The new Abraham Lincoln movie from Steven Spielberg will be hitting theaters before the end of 2012. Lincoln will focus on the president’s fight to get the 13th Amendment through a reluctant Congress.
In advance of Spielberg’s Lincoln movie, HistoryNet presents six other portrayals of Abraham Lincoln in film and television.
In the early 20th century a short, plump gentleman walked into the American embassy in Australia and informed its staff he was an actor who had been selected to portray Abraham Lincoln in a stage production. The Americans tried to politely explain to him that he might have difficulties in the role, without outright telling him a short, fat man wouldn’t be very believable as the tall, lanky Lincoln. The actor assured them he was quite prepared for the role: he just had one or two minor points he wished to clear up and hoped they could help him do that.
As unlikely as that story sounds, the 16th president has been portrayed so many different times by so many different people, with so many different interpretations of what he was like—well, why shouldn’t a rotund, vertically challenged Aussie have a go at it?
Abraham Lincoln has been a popular subject for filmmakers since the days of silent movies. His films have often been propaganda devices for their times, from 1915’s The Battle Cry of Peace (which starred W.J. Ferguson, who claimed to have been present when the real Lincoln was assassinated) to 1939’s Young Mr. Lincoln and beyond. More often than not, a great deal of historical accuracy has been sacrificed in the name of entertainment and, in search of the all-important "happy ending," the story often ends before that tragic night in Ford’s Theater. Learn More
Six Abraham Lincoln Movies
When Lincoln Paid (1913, b&w), starring and directed by Francis Ford, older brother of John Ford, who directed Young Mr. Lincoln in 1939 (see below). It is the only known surviving film of at least seven in which Francis Ford portrayed Lincoln.
Historical Accuracy: Pure fiction, but reflecting the sort of magnanimous behavior often attributed to Lincoln.
A print of this long-lost film was found in a barn in New Hampshire in 2006 and restored by Keene State College. It tells the story of the mother whose son was killed in the service of the Union. She goes to Lincoln and asks him to pardon a Confederate whom she had previously turned in to authorities. Ford has the correct physical build to portray Lincoln, but apparently the president was having a bad hair day.
Abraham Lincoln (D. W. Griffith Productions with Feature Productions, 1930, b&w), starring Walter Houston, the father of director John Houston.
Historical Accuracy: Not its stong point
Directed by D. W. Griffith of Birth of a Nation fame (or infamy, depending on your viewpoint), it does not portray the racism associated with Birth, which was based on the novel The Clansman. Abraham Lincoln was one of only two talkies Griffith directed. It presents a heroic portrayal of Lincoln but in trying to tell his entire life story, it is essentially a series of vignettes. The script was written by John W. Considine, Jr., and adapted by poet Steven Vincent Benet. Jason Robards, who portrays Lincoln’s law partner William Herndon in the film, went on to portray Lincoln himself three times. The hokey acting is on a level with that found in many films during the transition from silent to sound movies.
Young Mr. Lincoln (Twentieth Century Fox, 1939, b&w), starring Henry Fonda. Directed by John Ford. Adapted from a play by Robert E. Sherwood, who would later write the screenplay for The Best Years of Our Lives.
Historical accuracy: Not its strong point, but Fonda’s Lincoln has often been the standard by which other actors’ portrayals have been judged
This film, the first to feature the winning combination of John Ford directing Henry Fonda, covers 10 years in the life of Abraham Lincoln, beginning with him moving from a log cabin in Kentucky to Illinois—which overlooks the fact his family moved from Kentucky to Indiana when he was a boy—to his entry into politics. This Lincoln is physically strong with a mind far beyond that of most of the people around him in the film. Fonda’s performance is well-regarded; he captures Lincoln’s shrewdness and cunning .
Abe Lincoln in Illinois (RKO Pictures, 1940, b&w), starring Raymond Massey.
Historical accuracy: Not its strong point, but it captures Lincoln’s "melancholia," perhaps too much so
Based on Robert Sherwood’s Pulitzer Prize–winning play, this film traces Lincoln’s life from his early days in Illinois as a young man to his election to the presidency. Massey presents a Lincoln who is more tortured and depression-prone than Fonda’s portrayal. A financial failure, it garnered two Oscar nominations, Best Actor and cinematography.
Lincoln (NBC television miniseries, Chris/Rose Productions, et al, 1988, color), starring Sam Waterston. Directed by Lamont Johnson.
Historical Accuracy: Waterston captures Lincoln’s high-pitched voice, whereas most actors portray him as deep-voiced, but the miniseries also contains a number of inaccuracies; the premise of the novel on which it is based is not widely accepted among those who study Lincoln.
This 190-minute TV miniseries was based on Gore Vidal’s best-selling novel, Lincoln. By his own admission, Vidal "pretty much" saw Lincoln as so ambitious that he essentially caused the Civil War in order to raise his own stature and join or surpass the Founding Fathers in American memory, but this miniseries tones that down a bit. Mary Tyler Moore was nominated for an Emmy in the Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or Special category for her portrayal of Lincoln’s wife, the former Mary Todd. The miniseries was nominated for seven Emmys; it won just one, for Lamont Johnson’s directing.
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012, color), starring Benjamin Walker. Directed by Timur Bermambetov.
Historical accuracy: You’re kidding, right?
Okay, see, uh, a vampire kills young Lincoln’s mother and the boy grows up to be a tall, ungainly, male version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Actually, it’s a good action movie, and if you can’t figure out from the title that this isn’t supposed to be a documentary you probably need to check out PBS more often.
Read the Best and Worst of Lincoln in film and on TV, taken from Gerald J. Prokopowicz’s book Did Lincoln Own Slaves? And Other Frequently Asked Questions About Abraham Lincoln. Prokopowicz spent nine years as scholar-in-residence at Lincoln Museum in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
Abraham Lincoln Movie 2012
In November 2012, Steven Spielberg will release his Lincoln movie. To see trailers, click on the links below.