Lincoln has been portrayed hundreds of times in films and on tv programs. I thought that no celebration of the upcoming 200th birthday of our sixteenth president would be complete without a few examples of how the 20th century on film viewed him.
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. Here is a link to a longer excerpt from this film.
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.
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. The pardoning of the soldier with the “cowardly legs” at the beginning of the video clip was based on an actual incident. Huston was yet another Canadian who memorably portrayed Lincoln.
Lincoln appearances in films will probably continue as long as films are made. Spielberg is purportedly planning a Lincoln film for 2011. Liam Neeson is supposed to be cast for Abraham Lincoln, which gives me hope, although an Irish Abe gives me pause, and Tony Kushner, he of Angels in America agit-prop, is the screenwriter, which gives me a headache. Sally Fields is rumored to be Mary Todd Lincoln which I am sure would be a portrayal of such inspired ghastliness as to make us forget all about Mary Tyler Moore.