The current temporary exhibit at LMU’s Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum covers the history of Lincoln on film. Abraham Lincoln and his era have long been popular subjects for filmmakers, and two major productions about Lincoln are slated for upcoming release.
We asked ALLM Curator and Assistant Director Steven M. Wilson a few questions about the exhibit and the history of Lincoln in the cinema. In addition to his work as a public historian, Wilson writes historical fiction; his novels include Voyage of the Gray Wolves, Armada, and President Lincoln’s Spy.
Why an exhibit about Lincoln on film?
Abraham Lincoln is an icon in popular culture and has been interpreted in films, stage, and television virtually since his death. Movies are a big part of American society. It seemed appropriate.
How do you go about doing the research for a project like this?
It helps to have a working knowledge of American movies. The stars, directors, composers, and writers who created these movies were actually employees of huge movie factories. There are countless on-line sites (such as Internet Movie Database) that provide an excellent starting point to begin an investigation of the Lincoln films.
What are some items visitors can expect to see?
Abe Lincoln in Illinois held its southern premiere on the campus of Lincoln Memorial University in 1940. Besides a shooting script signed by the principals, the exhibit features dozens of photographs of the premiere ceremonies and stills from the movie.
We also wanted to expand our investigation to include the wide variety of interpretations Lincoln underwent through the years. The first, of course, is President Abraham Lincoln in D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. This inflammatory films that paints the newly formed Ku Klux Klan as the avenging instrument of justice. Lincoln’s death at the hands of the heroic John Wilkes Booth is laudable and necessary. The exhibit also has excerpts from Lincoln commercials, television shows, comedy skits, and cartoons.
We seem to be seeing a resurgence of interest in Lincoln on the silver screen, with projects like The Conspirator, Spielberg’s upcoming movie and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Why has Lincoln been such a popular subject when it comes to making movies?
Good drama is based on loss, personal triumph, a struggle of good versus evil, and validation. Lincoln’s personality is so well-defined, and so apparent (not necessarily accurately), that’s it’s possible to tell his story in whatever permutation for a large audience. Draw a picture of a top hat and beard and you have instant recognition of Lincoln. Talk about the dual themes of tragedy and conflict on a monumental scale, and you have the Civil War. It is a field that has been plowed many times, but it never fails to yield a compelling story.
On balance, how accurately do you think Hollywood has treated Lincoln and his era? Have Lincoln movies contributed anything positive to public understanding of the man or of history in general?
Like any mythical, iconic, or historical figure Lincoln has had to endure his share of Hollywood poetic license. The artist as director or scriptwriter has a vision, and is not averse to trampling history to get at it. John Ford, director of Young Mr. Lincoln, is a celluloid Frederick Remington—painting the American historical landscape with an unapologetic varnish of pure Americana. His Lincoln is poetic, humble, brave, troubled, but inherently American through and through. Watch any of these films for their entertainment value only.
Do you have any personal favorites when it comes to onscreen portrayals of Lincoln?
It’s a toss-up between Raymond Massey, Sam Waterston, and Henry Fonda. They all bring qualities of interpretation to Lincoln that enhance the viewer’s experience. I guess my sentimental favorite is Henry Fonda, mostly because I’m an unabashed fan of John Ford.
Finally, here’s an irreverent question. What’s the most bizarre or inaccurate Lincoln-related movie you encountered while working on this exhibit?
The Lincoln Conspiracy by Sun International is probably the most ridiculous entry in the Lincoln cinematic field. Falling back on the Otto Eisenschiml theory of Stanton’s role in the assassination of Lincoln, the only thing this turkey lacked was ancient aliens, Nostradamus, and gravy.