Six other great films about Lincoln

By on December 15, 2012

Daniel Day-Lewis

Our reviewer Dan Walker is on hiatus this week. In his absence we have noted that Lincoln, which he reviewed enthusiastically, has been cropping up on awards list beginning to appear in the month of December.  The buzz for this film has been impressive. Movie goers have been waiting for it all year. Non-movie-goers report seeing it more than once because there is so much in the film to glean and absorb at a second viewing. It seems clearly a case of all the right elements coming together in the right way at the right time.

Dan’s probing review is also worth a second visit.

D. W. Griffith

There are at least six other classic films about this iconic American figure that are worth a look, each adding something to the story of this remarkable man. They are all currently available for viewing.  We list them below for last-minute gift-giving purposes to anyone who has enjoyed the Spielberg-Daniel Day-Lewis look at Lincoln the man and the legend and wants to see more about this great president.

Walter Huston as Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln  (1930)  This early talking picture is one of two directed by the legendary film-maker D W Griffith. Though often criticized for its static pacing, old-fashioned dialogue and over-the-top silent film style acting, it is worth a look for several reasons — it is closer to the event than any modern film which gives it a documentary feel. It stars later Academy award-winning actor {Treasure of the Sierra Madre}, and patriarch of the Huston family) Walter Huston doing very well as the president. It encapsulates well-directed scenes of the Civil War, large-scale movie-making being a Griffith specialty. The script was by the respected poet and author Stephen Vincent Benet (The Devil and Daniel Webster) . It may be old-fashioned, but so were the times when Lincoln lived.

Warner Bater on trial

The Prisoner of Shark island (1936)  Lincoln appears only at the start of the film because this is an account of the Maryland doctor who treated assassin John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg as he was on the run. Dr. Samuel Mudd was later tried as a conspirator in the assassination and imprisoned in a fortress off the Florida keys. It is worth seeing for John Ford’s great direction, Academy-Award winner {In Old Arizona} Warner Baxter’s moving performance as the ill-fated country doctor, Gloria Stuart (of Titanic fame) as his young wife and Ernest Whitman as a freed slave who assists him through his horrible ordeal.

Fonda’s Lincoln

Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) Henry Fonda as Lincoln in his earlier days, and another John Ford film. Ford and Darryl Zanuck reportedly fought over every scene in this film. Ford got so suspicious of Zanuck’s interference he had takes destroyed he did not want Zanuck inserting in the film later on. Abraham Lincoln is a great Fonda performance but Fonda does not get lost in the film the way Day-Lewis does. Nevertheless a great film about Lincoln and his legend with a brilliant ending.

Raymond Massey and Ruth Gordon as the Lincolns

Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940) Raymond Massey as Lincoln in a film version of Robert E. Sherwood’s Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play. Reportedly Lincoln’s son saw one of Massey’s early stage appearances and remarked to someone how much Massey looked and sounded like his father. Again this film covers an earlier part of the Lincoln saga leading up to his presidency. Academy Award-winner Ruth Gordon {Rosemary’s Baby} in her film debut appears as Mary Todd Lincoln. Greatly praised when it appeared. So much so that Massey found it hard to shed the Lincoln association.

Ruby Dee aids Dick Powell

The Tall Target (1950) An interesting film noir starring Dick Powell as a Pinkerton man named John Kennedy hired to prevent the assassination of the new president as he travels by train to his inauguration. Directed by Anthony Mann who made so many great noirs {Raw Deal, Side Street, T-men} the story-telling is full of great suspenseful scenes which keep you guessing. Ruby Dee makes a powerful impression as a young slave on board the train whom Powell must trust. Lincoln is a shadowy presence barely seen. Based a real assassination plot at the time.

Morrow as Booth

The Day Lincoln Was Shot (1998) An excellent TV movie about the assassination, recently re-released on DVD. Lance Hendriksen makes a very good Lincoln if not quite hitting the bulls-eye as Day-Lewis does. He doesn’t loom over everyone quite the way Day-Lewis does, but he is very much on target. Rob Morrow though nails John Wilkes Booth as a self-absorbed dandy, lady’s man and dreamer with many delusions balanced by a fair amount of charisma. The assassination itself is scrupulously done. The script is faithful to Jim Bishop’s popular account of the events published in 1955. John Gray’s direction is solid. The muddy streets and dusty heavy clothes give it an authenticity you can almost breathe.

Hendriksen as Lincoln

If you catch all six of these great films plus Lincoln in theaters now, you will get a pretty accurate account of the Lincoln myth and reality. Plus there is much here that speaks to our current political dilemmas and problems. One observer said Lincoln is something of a civic lesson. Well bring it on. A good civic lesson is worthy of the audience’s attentions at this time politically. Come to think of it, don’t they have movie theaters down there in Washington DC?

Dan returns next week.






About Tom Godfrey

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