Lincoln memorialized in very American industry: Hollywood

By Ron D. Bryant

The image of Abraham Lincoln is so indelibly printed in the American mind that it is next to impossible to forget: His craggy features adorn denominations of our money; his likeness is represented in bronze, granite and marble throughout the United States and in some foreign nations. If ever one man became an icon for so many people, he would rank with some of the greatest individuals who ever lived.

It is not surprising that Lincoln would also be memorialized by that very-American industry known as Hollywood. Since the motion picture business has devoted much of its talents in creating images that are bigger than life, the story of the poor Kentucky boy who rose from obscurity to become the greatest of American presidents seems to be straight from a scriptwriter’s imagination. However, the Lincoln saga, for the most part, is reality.

Brian J. Snee, who serves as a professor of communication and media at Manhattanville College in Purchase, N.Y., has captured the fascination of the motion picture and television industry with Lincoln in a brief, but very thoughtful, work on the 16th president and his portrayal in film, “Lincoln Before Lincoln.”

Snee explores in his book a number of issues relating to how Lincoln is viewed in America’s “collective memory”. The author notes that between 1900 and 1919, some 35 statues of the Great Emancipator were erected. Congressmen invoked his name 204 times in the Congressional Record, and the New York Times mentioned Lincoln on 543 occasions.

With America’s appetite for information on Lincoln, Hollywood could not help but to invest in the Lincoln legend.

In the section of his book titled, “The Reel Lincoln, Part I,” Professor Snee writes that as early as 1903, the Edison Film Company produced a version of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” with Lincoln as “a minor character.” Other early films that portrayed Lincoln did not survive. Nevertheless, in 1908, “The Life of Lincoln” and “The Blue and the Grey” appeared in theaters. Movies about Lincoln or with a Lincoln connection soon followed.

In chapter two of “Lincoln Before Lincoln,” the author examines how one of the greatest and most controversial films portrayed the 16th president. David Wark Griffith’s 1915 masterpiece, “Birth of a Nation” shows Lincoln as the man with the “great heart.”

Griffith’s Lincoln is a compassionate man who is tortured by the need for war to preserve the Union. Since the film is based on the 1905 Thomas Dixon novel, “The Clansman” (also the film’s original title) Lincoln is not shown as the Great Emancipator, but as the “Savior of the Union.”

While there is no doubt that “Birth of Nation” is a cinematic masterpiece, its glorification of the Ku Klux Klan, as well as its overt racism, has overshadowed its brilliance as one of the greatest films of all time. Nevertheless, Griffith’s work only demonstrated how important to future Hollywood productions the Lincoln image could be.

By 1924, movie producers felt that the public needed a film that chronicled Lincoln from birth to his untimely death. “The Dramatic Life of Abraham Lincoln” became the most accurate version of the Lincoln story until D.W. Griffith’s 1930 film, “Abraham Lincoln,” starred Walter Huston in the title role. Sadly for Griffith, a Kentucky native, his homage to Lincoln did not salvage the director’s faltering career. Huston’s portrayal of Lincoln has however, remained a classic.

Professor Snee continues throughout his book to dissect the many interpretations of the Lincoln legend. He tells how the Lincoln story could be adapted to a new generation of writers, directors and film goers. For the most part, the reverence for Lincoln is maintained in the subsequent film, but the stark contrast did appear.

The author lists a progression of Lincoln films that range from John Ford’s “Young Mr. Lincoln” (1939), and John Cromwell’s “Abe Lincoln in Illinois” (1940), to Gore Vidal’s “Lincoln” (1988). The shift of the Lincoln story from big to small screen is documented during this time period as well.

One of the major shifts in the retelling of Lincoln’s life and achievements is what could be termed the “Anti-Lincoln tradition.” Professor Snee points out that Lincoln always had detractors, and those detractors tried to chip away at the image of Lincoln.

In Gore Vidal’s “Lincoln,” it is not so much presentation of Lincoln’s life and accomplishments, but of how people perceived the 16th president. With an America that had become somewhat jaded by an unpopular war, political assassinations and Watergate, the “great man” genre in movies and television started to wane. Lincoln would now be looked on as all too human.

Overall, “Lincoln Before Lincoln” is an intriguing study of how art in the form of motion pictures have for good or ill established the image of Abraham Lincoln in the minds of millions. The author has done his homework, and his work has added much to the history of Lincoln and the American cinema.

If you’re interested in purchasing the book, click here.