Discovering the “Reel” Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln was nominated for president on this day in 1860, the first step toward a legacy that continues to shadow those who have worked in the Oval Office since. 156 years later, Abraham Lincoln: the man, is remembered more often as Abraham Lincoln: the myth. With few photographs and even fewer audio recordings, it is difficult for the modern American to grasp our 16th president beyond the iconic speeches and cultural conceptions that loom large in our collective memory.

Even more influential are the countless speeches, poems, statues, songs, books, portraits, plays, and movies that have attempted to represent him. Filmmakers in particular have failed to agree on how to best represent Lincoln on the screen. In the modern era, movies have played the largest role in shaping public memory of America’s 16th president.

Lincoln before Lincoln Brian J. SneeIn the new book, Lincoln before Lincoln: Early Cinematic Adaptations of the Life of America’s Greatest President, author Brian Snee examines six influential screen representations—The Birth of a Nation (1915), Abraham Lincoln (1930), Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940), Sandburg’s Lincoln (1974-1976), and Gore Vidal’s Lincoln (1988)—to reveal how our national perception and memory of Lincoln is adapted and commemorated. The way we depict Lincoln can teach us a lot about the man, and about ourselves. Lincoln’s life, politics, and his untimely death are not simply a part of history, but are also a part of America’s story and how Americans define themselves.

Covering more than a century of film from the silent era up to Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012)—a film which, he argues, marks a seismic shift in the way Hollywood presents the Great Emancipator on screen—Snee shows how Hollywood has adapted the image of our greatest president on the screen, thus shaping and changing his image in the minds of all Americans.

In the following excerpt from Lincoln before Lincoln, Snee considers two of our most recent cultural monuments to the Great Emancipator:

Great Emancipator: Lincoln before Lincoln

In 2009, an unknown writer named Seth Grahame-Smith published what would become a best-selling cult novel, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. The generic mash-up gave Grahame-Smith, who had earned a degree in film from Emerson College, his first real literary success. The book, which lists Jane Austen as coauthor, was quickly optioned by a major film studio, although today the project remains mired in preproduction.

Grahame-Smith next penned another future cult classic, one that Hollywood would waste no time in bringing to the big screen: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. The adaptation was produced by Tim Burton and took the form of an action-horror hybrid that cast Lincoln as a secret assassin who battles vampires, destroying the creatures who feed on the blood of slaves, and with them the need for slavery itself. Although the film performed well in theaters, it was universally panned by critics, who objected not to its historical absurdity but rather to what they saw as a dearth of artistic merit. Whatever the critics thought, audiences loved it. After a half century without a major theatrically released film, Lincoln was back. And he was pissed.

Just four months after Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter appeared in theaters, audiences were offered a far more reverent Lincoln film. Rumors of a Spielberg-directed Lincoln picture had circulated in Hollywood for nearly a decade, ever since Spielberg had optioned the rights to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2005 biography, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. The film was scripted by Tony Kushner and starred Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln. The narrative focused on the final months of Lincoln’s life, including and especially the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, the end of the Civil War, and the buildup to Lincoln’s assassination. To say that it was an enormous success, both financially and critically, would be an understatement. The film was nominated for dozens of awards, and it grossed nearly $300 million.

file_569066_lincoln-movie-poster-08222012-110324For the purposes of [Lincoln before Lincoln], what matters more than the many stark and obvious differences between Spielberg’s Lincoln and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is the one thing they share in common: a focus on Lincoln as the Great Emancipator. Beginning with D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation—an overtly racist film that laments the demise of the Confederacy and celebrates the formation of the Ku Klux Klan—Hollywood routinely minimized or simply ignored Lincoln’s role as the emancipator. Lincoln has enjoyed many incarnations: Savior of the Union, Great Commoner, and the First American, among others. Before 2012, Hollywood had celebrated them all but neglected one: Lincoln as the Great Emancipator.

Like the famous Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., Hollywood subtly reinforced the notion that freeing the slaves was not among Lincoln’s most significant achievements. By accident or design, American movies and miniseries routinely left the emancipator on the cutting room floor while giving a starring role to one of Lincoln’s other manifestations. It was a century-long act of historical revision and powerful memory work likely to have shaped how several generations of American’s understood both Lincoln and his relation to race. And although it came to a very visible end in 2012, it leaves us to ask: How did popular movies and miniseries invite Americans to understand themselves and to remember Lincoln before Lincoln?

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