatronics to revive the man in the Hall of Presidents. This towering, weathered, deep-voiced Abe recited his greatest hits ("...all the armies of Europe...") backed with a band and a backdrop of the Capital building (the dome of which was erected during the Lincoln years, seriously this guy is poetry). The Hall of Presidents Abe is the King of Myth Lincolns, and it took the audacity and brilliance of Walt Disney to bring him to life.

The next thing out the gate after the JFK assassination was a 1964 Hallmark remake of Abe Lincoln in Illinois. I've never been able to find it, but I'd love to know how it handled the train-departing-as-assassination ending of the 1940 film.

Lincoln and Uhura's dialogue in "The Savage Curtain" nails Trek's hope in the face of hopelessness

In 1969, while Vietnam raged, the always optimistic Star Trek played one of its strangest episodes. In season 3's "The Savage Curtain," Kirk and Spock team up with an exact duplicate of Abraham Lincoln. This one is in the Disney mold, bassy and paternal. He's even bronzed a bit to look like the surface of a penny. He's wise and loving and the most gravitating figure in the episode. The show, as it always did, uses its alien characters to confront our idolatry since Kirk is enraptured by the man. "History tends to exaggerate," one of the other historical replicas tells us. In the end, in one of the series's more conservative moments, we learn that the whole thing was an extended metaphor to explain how sometimes the ends justify the means. As the bombs fell on Cambodia.

But Lincoln dies in this episode, and that moment is fascinating because it is so clearly and painfully about Kennedy. Kirk tells us that through the witnessing of that death, he understands the hard road we travelled to achieve a better world. Three months later, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.

The '70s gave us Carl Sandburg's Lincoln, a six part miniseries adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize winning biography. What an interesting title - off the bat it tells us this is one Lincoln of many possibilities. It's a gentle look at the man, but one tempered by the war and Watergate. Lincoln is clearly fallible here, a gifted man but a man nonetheless. He even has his high-pitched, Kentucky-tinged voice back. Hal Holbrook played Lincoln here, y'all might recognize him as Preston Blair in Spielberg's film. One of Holbrook's most famous projects was a 1967 one-man play about Mark Twain, and here and there in Carl Sandburg's Lincoln he slips into that same folksy slyness.

I've always been surprised that at this point in US History there was no revisionist Lincoln movie. Seems like in the era of Soldier Blue and 'Doc', there would have come some kind of rejection of the Lincoln story. Now granted there's a major difference between the lives of Wyatt Earp and Abe Lincoln, but a theme of the era was to overturn myths so cherished by the parents and grandparents of the Boomers.

Frank Perry's 'Doc' (1971) epitomizes the post-Vietnam sense of overturning classic American heroes.

I guess the closest we came was Gore Vidal's 1984 novel Lincoln, a magnificent and compelling work of historical fiction. Vidal's work, one of my personal favorites, examines head-on the complexity and seeming contradictions of the man. We watch the famous meeting in which Lincoln urged black clergy leaders to support the idea of black colonization abroad, an equivocating and shameful attempt to dodge racial violence to come. The meeting is a clear-eyed indictment of the times, and an honest look at a man who, extraordinary as he was, was a man of his times indeed. Vidal gives us this moment from the points of view of Lincoln's two secretaries, the dual perspective offering us two different theories on Lincoln's racial philosophy.

In 1988, this novel was adapted for television, in a tremendous two-part NBC miniseries. It's a bit hamstrung by its television budget and it lacks Gore Vidal's studiousness and preternatural sense of historical precision, but it has a few things going for it - firstly, a wonderful set of actors. Lincoln is played by Sam Waterston, who until DDL is supposed to have had the most historically accurate approach to the role. His voice is high, almost shrill, though sentences roll off his tongue with careful meaning. The jewel in the crown here is Mary Tyler Moore as Mary Todd. Mrs. Lincoln is about as close as a woman of her generation could hope to come to playing Hamlet, and Moore runs with it, capturing her agony and intelligence and deep, inscrutable complexity.

"Going all the way back to Herodotus, history is different views of different events.'' - Lamont Johnson, director of Lincoln (1988).

It also retains Vidal's understanding that, for all the talk of rail-splitting and log cabins, Abraham Lincoln was a genius of a politician, probably the best leader of men since Caesar. It's important to remember that this dizzyingly multifaceted man was just as malleable in his own time. I love that the two great schools of common thought on Lincoln are "no president was more loved" versus "no president was more hated." Both are true, but then that's true of every president, isn't it?

Vidal's view of Lincoln seemed to dominate the '80s, and why not? It's as good a version as any, better than most. But the enduring Walt Disney father Lincoln, thank God, never went away. That's a good version, too. It's got as much to do with history as Odysseus's encounter with the cyclops, but we need that too, don't we?

The audience reaction is brilliant. They love it for and despite of its artificiality.

In 1987, Lincoln showed up on screen alongside (among others) Bill S. Preston, Esq., "Ted" Theodore Logan, Joan of Arc, Socrates, and, for the second time in his movie career, Genghis Khan. Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, like Young Mr. Lincoln before it, has a gleeful sense of the importance and fun of historical mythmaking. At the end, when Abe Lincoln helps rock and roll save the world by taking the podium and declaring: "Be excellent to each other, and party on, dudes!", we cheer for the juxtaposition but we also cheer because we kinda sorta believe, or at least need to believe, that Lincoln would say that. America needs to believe that Lincoln would approve of our values, our music, our malls, and our water parks. Abraham Lincoln coming through time to help us ace our history reports is some only half-ironic version of praying to the saints for the same reason.

Lance Henricksen's funereal Lincoln.

Just look at the 1998 adaptation of Jim Bishop's book, The Day Lincoln Was Shot, which cast the impossibly grave Lance Henricksen as a Lincoln who seems from the first frame to be marching only to death. That's not a slight, it's a fairly classical reading of Lincoln to think he knew he was going to die that night, and it's a reading which fit in very well with the midst of the Lewinsky trial, a moment in time when both sides of the political spectrum were disappointed in the pettiness and ugliness of the politics of the day. Granted it seems like we're always in that moment in time, but this was a particularly acute case.  It's a weird version of Lincoln because it's among the most definitively past-tense. Lincoln is played as a daguerreotype in this film, a walking death mask (Henricksen, a tremendous character actor, is best used in things like Aliens and Millenium, which capitalize on his apocalyptic voice and taut skull-like face) from a different era. The Day Lincoln Was Shot is a film about the end of nobility in politics. Lincoln is tired, grand, nostalgic, respectable, and dead. The politics left in his wake, the film suggests, are the undignified howling and backstabbing of the present.

The actors' coda says it all.

A version of Lincoln so sober and self-serious needs to be made fun of, and I don't think anyone has so perfectly as The Whitest Kids U'Know, in two 2007 sketches set in the Presidential box at Ford's Theatre. In the first, Abe is harassed by an escalating series of attacks by Booth, who hits the president with an orange and knocks off his hat, which Lincoln wanted to be his "thing." The second (video above) is the better of the two and genuinely one of the funniest sketches I've ever seen. It finds Abe verbally assaulting poor Booth, who's just trying to watch the best version of Hamlet ever ("We must make sure no vampire have gotten into our... home base."). They're a great skewering of the scope and flag-waving might of our myths. Where would we be, as a nation, if the narrative of the Civil War climaxed with the president yelling "don't break my butt!"?  Lincoln would've loved these. They also have a full-length movie about two men who fight the entire Civil War believing it's about marijuana rights. I really gotta watch that.

AL:VH also uses its genre trappings as a powerful way to explore the real-life ghoulishness of slavery. Screencap from Oscar Moralde's excellent article.

Okay there's one other surprisingly good piece of media about the extent to which we lionize our heroes. Y'all will groan, just like I did until I watched it, but Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a pointed and smart deadpan comedy about how we treat the Lincoln myth. If we believe in his as the deep-voiced, angelic ambassador of Goodness, the man who rode to the rescue to pardon soldiers and saw his own death in a vision, why not as a ninja-trained van Helsing?

Spielberg's Lincoln brings us back to that soldier pardoning scene, grounding it in the context of Lincoln waking up his secretaries with a stack of pardons, a framing that, to my knowledge, is just as fictional as the Victorian versions of the scene, but more palatable to our sense of cinematic realism and narrative impact. 

What a great scene.

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