Lincoln in Movies: Serene, Forgiving and Freaky

The death of President Abraham Lincoln in 1865 was naturally a great shock to a nation that had just survived a war that tore it apart. That, as well as a 19th century kind of sentimentality, is probably what inspired some artist in 1865 to produce the image above where George Washington greets Lincoln in heaven.

The 16th president is without a doubt one of the greatest men who ever set foot in the White House. Steven Spielberg recently released his epic Lincoln to generous reviews. I have yet to see it, but Daniel Day-Lewis seems to have thoroughly nailed it as the President; a performance that is equally spellbinding as it is historically accurate, with a little help from descriptions made by historians like Doris Kearns Goodwin who wrote the brilliant biography behind the movie, “Team of Rivals”. But what can we say about the earlier screen portrayals of Lincoln?

One of the earliest films featuring the president as a character is When Lincoln Paid (1913), directed by John Ford’s brother Francis (who also plays Lincoln in the clip above). Already at this stage, the President is (and often was) portrayed as a saintly figure. In this film, he pardons a young Confederate soldier.

Historical accuracy was hardly a priority for John Ford when he made Young Mr. Lincoln in 1939. Henry Fonda played the lawyer destined for greatness. The clip above, where Lincoln stops a lynching mob, is a typical (albeit fictional) example of how the man’s status only grew with the years.

In 1969, Lincoln was beamed aboard the Enterprise and welcomed by James T. Kirk (William Shatner) and his crew in an episode of Star Trek. One of Lincoln’s memorable lines: “Taped music, you say? Well, perhaps Mr. Spock will be good enough to explain that to me later”. Dignified as always, even under these freaky circumstances, the President was indeed one of Kirk’s heroes.

At least three actors have played Lincoln more than once. Raymond Massey did the President in a 1956 episode of Ford Star Jubilee and in How the West Was Won (1962). Hal Holbrook played him in Lincoln (1974-1975) and the first two North and South miniseries (1985-1986). And then there’s Sam Waterston in Lincoln (1988) and The Civil War (1990). In 2004, Waterston reenacted the President’s famous 1860 Cooper Union Address, where he argued that the Founding Fathers would not wish for slavery to be expanded into the western territories. Take a look above.

After all these respectful, dignified portrayals of President Lincoln, perhaps we’re ready for something less in awe. Earlier this year, the screen version of Seth Grahame-Smith’s novel “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” was released. It’s a fun distraction away from the traditional serenity surrounding the man. You’re allowed to enjoy it – as long as you realize what he actually accomplished.

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