D W Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln

Monday, March 9, AD 2015

Abraham Lincoln, who padded up and down
The sacred White House in nightshirt and carpet-slippers,
And yet could strike young hero-worshipping Hay
As dignified past any neat, balanced, fine
Plutarchan sentences carved in a Latin bronze;
The low clown out of the prairies, the ape-buffoon,
The small-town lawyer, the crude small-time politician,
State-character but comparative failure at forty
In spite of ambition enough for twenty Caesars,
Honesty rare as a man without self-pity,
Kindness as large and plain as a prairie wind,
And a self-confidence like an iron bar:
This Lincoln, President now by the grace of luck,
Disunion, politics, Douglas and a few speeches
Which make the monumental booming of Webster
Sound empty as the belly of a burst drum.

Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown’s Body

Film pioneer DW Griffith is chiefly remembered today for the 1915 film Birth of a Nation which was the film version  of the 1905 novel The Clansman, a paean by Thomas F. Dixon to the Ku Klux Klan which, in his view, freed the South from carpetbagger and negro rule.  As history the film is rubbish, but from its technical aspects it is an important development in the art of filmmaking.  In response to his critics DW Griffith made the film Intolerance  in 1916 which condemned religious, if not racial, bigotry.

In 1930 he made the first sound film biography of Lincoln.  Several silent film bios of Lincoln had been made, but having Lincoln speak was going to be an added challenge. Walter Huston, the father of actor-director John Huston, portrayed Lincoln.  Tall and lanky, Huston looked a bit like Lincoln, but his deep resonant tones helped establish in the public mind that Lincoln had that type of voice, rather than the high pitched voice that the historical Lincoln possessed.

The film script was co-written by Stephen Vincent Benet, a poet who in 1928 wrote the epic Civil War poem John Brown’s Body.   The film takes considerable liberties with the life of Lincoln, but, like Benet’s historical poetry, it has a good feel for the period and gives overall a powerful impression of Lincoln.  It is well worth the viewing even today, after so many Lincoln films.  It is interesting that this son of a Confederate colonel opens the film with a scene aboard a slave ship and that the film is a celebration of the man who defeated the cause his father fought for.

It is strange to think that this film, made 85 years ago, is now closer to Lincoln’s time than our own.   Made 65 years after the War, it stands to the Civil War as we do to World War II, a time period when a great historical event is slipping from living memory.  When that occurs since the invention of movies, how most people recall the event is largely through film, and DW Griffith ensured that his view of Lincoln would begin the process of shaping the memories of a man whose contemporaries were rapidly passing from this Vale of Tears.