There are no goddamn Abraham Lincoln movies
Abraham Lincoln is arguably the most popular, beloved, hated, and talked about president in American history; yet for some unknown reason there are astonishingly few feature films that center exclusively around the 16th president of the United States (not including documentaries). In the typical civil war film, he is only seen for a brief moment or barely mentioned in passing, if at all. In fact the disparity is even greater with George Washington. When’s the last time anybody made a movie about the founding father(s)? The only hypothesis is that filmmakers just don’t like making movies about dead presidents. The majority of filmed entertainment featuring a portrayal of Abraham Lincoln is either television shows or a few cheaply produced made for TV movies. Half of the time it’s in the form of a comedy skit where Abe Lincoln fraternizing with Bill and Ted on their excellent adventure is the entire punch line.
Fortunately, 2012 happened to be a big year for America’s favorite president as it saw the release of the alternate history fantasy tale Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (Timur Bekmambetov) along with Steven Spielberg’s much anticipated Lincoln, starring Daniel Day-Lewis in a master performance that earned him his third Academy Award for Best Actor. In order to compare and contrast two different portrayals of Lincoln, a more suitable work had to be found that didn’t involve confederate vampires, slow motion 3D effects, and colossal explosions that defy the laws of physics. This is where Young Mr. Lincoln (John Ford, 1939) comes in.
A comparison of the two films is a rare and fascinating study in examining the portrayal of the same historical figure by two different actors separated by many decades and each playing the role of the character at remarkably different stages of life. Daniel Day-Lewis plays old man Lincoln in the last few months of the war – and his life – while the main plot focuses on the behind the scenes arduous process of ratifying the 13th Amendment. A subplot also delves into Lincoln’s personal life, primarily the relationship with his mentally unstable wife Mary Todd Lincoln, played with equal mastery by fellow Oscar winner Sally Field.
Young Mr. Lincoln, like its title implies, centers around Abe as a young adult in 1832 living in his home state of Illinois. The aspiring lawyer heads to Springfield and opens his own law firm. In Springfield he spends his free time at pie tastings and log chopping contests, right before scoring a lucky break with his first murder trial. Young Lincoln is played by a young Henry Fonda, although not nearly as impressively as his modern day peers.
Unlike Spielberg’s Lincoln, which was written and designed to be as historically accurate as possible, Young Mr. Lincoln takes some liberties with history and tells a drastically more fictionalized version of Lincoln’s life. One also can’t help but notice that when Henry Fonda speaks as Lincoln, he sounds like Henry Fonda. Compared to modern Lincoln, when Daniel Day-Lewis speaks as Lincoln, he sounds like Abraham Lincoln; Daniel Day-Lewis vocalizes in a distinctly high pitched voice, which is consistent with historical accounts.
One aspect of the real Lincoln’s personality which is faithfully captured by both Daniel Day-Lewis and Henry Fonda is the sense of humor. Whether staring down a drunk angry lynch mob or juggling all the demands and pressures of waging a civil war, both Lincolns remain calm under pressure and crack jokes at the best times to relief the tension. Just like Abraham Lincoln himself, the charisma of Henry Fonda and Daniel Day-Lewis are large enough to deliver that presidential grace and demeanor.