Mention filmmaker D.W. Griffith in most polite circles and you get howls of politically correct protest leveled against the creative genius behind America’s most vicious, but effective,piece of cinematic “Lost Cause”propaganda,Birth of a Nation. Woodrow Wilson, the nation’s first president born in the South before the Civil War, along with thousands of ordinary citizens, admired the movie. But 15 years later,Griffith did a complete about-face with the first of only two talking pictures he ever made,Abraham Lincoln.
Unfortunately, Griffith had spent most of his creative juices during Hollywood’s silent movie era, and those that remained were profoundly pickled, probably swimming in his native Kentucky bourbon. But Griffith desperately needed money and pitched the idea of a biopic about Abraham Lincoln to producer Joseph Schenck. Schenck approved, and Griffith began his research by reading Carl Sandburg’s two-volume biography of Lincoln. Griffith was so impressed he asked Sandburg to collaborate on the screenplay. When Sandburg asked for $30,000, Griffith turned to poet Stephen Vincent Benet, author of John Brown’s Body.Benet’s script was eventually cut to pieces and little of it found its way into the finished film.
It’s doubtful if even Benet’s lilting prose could have saved this prosaic, episodic paean to the Great Emancipator. Starting with his hardscrabble birth, Griffith dutifully dramatized the salient points in Lincoln’s life through a series of cinematic vignettes that included his romance with Ann Rutledge (played by a terribly miscast Una Merkel), the early years as a country lawyer, his marriage to Mary Todd,the debates with Stephen A. Douglas, the election of 1860 and events of his presidency during the Civil War. The film ends with a recreation of the assassination in Ford’s Theater and an ethereal voice intoning, “Now he belongs to the ages.” A detail probably not considered important at the time was that Ian Keith, the actor playing John Wilkes Booth,stood a strapping 6-feet-2-inches tall; in life, Booth was barely 5-feet-8.
Most of the film consists of stagy interiors shot on a sound stage. But there is one memorable outdoor sequence where Griffith combines sound and movement to produce the movie’s best action scene. Cinematographer Karl Struss, who later filmed Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator but concluded his career making low-budget horror films in the 1950s, captures General Philip Sheridan’s famous ride to rally Union troops at the battle of Winchester on October 19, 1864, with the verve and panache that would have pleased even “Little Phil.”
Sadly, such scenes are sorely lacking in the rest of the film and even the splendid acting of Walter Huston as Lincoln cannot breathe life into this cinematic mishmash. The most tender human interest scene occurs between Huston and Merkel during the courtship of Lincoln and Ann Rutledge. They are seated under a tree against a pastoral background with the camera panning between the couple and the rural landscape, complete with cow and cowgirl. Some of the scene’s effectiveness must be attributed to the art direction of the young but very talented William Cameron Menzies. Lincoln’s humor does emerge in Huston’s scenes with Jason Robards Sr.who plays law partner William Herndon. Wife Mary Todd, played by newcomer Kay Hammond, also serves as the butt of some Lincoln jokes, the debates with Stephen Douglas are surprisingly dull.
Not surprisingly,Griffith has the film’s most moving scene take place between Hobart Bosworth and Henry B. Walthall, who play General Robert E. Lee and Colonel Charles Marshall respectively. Lee countermands Marshall’s order to execute a Union spy on the eve of the South’s defeat, arguing that there is no need for more killing. Then Lee, ever the icon of Southern chivalry and piety,goes to his tent where he sinks down on his knees and prays. Griffith came by his Southern sympathies honestly; his Kentucky-born father was a Confederate colonel.
The film garnered good reviews when it was released. The New York Times listed it as one of the 10 best films of 1930 and Film Daily called it “A Griffith achievement; this is entertainment plus history.” Charles F. Hynes,writing in Motion Picture News,wrote that Huston “gives the role all the Lincoln resolution, all of the humor of the part. He is a human Lincoln who will appeal to all classes.” One person not pleased with the film was Griffith himself, who was drying out on a ranch in Texas while others made final edits. His demand for lastminute changes was ignored, a sign,perhaps,of how far he had fallen among his moviemaking peers. Griffith made only one more movie after Abraham Lincoln before lapsing into obscurity until he died in 1948.
Many modern critics analyze Griffith’s films psychologically, and he has been called the father of American melodramatic cinema.“Living up to patriarchal society’s ideal order is the very stuff of melodrama,” writes film critic Robert Lang. Griffith chose America’s most revered and martyred patriarch, Abraham Lincoln,as the subject of a film of our nation’s great national melodrama, the Civil War,and transmuted them into essentially an Oedipal drama— a dramatization of the ways in which we are all formed within a matrix of familial imperatives. Abraham Lincoln, as interpreted by D.W. Griffith, shows how these imperatives are often reflections of society at large.
Originally published in the March 2008 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.