The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.

Written by Greg Frame.

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Now the dust has settled on Lincoln, and the awards season hoopla surrounding Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance has subsided, it is time to consider the film not merely alongside the other Oscar-baiting fare released this year, but among an increasingly varied pantheon of cinematic incarnations of the United States’ 16th president. How does Steven Spielberg’s intervention compare? In this Alternate Take I will argue that, despite some tonal differences, representations of Lincoln are fairly consistent. They all offer a nostalgic vision of the United States and strong masculine leadership. How they do this, however, throws up some interesting issues regarding the tension between film history and real history.

As mentioned in my original review, Lincoln is heavily invested in its historical accuracy. Based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals, the film attempts to follow the official record closely. Although impressive, it is as close to a filmed history book as you are likely to see for a long while. What really elevates Lincoln is Day-Lewis’s performance - with every wearily-delivered line, artificially-applied wrinkle and homespun yarn, you get the definite sense of Lincoln as a living, breathing leader of a nation. He may not be superhuman, but he is nonetheless an impressive politician, able to pursue his agenda and achieve great things. At a time of partisan gridlock in the US, it is unsurprising to me that such a vision of America’s past would have been so embraced. Lincoln puts forward a vision of the American democratic system before it ceased to function - the abolition of slavery would rank alongside Franklin Roosevelt’s creation of the middle-class in the 1930s, and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society reforms, as achievements that echo through the ages.

Unusually, perhaps, it is an episode in Lincoln’s presidency that has not hitherto been addressed in this kind of detail. Despite featuring in numerous films (both as the main subject and an historical sideshow), Lincoln has been imagined in vastly different ways in Hollywood history. Perhaps indicative of the divisiveness of his policy on slavery, in initial conceptions Lincoln was commemorated as The Saviour of the Union rather than The Great Emancipator. It is the only way that a film as nakedly racist as D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) could represent Lincoln positively (because the film is clearly pro-slavery). Griffith does not paint Lincoln as the enemy of the South, but rather as the only conciliatory element of the North’s “war of aggression”. If only he hadn’t died, the film argues, perhaps the gaping wound along the Mason-Dixon Line would have healed. Griffith takes a similar approach in his later biopic, Abraham Lincoln (1930). Featuring Walter Huston in the title role, it was a fairly stodgy journey through the major events in Lincoln’s life. Crucial to Griffith’s conception of the man, however, was his ordinary upbringing; his homespun qualities of honesty and integrity leading him to achieve the highest office in the land.

Griffith’s interventions are nothing but the hors d’oeuvres before John Ford’s main course, Young Mr Lincoln (1939). This is the image of Lincoln fixed in the popular memory - Henry Fonda’s portrayal of a rural lawyer whose understanding of the legal system does not extend much beyond a comprehension of what is right and what is wrong, yet this proves enough to ensure an innocent man is not hanged. Fonda’s Lincoln is as wholesome as homemade apple pie, perfectly at home in the courtroom or at the town fair where he is asked to judge which peach cobbler is better. Ford’s film is primarily concerned with offering a precursory image of who Lincoln would become. The film ends with the future president walking into a storm (heavy-handedly symbolic of the Civil War), and the final shot, of the Lincoln Memorial, offers us the concluding point of his long journey - to be rendered in marble as the saviour of the nation and the emancipator of the slaves. Ford’s vision is premonitory, mythological and nostalgic. Like Mr Smith (Jimmy Stewart), the man who would make pilgrimage to his memorial in Frank Capra’s Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Fonda’s Lincoln is aw-shucks, plain folks, straightforward and honest - the country bumpkin who would save America from itself. Along with John Cromwell’s Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940), Depression-era Hollywood seemed obsessed with The Great Emancipator at a time of national turmoil and self-doubt.

Unsurprisingly, our own era of economic meltdown has inspired a similar look to the past for comfort. However, not all of the treatments of Lincoln have been as traditional and reverent as those offered by Ford, Griffith and Spielberg. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (Timur Bekmambetov, 2012) dispenses with historical record and repositions Lincoln as a vampire slayer looking to protect the union from the legions of the undead. Spielberg’s conciliatory Lincoln and Ford’s honest idealist Lincoln are here jettisoned in favour of Lincoln as action hero: one part Fonda, one part Rambo, one part Neo from The Matrix. Moreover, the vampires fight on the side of the Confederate Army, a supernatural explanation that entirely displaces the argument that the South sought to maintain slavery for economic purposes. However, this kind of simplification is not unusual; like many representations of the Lincoln’s presidency, what emerges is a straightforward, Manichean battle between good and evil.

Indeed, despite its tonal departure, Vampire Hunter is not entirely different from other representations of Lincoln. Like Griffith and Ford, it locates the origins of Lincoln’s greatness in his formative years: his rugged, backwoods upbringing imbued him with the supposedly ‘American’ values of self-reliance, honesty, and hard work - qualities which rendered his presidency extra-ordinary. Vampire Hunter conforms to this myth, but presents the notion that Lincoln was somewhat feeble in his early life. To become great, Lincoln had to first prove himself a man in the most traditional sense: a strong, tough, aggressive warrior.

In order to attain these qualities, Lincoln retreats to the woods, and is taught by his mentor, Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper), how to fight and use weapons against the vampires. In this sense, Vampire Hunter has less in common with the sober, serious, biographical treatments of Lincoln’s life mentioned previously, and is more akin to a particular sub-genre of Hollywood action film in which men are shown to harness, or rediscover, their supposedly inherent masculine strength through combat training. This is ordinarily achieved through a montage, in which the central character rapidly develops agility, muscular potency, or masters the use of weaponry. The most famous examples of this are Rocky (John G. Avildsen, 1976) and its sequels (1979, 1982, 1985, 1990, 2006), The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kirshner, 1980), The Karate Kid (John G. Avildsen, 1984), and Bloodsport (Newt Arnold, 1988). In these films the male protagonist demonstrates extraordinary levels of endurance, commitment and strength in order to develop the abilities necessary to triumph in battle (whether it is sport, intergalactic warfare, or simply confronting school bullies). While the convention has continued in contemporary cinema - in films like The Matrix (The Wachowskis, 1999), Batman Begins (Christopher Nolan, 2005), and Wanted (Bekmambetov, 2008) - it is perhaps most readily associated with the 1980s and the Reagan era.

As suggested by critics Robin Wood and Susan Jeffords (among others), Hollywood cinema of the 1980s was deeply invested in the restoration of traditional masculinity after the perceived weakening of America’s body politic in the 1970s following defeat in Vietnam and the presidency of Jimmy Carter. The training montage, where the male body is transformed from weak to strong, is the cinematic embodiment of a process the American national character was perceived to have undergone in the Reagan era: the callow and fragile protagonist only ‘becomes a man’ through physical training, feats of endurance, and combat. There is always firm emphasis on the display of strength through formal techniques: in Rocky IV (Sylvester Stallone, 1985), Rocky (Stallone) is shown lifting boulders and pulling sleds at a rural cabin retreat (reinforcing all manner of American myths, from the ingenuity and self-reliance of the frontiersman, to Lincoln’s own log-cabin origins), with close-ups of his sweaty, muscular torso illustrating his physical exertion. Vampire Hunter is similarly unsubtle, but its formal technique of choice is its excessive use of slow-motion to illustrate Lincoln’s agility and skill in battle. In both cases, the formal technique is employed to display feats considered inherently masculine.

Although this may seem very far removed from Spielberg’s sober treatment of Lincoln’s battle to abolish slavery, I contend the two films are not really all that different. Vampire Hunter’s expression of desire for an action hero to lead the United States suggests there continues to be, as there was in the Reagan era, a longing for a conventional masculine presence to fight for American interests and confront the nation’s enemies. Lincoln articulates a similar desire: at a time when the United States seems to be inexorable decline as a global power, hamstrung by a bitter partisan battle between the Republicans and the Democrats for control of the government (and the nation’s soul), crippled by an economic crisis that shows no signs of abating, both films yearn for a strong man to lead the country to a better tomorrow. Day-Lewis’ Lincoln may use speeches rather than axes to get what he wants, but the almost simultaneous release of the two films speaks to one thing: now more than ever, America needs a daddy.

This Alternate Take was published on April 21, 2013.