Paid Advertisement
Historynet/feed historynet feedback facebook link Weider History Group RSS feed Weider Subscriptions Historynet Home page

Multi-Media Review: ABRAHAM AND MARY LINCOLN: A HOUSE DIVIDED (PBS Documentary) : AH

Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: August 19, 2000 
Print Friendly
0 comments FONT +  FONT -

ABRAHAM AND MARY LINCOLN: A HOUSE DIVIDED, An American Experience documentary, airs on PBS television February 19, 20, and 21.

It is almost impossible these days to imagine a TV documentary about the Civil War era that does not feature narrator David McCullogh, the obligatory violin-solo theme music, historian talking-heads offering expert commentary, and cameras slowly closing in on archival photographs for loving close-ups. And David Grubin's new six-hour special, Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided, does not stray far from the proven "Ken Burns formula."

There is much that is new to recommend it, however. The writing, by Grubin and Geoffrey C. Ward, is succinct, compelling, and often moving. The historians, among them Mark E. Neely, Jr., Frank J. Williams, David E. Long, James M. McPherson, John Hope Franklin, and particularly the irresistible David Herbert Donald, are often riveting. And Grubin adds lovely new film to the mix of old still photos–a rain-swept battlefield here, a clicking telegraph key there–providing drama and action. Viewers do not simply hear, for example, that young Abraham helped build his mother's coffin; we see a primitive old hammer slamming a hand-wrought nail into a pine box.

The documentary takes an ambitious approach, weaving together the complex stories of the Lincolns' public and private lives–with the dissolution of the Union adding new pressure to their own union. Although the documentary offers little that is new or surprising to the public side of the story (save for a rather unsympathetic view of Lincoln as Emancipator), the film treats Mary more tenderly than usual and makes the story of her difficult childhood, stormy courtship, and sad decline more comprehensible than ever. Particular credit must go to expert commentary by Jean H. Baker, Linda Levitt Turner, and Charles B. Strozier.

The documentary does an especially good job contrasting, in short segments, the squalor of Abraham's childhood with the luxury of Mary's. Later it turns a well-known exchange of letters between a lonely Congressman Lincoln and his faraway wife into a wonderful, even sexy dialogue, simply by panning back and forth from one handwritten note to the other.

Altogether, Grubin's is a sumptuous package–beautifully filmed, wonderfully detailed, and historically sound. Unfortunately, it suffers from one glaring weakness. David Morse, the voice of Lincoln, reads private letters and public speeches alike in an unrelentingly soporific monotone. Holly Hunter, as Mary, sounds as if she is speaking with marbles in her mouth to moderate her Georgia accent, with a result only slightly more animated than Morse's. What were these performers thinking?

HAROLD HOLZER is a historian and a member of the U.S. Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.



Leave a Reply

Human Verification: In order to verify that you are a human and not a spam bot, please enter the answer into the following box below based on the instructions contained in the graphic.


Related Articles


History Net Images Spacer
Paid Advertisement
Paid Advertisement
History Net Daily Activities
History net Spacer
History net Spacer
Historynet Spacer
HISTORYNET READERS' POLL

Which of these wars resulted in the most surprising underdog upset?

View Results | See previous polls

Loading ... Loading ...
History net Spacer
STAY CONNECTED WITH US
RSS Feed Daily Email Update
History net Spacer
Paid Advertisement History net Spacer
Paid Advertisement

Paid Advertisement
What is HistoryNet?

The HistoryNet.com is brought to you by Weider History, the world's largest publisher of history magazines. HistoryNet.com contains daily features, photo galleries and over 5,000 articles originally published in our various magazines.

If you are interested in a specific history subject, try searching our archives, you are bound to find something to pique your interest.

From Our Magazines
Weider History

Weider History Network:  HistoryNet | Armchair General | Achtung Panzer! | StreamHistory.com
Today in History | Ask Mr. History | Picture of the Day | Daily History Quiz | Contact Us

Copyright © 2014 Weider History. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.
Advertise With Us | Subscription Help | Privacy Policy