Lincoln on film: Depictions of the 16th American President

The real Abe, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
The real Abe, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

A note from Lindsey: This is not a list of my favorite portrayals of Lincoln; I simply aim to give an overview of the many depictions of him in films throughout the years.

Born February 12, 1809, Abraham Lincoln would go on to become a lawyer, a leader of the Whig party (and later a prominent Republican, after the fall of the Whigs), a state legislator, a congressman and eventually the 16th president of the United States.

His acts as president during the Civil War and his assassination have led him to become one of the most famous historical figures of the American past. And of course, with that status comes a plethora of fictional depictions that attempt to pay tribute to, criticize or simply portray the man behind the legendary status.

The first known film depiction of Lincoln was in the 1908 silent short The Reprieve: An Episode in the Life of Abraham Lincoln.  Other silent portrayals of the President include Abraham Lincoln’s Clemency (1910) and Lincoln Paid (1913). All three of these films feature Lincoln pardoning guards who fell asleep on duty. Lincoln received many requests for pardons or the deferrals of executions during his presidency. At the time this was because he was known as a generous man, but in films the intention of focusing on these pardons isn’t always so clear. On one hand, this focus could highlight his compassionate nature; on the other hand, it could give the message that he handed out pardons too freely.

The Birth of a Nation (1915), one of the most controversial films of all time, includes a performance by Joseph Henabery as Lincoln. Here again we see Lincoln issuing a pardon, this time persuaded by Ben Cameron’s mother to save him from being hanged rather than saving a sleepy sentry from punishment. (For those unfamiliar, though I’m sure most of you are, There are two central families in this film – one Northern, one Southern. Ben Cameron is the son of the Southern family.) This film also provides the big screen’s first depiction of Lincoln’s assassination.

The 1920s brought four more portrayals of “honest Abe”: Lincoln, Man of the People (1923), The Dramatic Life of Abraham Lincoln (1924), Abraham Lincoln (1924) and Memories of Lincoln (1925). These depictions, though unfortunately lost and unavailable for viewing by modern audiences (only fragments have been recovered), seem to have tended to focus more on who Lincoln was as a person, with Memories of Lincoln in particular focusing on Lincoln’s interactions with others and his personality. The film featured the recollections of attorney and politician Chauncey Depew, who had the opportunity to meet Lincoln during his presidency.

Henry Fonda as Young Mr. Lincoln, courtesy of Doctor Macro
Henry Fonda as Young Mr. Lincoln, courtesy of Doctor Macro

Quite a few films of the next decade featured Lincoln not as the focus, but as a more minor character. Beulah Bondi and James Stewart starred in a 1938 film, Of Human Hearts, which focused on a young man at odds with his parents but features a supporting performance by John Carradine as Lincoln. The Plainsman (1936) features Frank McGlynn Sr. as Lincoln, but only in the film’s opening scene. McGlynn again portrayed Lincoln in The Prisoner of Shark Island, but the film focuses on Dr. Samuel Mudd (Warner Baxter), who treated John Wilkes Booth’s leg injury directly after the assassination took place.

Two films of this decade still focused on Lincoln, though. Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) persists as one of the most famous portrayals of the man, featuring Henry Fonda in the lead role. The film’s storyline is partially fictional and focuses on Lincoln’s life prior to gaining the presidency. Though the film isn’t completely accurate, it’s certainly an engrossing tale that gives an idea of what life may have been like for the young lawyer in Illinois.

D.W. Griffith had released Abraham Lincoln nine years earlier in 1930, a sweeping biopic that covers Lincoln’s early life through his assassination, providing a more accurate portrayal of Lincoln’s early life but eventually veering off of the accuracy tracks by the end of its 97-minute run time.

Lincoln mania seemed to slow down in the 1940s, with Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940) being the only Lincoln-centric film released in the entire decade. This was another fairly wide-ranging biopic, covering Lincoln’s life from leaving Kentucky up until his election. Raymond Massey received an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Abe in this film, though the award ended up in the hands of Jimmy Stewart for his work in The Philadelphia Story.

"Four score and... seven minutes ago, we, your four fathers, were brought fourth upon a most excellent adventure." (Image: Rock Shock Pop)
“Four score and… seven minutes ago, we, your forefathers, were brought fourth upon a most excellent adventure,” says the Abe Lincoln of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Image courtesy of Rock Shock Pop.

While television and literature continued to give the 16th president some coverage in the 1950s, the big screen didn’t see another portrayal of the man until the 1960s. Raymond Massey once again portrayed Lincoln in the 1960 film How the West Was Won, an epic western told through a series of vignettes that each take place in different time periods. Massey, of course, appears in the section covering the Civil War.

Lincoln got his own television series in the 1970s (a miniseries based on a book by Carl Sandburg, running from 1974 to 1975), but in film things took an interesting turn. Released in 1977 was The Lincoln Conspiracy, a film dramatizing – as the title would suggest – conspiracy theories about the assassination. The film is based on a book of the same title that purports a theory of the assassination being a product of a great conspiracy by major government figures, including Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and members of Congress.

Aside from a comedic cameo on the big screen in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989), television movies were the ones to tackle the president’s image in the 1980s. Academy Award winner Gregory Peck starred as Lincoln in a CBS miniseries called The Blue and The Gray, while Sam Waterston starred as Abe in Lincoln (1988 miniseries), co-starring Mary Tyler Moore as Mary Todd Lincoln.

Remaining one of the best-known and most well-respected historical series of all time, 1990 brought Ken Burns’ The Civil War, which again had Sam Waterston as Lincoln (but this time only through voice portrayal rather than physical reenactment).

Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Just as in the ’50s, portrayals of Lincoln (outside of documentaries and bit appearances in television series) nearly disappeared in the new millennium. Now, in the 2010s, we have seen a resurgence of interest in and portrayals of Lincoln. Our current decade has brought multiple portrayals of the president. Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter is a love-it-or-hate-it fantastical tale of Lincoln destroying undead beings. The Conspirator deals with Lincoln’s assassination and its aftermath.

In what is probably the most well-respected portrayal of Abraham Lincoln since Henry Fonda’s portrayal in 1939, Daniel Day-Lewis has brought us the most recent dramatization of the 16th president. Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-nominated Lincoln (2012), based on a non-fiction book called “Team of Rivals,” does a great job of bringing Lincoln to life both as a politician and as a human being. As is the case with any historical fiction this film does have its problems, but it marks a return to a higher caliber of biographical film-making when it comes to depictions of Abe.

Since Lincoln is still considered one of the country’s greatest presidents by most and is one of the immediately recognizable figures of American history, there is no doubt that there will be many more portrayals of Lincoln on film in the future. So for Lincoln’s birthday (which is tomorrow), I pose a question to you: What are your favorite portrayals of this president? What types of portrayals would you like to see come about in the future? Are there any aspects of his personality/presidency that you feel have been ignored by filmmakers? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below!

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3 thoughts on “Lincoln on film: Depictions of the 16th American President

  1. I haven’t seen that many Lincoln portrayals, but I think I’d still go with Daniel Day-Lewis, whose film I did see, and whose portrayal was beyond excellent. Although…I like Raymond Massey as an actor, and though I’ve never seen Abe Lincoln in Illinois, I’ll go with his portrayal as runner-up, by default.

    As for what’s been ignored, I don’t know if this really counts, because I believe the incident has been dramatized before…but what I’d like to see is a book called ‘Manhunt’ turned into a film, a fantastic account of the events leading up to the assassination of Lincoln, and the hunt for John Wilkes Booth that follows…very in-depth and incredibly fascinating stuff, though it’s not really specifically about Lincoln, I guess.

    Like

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