By one count, over 14,000 books have been written about Abraham Lincoln, and new titles continue to appear every year. The cinema, however, has been much less willing to tackle the Great Emancipator’s story. Television has adapted Carl Sandburg and Gore Vidal’s Lincoln works for miniseries, and Lincoln has made cameos in films about others (he’s even starred in a recent vampire fantasy). But only a handful of full-length films are devoted to the most celebrated American. In fact, prior to Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, the last time Honest Abe hit the big screen was, incredibly, 1940.
Most of the major motion pictures about Lincoln have been grand affairs, relatively faithful to history and projecting the Lincoln that most Americans recognize. The earliest is also the most ambitious. D. W. Griffith’s 1930 Abraham Lincoln offers the director’s customary epic sweep: it opens in the howling winter winds of the Kentucky frontier and closes at the Lincoln Memorial to the surging chorus of “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” It also boasts Walter Huston’s wry portrait of Lincoln and—in a theme subsequent treatments would revisit—an odd fixation on his relationship with Anne Rutledge, whom he may have courted while living in New Salem, Illinois.
Griffith’s film is striking today for how it deviates from our modern thinking about the Civil War. It makes nary a mention of slavery. Huston’s passionate dialogue is mostly in defense of reuniting the union. The film treats the Confederacy with deep sympathy; in one elegiac scene, Robert E. Lee collapses in his tent shortly after surrendering at Appomattox. Whatever we think of its attitudes, the film—especially its depiction of the tragic events at Ford’s Theater—still packs a wallop 80-some years later.
Lincoln next appeared on the silver screen nine years later, in John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln. Glowingly photographed by Bert Glennon, who shot many of the director’s films, and featuring a wonderfully sensitive performance by Henry Fonda in the title role, Ford’s take on the legend is poetic Americana, full of striking and iconic images. The story, based on Lincoln’s 1858 murder defense of William Armstrong, presents the youthful Lincoln (to whom Fonda, with the help of a prosthetic nose, bears a striking resemblance) as a humble mensch. He judges pie contests, splits rails, stops lynchings, and again, courts Anne Rutledge (whom Ford presents, as did Griffith, as an inspiration for Lincoln’s greatness.) Ford plays loosely with history but beautifully captures the romantic qualities we associate with the man—the self-effacing wit, the earthy humanity, and the canny courage.
A year later, director John Cromwell brought Robert Sherwood’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Broadway play, Abe Lincoln in Illinois, to the big screen along with its star, Raymond Massey. The Canadian-born actor, whose compelling performance netted an Oscar nomination, plays the future president as a reluctant rescuer, set on his trajectory to greatness by the ambitious demands of his wife, Mary (Ruth Gordon). The film’s arc stretches from Lincoln’s New Salem days to his 1858 Senate run against Stephen Douglas (their debates are captured vividly) and his election as president in 1860. Its moving coda shows Lincoln’s departure from Springfield for Washington in February 1861, using a truncated version of his famous farewell speech.
Seven decades separate Abe Lincoln in Illinois and Spielberg’s Lincoln. Over that time, attitudes and political mores have changed enormously. Lincoln remains a figure of fascination, but as with all of our historical heroes, we take a less romanticized view of him. Some question his title as the Great Emancipator and blanch at his views on race, which certainly seem less enlightened than our own; others see Lincoln as a wartime dictator, hell-bent on curbing civil liberties and trampling the Constitution. Still others explore subjects such as his sexuality or his struggles with depression.
Americans today, or at least those who write history, are fascinated by our leaders’ imperfections, which we often allow to weigh down the magnitude of their achievements. Somewhat surprisingly, Spielberg avoids this contemporary tendency. His film reaffirms Lincoln’s importance, but it does so in a modern context without hammering viewers with the well-known politics of its director or its screenwriter, Tony Kushner.
Any consideration of Lincoln must begin with Daniel Day-Lewis’s hypnotizing turn as the sixteenth president. To describe the performance as an authentic recreation of the man and his mannerisms seems inexact. Until the invention of a time machine provides all the details, Lincoln impersonations can only be informed approximations. Yet the character Day-Lewis brings to life is absorbing. Day-Lewis gives us Lincoln as we wish to see him and as history generally records him: firm in the defense of right, tolerant and understanding, yarn-spinning, and, uniquely among the films discussed here, politically sly.
Kushner’s screenplay, based partially on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals, uses the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution (which outlawed slavery) as a window through which to see the president at work. We see his humor (a coarse tale about Ethan Allen and a British privy is especially amusing) and his contentious marriage and tragic family life. But we also see Lincoln the lobbyist, pressing wavering congressmen into action; and Lincoln the executive, commanding, uniting, and driving his cabinet.
Spielberg’s film falls short of a masterpiece, perhaps partially because of its focus on the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. No matter how powerfully wrought or interesting, this story is ultimately an account of our political process, a fragment of a much larger tale. Its dramatic sweep is thus limited. Additionally, some of the depictions of Lincoln’s domestic life verge on histrionic. A scene in which Lincoln slaps eldest son Robert because of his determination to enlist in the Union Army is Hollywood fiction. Though Robert’s parents stymied his attempt to join the army earlier in the conflict, only relenting as the war neared its end, the president was famously lenient with his children. That the father who “did not scold” (as Robert recalled later in life) would hit his son, even the one with whom he had the most distant relationship, is improbable.
Still, Lincoln is an impressive spectacle, and its success is welcome in an era when our grasp of the American past seems to be slipping. A great deal of our image of Lincoln involves log cabins, rail splitting, and books read by the hearth. These folksy elements of his myth, showcased in the earlier films, are vital: they speak to America as a place of possibilities where anyone can rise. But Abraham Lincoln was also a great and ambitious politician, unafraid of the grimy give-and-take of that profession; a masterful manager of men, unafraid to subordinate his ego to placate others; and a pragmatic thinker, whose views on race and equality gradually advanced. These elements, on full display in Lincoln, saved the union, ended slavery, and set America on course to honor the promises of the Declaration of Independence.
This attention to the centrality of politics is the film’s greatest virtue and easily puts it in league with its predecessors. Lincoln is, to borrow his own words, an altogether fitting and proper tribute to the man.