On Screen: The Lincoln Myth on Film

Abraham Lincoln was a man who walked the earth for fifty-five years, but that’s beside the point. What concerns me here is that he is the central figure of American mythology. In his backwoods lawyer’s black duds he is a rural Hamlet. His already long figure absurdly extended by the stovepipe hat, he is a Don Quixote who triumphs over the world’s cynicism. Re-forging national unity, Lincoln is a Bismarck with heart; on the devastated battlefields he weeps even for the fallen enemy. Legend has him weltering on Ann Rutledge’s grave, but if, unlike Romeo, he finally shuns suicide, it is only to offer up the rest of his life in service until an assassin’s bullet makes him a martyr and a secular saint. Often, when I use the personal pronoun in reference to Lincoln, I have to stop myself from capitalizing the initial “h.”

The Lincoln myth is manifold. Historians combat it, but storytellers make of it what they will. What have those ubiquitous, electronic storytellers, Hollywood filmmakers, done with the Lincoln story? How has the most popular art form contained and altered the most popular myth?

The three most important films about Lincoln, still shown on TV and in re-run movie houses, were all made in the 1930s. Abraham Lincoln was released while America was experiencing its first year of the Great Depression while Abe Lincoln in Illinois and Young Mr. Lincoln opened just as the Depression was about to be overshadowed by World War II and America’s entry onto the world scene as the dominant Western power. Abraham Lincoln was written by, a poet renowned for his patriotic verbal cantata, John Brown’s Body and his short story, The Devil and Daniel Webster, in which American national pride defeats the Prince of Darkness. This script was directed by D.W. Griffith, who had virtually created sophisticated film technique twenty years before but who was now faltering in his dealings with the studio bosses and in his handling of film’s new capacity for sound. (Abraham Lincoln was his first film with spoken dialogue.) Abraham Lincoln in Illinois was written by a successful Broadway playwright, Robert Sherwood, who was also one of F.D.R.’s chief speech-writers. Young Mr. Lincoln was written by left-winger Lamar Trotti and directed by right winger John Ford.

But all these films are influenced more by their makers’ aesthetic tendencies than by their political causes. Abraham Lincoln has the barnstorming hamminess and rather cloying sentimentality of the nineteenth century theater in which Griffith began his career. The Sherwood script is skillfully adapted by the playwright from his own Broadway hit; it retains a theater piece’s oratorical power in the Lincoln-Douglas debate scenes, which retain large chunks of the actual speeches. John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln opened in the same year in which his western, Stagecoach, won great acclaim; indeed, the former movie, with its frontier setting, its fistfights and thwarted lynching, has something of the flavor of a western.

What is the main mythic thrust of each movie? What image of Lincoln does each communicate?

Abraham Lincoln is a cradle-to-grave story. It opens with the camera moving through the storm-swept Kentucky forest to the log cabin where a baby is born. The actors playing relatives and midwife engage in some ham-bone jocularity in which we’re informed that the baby is as homely as sin and won’t amount to much. Then the mother is asked what she wants to name her babe. The scenery-chewing suddenly stops and we get a heart-stopping close-up of Nancy Lincoln’s face, still registering the exhaustion of a difficult birth as she moans the name, “Abraham.” This alternation of outmoded theatrical guff with timeless pathos continues as the film proceeds to tell Lincoln’s life as a kind of cinematic tableau that includes each famous scene, historical or apocryphal.

After the death in Ford’s Theater, we are taken back to the woods again and watch the same camera movement up to the log cabin, which then dissolves to the Lincoln Memorial. One can almost hear the director’s voice crooning, “From these humble roots….” But this framing device is all that binds the film together. There is no governing idea or vision of Lincoln, no conscious ideology or prescription for heroism that would force the director to shape the plot or stylize the filmmaking in any extreme way. As Richard Schickel puts it, in his biography of Griffith, “It (Abraham Lincoln) might. . .have been called something like ‘Beloved Moments with Mr. Lincoln,’ as it was essentially a compilation of the most familiar ‘humanizing’ anecdotes about him. . .and inescapable historical highlights. . . . What Griffith, Benet, and Huston were after, and got, was a sort of folk epic….”

Schickel’s observations seem exactly right to me. Reading a folk epic, we do not look for Flaubertian unity of artistic effect or for the dramatization of ideas that we get from a great Russian novel. We simply follow the progress of the hero. He does this and this, contemplates what he’s done, and then does something else. The drawback of this method is that it results in little cohesion. For instance, there’s no real connection made between the death of Ann Rutledge and the subsequent events in Lincoln’s life other than to make him miss his first appointment at the altar with Mary Todd. The death is simply included as one of the inescapable components of the Lincoln life. It’s given no more dramatic weight than the wrestling match with Jack Armstrong.

On the other hand, since we never feel (unless we’re Marxists or monomaniacs) that every detail of our own lives is predetermined by some idea or overriding vision, the loose sequence of events in Griffith’s film gives it a pleasantly serendipitous quality that corresponds to the loose jointedness of our own daily lives. Things seem to be happening to our hero not because he is the slave of historical forces but because life is simply like that: one damn thing after another.

And one couldn’t ask for a better folk hero than Walter Huston’s Lincoln. He makes the young Abe a gracious Irish giant, fearsome in battle with the Clary Grove’s Boys, tender with women and children, flat-footed in a ballroom but gracefully grave as he responds to the call of destiny. Age and responsibility don’t turn this Lincoln into a sententious bore but give him greater poise. He earns the right to wear that stovepipe hat. It tops him like an eccentric crown.

Very different in scope and purpose are the other two Lincoln films. Both are concerned with Lincoln’s Illinois years, and the Ford-Fonda film deals only with Lincoln’s lawyering. Both ask their audiences to focus on that period in a great man’s life before he is decisively tested, and to regard his early, minor heroism in the light of the major heroism that he will someday display. Both movies are filled with foreshadowing, nudges in the viewer’s ribs to let him know that what is writ small on screen will soon be writ large in the history books. For instance, after young Mr. Lincoln wins his court case, young Mr. Stephen Douglas, your basic Illinois fop who has sneered at Lincoln’s social gaffes, strolls up to the triumphant lawyer: “I will not make the mistake of underestimating you again, sir.” One almost hears the ominous roll of drums as Fate gets ready to knock on the door.

While Abe Lincoln in Illinois shows us the frontier state as an emotional and political smithy in which the future president’s character and principles are formed, in Young Mr. Lincoln, the frontier is something that the young hero detaches himself from and for which he shows a certain disdain. Fonda’s Lincoln has an already formed character, complete, perfect, aloof. His future greatness seems assured in the very way he moves, stands, sits, looks. Raymond Massey and Walter Huston both emphasize Lincoln’s physical ugliness and ungainliness, qualities that forcibly struck almost all his contemporaries as startling, yet somehow likeable. But Fonda’s features are ruggedly beautiful, and the lighting and camera angles amplify rather than mitigate this beauty. If Fonda simply lounges against a storefront, the grace with which he tilts his chair back lets us know that this is a Great Man Taking His Ease.

Fonda/Lincoln is not only better looking than the scruffy yokels who surround him, he is also smarter. He constantly shows them up, sometimes in a rather underhanded way that is excusable in a Great Man Amusing Himself. When Lincoln wins back a client’s money in his first law case, all of the disputed sum is pocketed by Abe as his fee. Called upon at a fair to judge a pie contest, he feeds his face by refusing to name a winner too quickly. During a tug-of-war, he ties his team’s end of the rope onto a cart and lets the horses pull for him. When the jury is being selected for a murder trial, Lincoln asks for no exceptions; he is indifferent, even allowing a drunk to pass, because the jury’s competence is beside the point. Lincoln will expose the real murderer in such an unambiguous way that the jury will have no choice but to acquit his client. (But, in actuality, Lincoln offered his Farmer’s Almanac‘s evidence to a jury of farmers and did trust to their experience for a verdict of not guilty. The real murderer was never exposed.)

In her article for McGill’s Survey of Cinema, Janey Place succinctly describes the image of Lincoln in this film: “he knows, he is, he does not learn; that which he learns does him little good. What he knows on intuition, however, will take him to his fate. He has a special connection to God himself . . . he actually talks with God as he walks off at the end of the film. Thus his value comes not from his culture, but from above. He is essentially a visitor, like most mythic heroes.”

Exactly, and one can scarcely imagine this lordly “visitor” ever bidding Illinois an affectionate adieu on his way to the White House.

But that eloquent farewell to the people of Illinois made on the back platform of the Washington-bound train is the most famous scene of Abe Lincoln in Illinois, one of the most shrewdly calculated heart-tugging moments in theatrical or cinematic history. And it is the logical conclusion of everything that’s happened in the preceding drama. For Robert Sherwood’s Lincoln, like Robert Bolt’s Thomas More in A Man For All Seasons, is a reluctant hero, a man who wants his own potential for greatness to go unnoticed. He loves his Illinois home, and, far from being ineffably superior to the yokels around him, is only able to gain prominence by being helped by the townspeople with gifts of money, education, and recommendations for public office. He would be happy to remain among them and fears leaving for any big city because he has had mystic premonitions that he will be killed there.

But because he realizes that he can be the major force in preserving the nation, Lincoln deliberately twists the course of his career from private practice to public service. The agent of this change is Mary Todd, played by Ruth Gordon with maximum repulsiveness as an alternately smirking and shrilling shrew. Lincoln’s decision to marry her is a form of self-immolation. He realizes that she will spur him on to success, and, achieving political power, he will be able to complete his duty.

But spurs hurt. The final scene between husband and wife on the night of his election is a bitter one. Driven by hysteria, Mary lashes out at her husband’s campaign cronies. His patience at an end, Lincoln sends his aides out of the room and gives Mary the first tongue-lashing that she’s ever received from him. Mortified, she replies that this, his election, is the night she has dreamed of all her life and now all is ruined for her. The implications of her speech are even more bitter than the contents. Apparently, she has dreamed of vicarious political success all her life, and Lincoln is merely the instrument of her triumph. Now that he has silenced her, “all is ruined.” Sherwood allows little sympathy for Mary, who, after all, may have been mentally afflicted. In his dramatic design, she is mainly the agent of Lincoln’s martyrdom.

I find something fishy about Sherwood’s handling of Lincoln’s private life. Couldn’t Lincoln have wrenched himself towards public service without giving himself a wretched private life? Robert Bolt portrays Alice More as a bit of a shrew in A Man For All Seasons, but without making her the catalyst of More’s martyrdom. In fact, the difference between Bolt’s portrait of a great man’s family life and Sherwood’s is the difference between an artist’s vision of human complexity and a theatrical engineer’s blueprint.

But, as if in compensation, Abe Lincoln in Illinois is strong in the public scenes of Lincoln’s life, particularly the debates. Sherwood’s own experience in FDR’s camp doubtless gave him an appreciation for political rhetoric. In the scene of the first Lincoln-Douglas debate, he gives us good excerpts of each rival’s speech. In other words, when Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas become the scriptwriters of Abe Lincoln in Illinois, the movie suddenly and sharply improves.

The actors rise to the occasion. Instead of timidly toning down the flamboyance of nineteenth-century speechifying, Raymond Massey and Gene Lockhart imaginatively recreate it for us. Lockhart isn’t above sawing the air with his hands or ranting, but he shows us that such flamboyance may have captured the attention of a rural crowd used to strolling Shakespearean players and hellfire preachers. His Douglas is neither a hissable villain nor a ridiculous fop but a formidable opponent. And, in his turn, Massey doesn’t tiresomely underplay Lincoln but shows us the grandiloquent style of a man driven to poetry by moral certitude.

Which Lincoln do I prefer? Fonda’s backwoods, wisecracking ubermensch? Massey’s lugubrious but eloquent martyr? Or Walter Huston’s lumbering, kindly giant? My frankly prejudiced choice is for the last. All three actors are fine, but the skills of Massey and Fonda are placed at the service of visions of Lincoln that seem to me to be too narrow, and too flattering to their audiences. What man wouldn’t like to see himself as so driven to a grand destiny that he can’t afford time to find himself a decent private life as well? Abe Lincoln in Illinois is a movie for tired liberals enduring dead-end marriages. And what young man chaffing at the trivialities of his origins, wouldn’t love to perceive himself as moving within an aureole of future greatness? Young Mr. Lincoln is a movie for the arrogant young.

For people like myself too young to sigh and too old to crow, D.W. Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln, with its open vision of a man responding to each setback and opportunity as it comes, is just the ticket. And if only more great men were like Walter Huston’s Lincoln: full of self-denigrating humor and a strength too immense to be cruel.

  • Richard Alleva

    At the time he wrote this review, Richard Alleva was a free-lance writer living in Washington D.C. He still works as a film critic for publications such as Commonweal today.

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