It’s been over 70 years since Hollywood produced a biographical feature film on Lincoln. It’s been over 80 years since Hollywood released a biographical feature touching on Lincoln’s presidency. That movie was Abraham Lincoln (1930), and its director was the renowned D.W. Griffith, who had made the Civil War and Reconstruction saga Birth of a Nation 15 years earlier. (Okay, last spring’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter counts as a Hollywood feature, and it certainly is based on one real slice of Lincoln’s life: his facility with an ax.)
Two months from now, soon after the presidential election, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln will come to a theater near you. With the accomplished Daniel Day-Lewis playing the president, this movie will mark Lincoln’s Hollywood comeback. RKO’s Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940) — starring Raymond Massey in the performance he’d perfected over a long Broadway run — was the last biopic feature to appear. And that classic film took Lincoln’s life only as far as his departure for Washington on a chilly winter morning in 1861.
Spielberg’s Lincoln won’t try to cover Lincoln’s whole life either. Griffith’s 1930 film showed that that is a nearly impossible task. Too much gets left out, and too many scenes turn out sketchy at best. Spielberg has announced that his Lincoln, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner (“Angels in America”), will address only “the last few months” of Lincoln’s life.
Kushner’s script, says Spielberg, will treat the end of the military action but also probe Lincoln’s role in the January 1865 passage of a House of Representatives resolution for a 13th amendment that could abolish slavery. It appears we’re about to get a cinematic Lincoln we haven’t seen before. This Lincoln cares as much about emancipation as he does about reunion. After 1862 he cares about them equally, since he believes freeing all the slaves he can makes reunion possible, and since banning all future slavery is a necessary step in fulfilling the nation’s democratic destiny.
Contrast this Lincoln with D.W. Griffith’s Lincoln. His films dwelt on Lincoln’s desire to reunify the nation, minimizing his interest in emancipation. Above all else, Griffith’s Lincoln wished for peace between the sections. In the silent Birth of a Nation, Lincoln (played by Griffith crewmember Joseph Henabery) appears at the start of the film as a reluctant warrior: sitting alone at his desk, he dabs his eyes with a handkerchief after signing the first order for volunteers in 1861. By the time of Appomattox in 1865, Lincoln has become the South’s “best friend” (as the Confederate Dr. Cameron calls him), a Christ-like conciliator eager to restore white rule to the former Confederacy.
When the scheming Radical Republican Congressman Austin Stoneman, patterned after Thaddeus Stevens, storms into Lincoln’s office, preaching vengeance on the secessionists, the president tells him (as the dialogue card reads), “I shall deal with them as though they had never been away.” He slowly rises from his chair, stretches up to tower over the Congressman, and peers down at him to dismiss his presumption.
In the 1930 film, Walter Huston’s President Lincoln cares passionately about two things above all: unifying the country and pardoning a young deserter. The merciful Lincoln is matched by the charitable Robert E. Lee: at war’s end, a tired but elegantly attired Lee pardons a Confederate soldier charged with refusing to fight. Setting up this parallel between Lincoln and Lee as gentle, forgiving souls nails down Griffith’s notion that the greatest leaders of 1865, North and South alike, wanted only to rebuild a tranquil Union.
Griffith goes out of his way to assure us that his peace-loving Lincoln is also a hyper-masculine man of the people. “I’m the big buck of this lick,” bellows the burly Huston after besting Jack Armstrong in the famous New Salem wrestling match. He embarks on a playful, romantic love with Ann Rutledge, and later on a convivial friendship with General Grant. His ease with Rutledge and Grant proves he’s a man’s man — one who’ll have no trouble tolerating Mary Lincoln’s henpecking while preserving his sense of humor and his alpha-male sense of command.
If Spielberg’s film gets all the way to Lincoln’s final week of life, I hope it dramatizes Lincoln’s “reconstruction” speech of April 11, 1865, when he went on record in support of voting rights for black veterans and other qualified black men. John Wilkes Booth was in the audience that evening, standing on the north side of the White House. According to one of his associates, speaking after the assassination, Booth saw red when he heard the endorsement of black suffrage fall from Lincoln’s lips. He promised that the president would never deliver another speech.
As Eric Foner points out in his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (2010), the president’s suffrage comment on April 11 doesn’t prove he would have done more than his successor Andrew Johnson to extend the voting rights of freedmen. But it does give us reason to hope that, had he lived, he would have found ways to work with Congressional Republicans in easing African Americans’ passage toward full citizenship, while protecting them against violence and intimidation.