Lost in the Movies: THE AUTEURS: D.W. Griffith - Abraham Lincoln

THE AUTEURS: D.W. Griffith - Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln is certainly an interesting film, but unfortunately most of the interest lies in its historical and auteurist connotations rather than in the film itself. It's a curiosity rather than a success. Still, it shows D.W. Griffith grappling with a fundamentally altered medium - this is his first sound film - and if it's often creaky and dated, it's really not all that bad for an early talkie. Actually its problems lie not so much in the technique - though it's a bit stilted, Griffith seems to have taken to sound rather easily - but in structure. Its problems haven't changed much in 80 years: the biopic is still a risky and haphazard genre. By relaying a pile-on of incidents in Lincoln's life and career, this movie (like many which followed in its wake) feels less like a cohesive album than a Greatest Hits collection, and one in which the recordings are often muddy and indistinct. Still, Walter Huston offers one of the best Lincolns ever to grace the screen and Griffith crafts some effective sequences in his penultimate feature.

The version of Lincoln which exists today does not feature sound throughout. Because the soundtrack has been damaged in parts, the movie opens with subtitles informing us that we should be hearing waves breaking against a ship and gusts of wind crackling the wood. We are, as you might have gathered, at sea and the model ship which rolls into view is supposed to hold human cargo. It's a bit astonishing for Griffith to open his film so boldly with the slave trade, particularly as someone drags a dead slave to the deck and throws him overboard. Fourteen years after Intolerance, Griffith is still atoning for Birth of a Nation and, indeed, the whole film - while marked with the director's trademark sentimental sympathy for both sides - comes down in Lincoln's favor, not just on the question of Union (which is certainly the focus) but also on slavery. Later we will see a long line of slaves, chained together, singing a spiritual about Moses. In the following scene, Lincoln signs the Emancipation Proclamation, leaving little doubt as to how Griffith feels about abolition.

The movie's opening is creative and - paradoxical as it sounds - crudely elegant. It occurs in 1809, following the slave ship with a group of Southerners gathered in Richmond, cursing the United States and upholding their section of the country; likewise a hearty group of New Englanders in Boston. Both groups of people turn to their portrait of George Washington and shake their heads, saying there'll never be another leader like that to preserve the union. And on that same day, as we track across a captivating miniature of the Illinois woods, the sound finally kicks in. The wind howls, wolves howl along with it, and when we reach a log cabin we are introduced to the Lincolns and their newest member. So far, so good. But then someone asks the bedraggled mother what she wants to call her son. "Aaaa-bra-haahm," she intones portentously, with all the false gravity of a soothsayer or perhaps just an old ham. Will dialogue be the picture's undoing?

Not exactly. As that anecdotes suggests, it's not so much the lines but their delivery which is often the problem. Una Merkel, as Ann Rutledge, is a particularly good example of this. Her squeaky voice and slooow delivery makes hash of her already awkward exchanges with a young Mr. Lincoln, played by an overly made-up Walter Huston. But she's cute and her romantic scenes with Huston (who, at 46, is a little old to be wooing this young girl) have some real chemistry. Griffith heightens the effect with one of the few poetic touches in this often constricted film: he cranes his camera over the log pile where Abe woos Ann, and catches a little girl behind a wooden fence, singing to her cow as she strolls through the pastoral farmland.

These scenes anticipate John Ford's much finer Young Mr. Lincoln but they also remind us that Ford's lyrical landscapes had their antecedent in Griffith (who directed Ford as a Klansman in the days of Birth). Ann dies, and Huston summons up some genuine grief, but the film skips along from incident to incident. Actually, Griffith does his best to infuse every anecdote with some humor, warmth, and intelligence. He finds creative ways to work in exposition (a passerby recites all of Lincoln's accomplishments since the previous scene to which Lincoln responds "guilty" - then the passerby takes Lincoln's horse to repay a debt), tempers historical incidents with domestic details (little Tad sits on his father's lap while the cabinet tries to convince their president that his plans are hopeless), and inserts clever elisions when necessary (in lieu of the 1860 campaign, we get a suitcase tag on which Mary Todd crosses out "passenger" and replaces it with "president" while Lincoln chuckles offscreen).

Still, the accumulation has its unfortunate effect and though we become attached to Huston's Lincoln, we feel that we're peeking in on him from time to time rather than sharing his journey. Meanwhile, the Civil War is fought - mostly offscreen. Though perhaps appropriate to the subject, it feels odd to stage the war mostly as a series of conversations in little rooms. At the same time, we do get some effective Bradyesque moments, such as when Lincoln wanders through a Union camp and eventually pardons a soldier. Interesting, too, how Griffith stages the troops marching off to war: we get the Union soldiers tramping from right to left to the tune of "Battle Hymn of the Republic" and then the Confederates riding to their glory, this time from left to right, while a marching band performs "Dixie."

There is an eventual battle scene, which somehow seems wanting next to the superior fireworks of Birth, and finally the war ends. Abraham Lincoln closes, appropriately enough, with that night at the Ford Theater, and it's one of the film's best moments. Throughout, every appearance by a famous individual and every big incident has been importantly underscored: "I've found the man to win this war - his name is Grant!" (That much-maligned Dewey Cox movie, whose trailer I found very amusing, featured a humorous variation on this: "It'll be a long road to walk," he tells his wife, "but I will...walk hard." Shifts his eyes in amazement, cut to him on stage singing his new hit song: "Walk hard...") Indeed, this is how we're introduced to the assassin himself. Watching him proclaim his fidelity to the Southland, one man asks, "Who is that?" "That's the actor John Wilkes Booth," the man's companion responds. "He can't act, but the women don't know it!"

Yet at the Ford Theater, the events are not underlined and the effect is marvellous. The assassination doesn't feel like a long-fated meeting with destiny, but rather an immersion into the moment. It's just the performance of a play, and there's no way to feel that history is about to made. The theater is relatively quiet; an actor on stage refers to Lincoln and the audience, including the president, laughs. There is no music, and Griffith's camera does not punch in for emphasis as Booth walks through the upper level towards Lincoln's private box. When Abe is shot, no one notices (though we see it conveyed in startling, rather violent fashion), and there's anticlimactic silence as Booth leaps on to the stage and proclaims "Sic semper tyrannis!" Even Lincoln's wife watches the odd man with a quizzical expression on her face before she realized what's happened.

By presenting the scene this way, Griffith brings us as close as we could ever be to that fateful night. Plain, stripped of false drama and ostentatious adornment, the moment plays out like a home movie: unexpected, startling, real. It's an appropriate coda for the man who helped invent screen drama, and as such a wistful farewell not just to Lincoln (Huston's final moments are as strong as the rest of his excellent performance) but to the director as well, who had only one more movie in him. Though Abraham Lincoln was not a hit at the time, and though it hasn't aged as gracefully as one might have hoped, it ultimately has the same plainspoken dignity and straightforward intelligence of the man whose life it represents and whose character it successfully conveys.

Previous: The Battle of the Sexes
Next: The Struggle

The D.W. Griffith series begins here.


Jason Bellamy said...

Hokahey and I are big Lincoln/Booth geeks and we each read both "Manhunt" (being made into a film with Harrison Ford) and "American Brutus" within the past few years.

In addition to the "Manhunt" film, there's a "Lincoln" film being made by Spielberg, starring Liam Neeson. I mention all of this because I loved reading your description of the assassination scene (I haven't seen the film). It's so naturally cinematic. Why it's taken so long to make another Lincoln film or to make a Booth film is beyond me. (I realize there was "Young Mr. Lincoln," but that was a while ago.)

I need to check this out.

Joel Bocko said...

If you're a Lincoln/Booth geek (or a Griffith fan - or for that matter a Walter Huston fan) it's definitely worth checking out.

I'm curious about that Lincoln film, which I've heard of. Spielberg's work is always interesting (I even enjoyed, while finding rather ridiculous and long-winded, The Terminal) and Liam Neeson is usually pretty good. Though it seems a shame to have a non-American play Lincoln, doesn't it?

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