“How many ages hence Shall this our lofty scene be acted over In states unborn and accents yet unknown?”
Cassius, Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare
Lincoln has been portrayed hundreds of times in films and on tv programs. I thought that no celebration of the 211th birthday of our sixteenth president would be complete without a few examples of how he has been portrayed on the formerly silver screen.
First up we have the vignette above from Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), where the title role is ably played by a young Henry Fonda, ironically a life long Democrat. The film was directed with his usual brilliance by John Ford. The scene above where Lincoln, using humor and an appeal to “the better angels of their nature”, convinces a lynch mob to go home is pure Americana. The film is a heavily fictionalized, even by Hollywood standards, account of the famous 1857 Lincoln almanac murder trial. Of course at the real trial Lincoln was already famous and nearing the end of his legal career, while in the film he is completely unknown and a novice attorney. Fonda is convincing as Lincoln, despite the lack of any physical resemblance, by his use of dry humor throughout the film, very much in the Lincoln mode.
Raymond Massey probably established the gold standard for Lincoln portrayals in Abe Lincoln in Illinois in 1940. Massey resembled Lincoln and his portrayal I have thought is the best invocation of Lincoln on film. Here we have a scene from the Lincoln-Douglas debates, heavily truncated and revised for dramatic purposes. Ironically Massey, portraying an American icon, was a Canadian who served bravely in the Canadian military in both world wars. Gene Lockhart, who was dynamic in the film as Stephen Douglas, the Little Giant, was also a Canadian. When we need good films about American history, perhaps we should call on the Canadians more often! Here is a link to the text and an audio recording of this section of the movie.
Sam Waterston does an OK job in Lincoln (1988), based upon Gore Vidal’s novel, although when I see him the theme from Law and Order plays in my mind and I keep hearing him chant “Depraved indifference!” The novel was one of Vidal’s weaker efforts and leaned too heavily on William Herndon who tried to remake his former law partner in his own image in the book he wrote about Lincoln. The true standout in this tv movie, however, is Mary Tyler Moore, who gives a career destroying, in a just world, in this one she got nominated for an emmy, over the top hysterical performance as Mary Todd Lincoln.
Saving Mr. Lincoln (2013)-Tom Amandes is Lincoln. I thought he looked young in the role but I see he was 54. Amandes portrays Lincoln as a man haunted by death. The deaths of his sons Edward and Willie hit him very hard and he mourns the loss in battle of such friends as Colonel Elmer Ellsworth and Colonel Ned Baker, an old friend of Lincoln and the only US Senator who ever died in battle. Most of all the deaths of the soldiers in the Civil War eat away at him. We see this clearly in a sequence where he is at the military telegraph office in the War Department receiving endless casualty reports during the 1864 Overland Campaign in Virginia, which resulted in 50,000 Union casualties in one month. The film is very much a study of Lincoln and the Grim Reaper with the audience knowing that ultimately Mr. Lincoln’s own life will be claimed.
The human cost of the War is always at the core of the film, as we see in the delivery of the Gettysburg Address where members of the crowd hearing Lincoln are holding pictures of soldier relatives who have died.
This is one of the first portrayals of Lincoln in the “talkies” in D.W. Griffith’s immortal Abraham Lincoln (1930). Walter Huston played Lincoln in 1922 in a silent movie, and so this is his second effort in this role. I find Huston very believable in the role, especially as the war time president. Well worth watching in spite of its age. Huston was yet another Canadian who memorably portrayed the Great Emancipator.
Lincoln (2012)-Daniel Day-Lewis is simply magnificent in the role of Lincoln. He captures well both Lincoln’s role as a far-seeing visionary and a master of mundane nuts and bolts politics. From the trailers I had observed I was concerned that he would portray Lincoln as too emotional, but that is not the case. Day-Lewis portrays Lincoln as he was: a very humane man waging the bloodiest war in our nation’s history and trying to lance the boil of slavery that had poisoned and embittered American life for a quarter of a millennium. He conveys well the human toll that all this imposed upon Lincoln. For a change among Lincoln actors, Daniel Day-Lewis was English rather than Canadian!
Lincoln was an extremely great man and I assume that Lincoln films will continue to be made so long as the American people cherish their history and their freedom. Lincoln loved plays, especially Shakespeare, and I think he would not have been disappointed by this form that his fame has taken.