April 20, 2017
Abraham Lincoln – U.S., 1930
Just fifteen years after touching off a firestorm with The Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffith returned to the Civil War with his “biographical” film Abraham Lincoln. Beginning in 1809 and concluding in 1965, the film could perhaps best be describe as history told by a historian with ADHD, for the film simply never slows down enough to develop any of its story lines. The result of this is a film that resembles someone’s version of a greatest hits collection, a cliff notes version of a great man’s life that simple doesn’t do him or the men and women he interacted with justice.
There are interesting moments of course. (It may be impossible to make a film about Lincoln without at least a few of them.) The film’s opening scene, in which we see the interior of a slave ship and the heartlessness of its crew, effectively reminds viewers of the horrendous institution that was at the heart of the conflict that was to come. Another early scene allows viewers to see the soft side of Lincoln. In the scene, Lincoln (Walter Huston) flirts openly with a young woman named Ann (Una Merkel) and seems to be working his way to a proposal. This scene is followed almost immediately by a heartbreaking deathbed scene after a powerful sickness sweeps through Illinois. Had the movie just focused on this period of time and on that relationship, I would have likely found it absolutely enthralling, for theirs is a story that is not well known and, from what we do see of it, rather poignant.
There’s also a later scene in which Lincoln meets with Ulysses S. Grant that is quite humorous and another in which he and Grant discuss what is to become of the leaders of the Confederacy. Grant – and oddly enough Stephen A. Douglas - is played by E. Alyn Warren, and he and Huston have impeccable timing. Alas, the two characters have too few scenes together, and this feels like a missed opportunity.
All too often the film is on Michael-Bay-like overdrive. Want to know what kind of debater Lincoln was? Too bad. Griffith reduces his debate with Douglas to a series of one-liner sound bites, none of which shed light on what made Lincoln such an effective speaker. Want to understand what drew Lincoln to his wife Mary (Kay Hammond) or understand their relationship better? Good luck. Here, Mary is presented as individualistic, bombastic, nagging, opportunistic, and, ever so often, gentle. In other words, instead of being a fully realized character, she’s whatever the movie needs her to be, and by the end of the film, I was no closer to understanding her than I was when the film began. And then there the film’s surreal mystical element. Lincoln is portrayed as being haunted by prophetic dreams – one that suggests that he isn’t long for the world. It is a distraction.
In Birth of a Nation and America, Griffith’s portrayal of Lincoln was problematic. In the latter film, Lincoln is depicted as a man who sits by himself moping and worrying about the war instead of being actively involved in it. Here, Griffith takes a different, more respectful approach. Lincoln is portrayed as bold, matures into a man of the people, and ultimately decides the buck stops with him. We witness him sitting in the command room awaiting the latest news from the battlefield. And while Lincoln may be a little repetitive – his favorite expression seems to be that the Union must be preserved – at least he repeats a message with sentiments that the real Lincoln wholeheartedly endorsed. This does not mean that there aren’t scenes in which Griffith films Lincoln starring off into space or saying ridiculous things like “I know how I can win the war! Grant!” but at least there are fewer of them.
It feels somewhat sacrilegious to dislike a film about Abraham Lincoln, at least one that does not have the phrase Vampire Hunter attached to it, yet there is no getting around the film’s utter messiness and lack of focus. Its most interesting moments are mostly in the first half, for these are moments not often found in history books or documentaries. The problem is that just as these moments begin to draw you in, the camera fades out, and when they fade back in, the action has moved so far ahead in time as to immediately render your earlier commitment a waste of empathy. When the film finally slows down, it is to focus on Lincoln’s actions during the Civil War, a topic Griffith had already covered in earlier films - and done much more effectively.
Abraham Lincoln is a reminder that the great ones occasionally miss the mark. Griffith just never finds his footing here. While his touch is felt in early scenes, the script works against him, never allowing him to focus his camera and truly use it to its full potential. He gets decent performances from his cast, in particular from Huston and Merkel; however, the film’s best moments do not lead anywhere worthwhile, and what does work is neither original nor unexpected. Just where is it written that a movie about Lincoln has to end with his death? What’s wrong with giving him his moment in the sun, with ending with a long shot of him taking in a moment of pride and then getting back to work? (on DVD)
2 and a half stars