The Best and Worst Lincoln Movies

The Best and Worst Lincoln Movies,
as described in Gerald J. Prokopowicz’s book
Did Lincoln Own Slaves? And Other Frequently Asked Questions About Abraham Lincoln
(Pantheon Books, 2008; reprint edition by Vintage, 2009)

Gerald Prokopowicz spent nine years as scholar-in-residence at the Lincoln Museum in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Did Lincoln Own Slaves answers many of the questions he has actually been asked, ranging from whether Lincoln’s parents were married when the future president was born to whether scientists raised Lincoln from the dead. It is an informative book and, thanks to Prokopowicz’s writing style, is often laugh-out-loud funny while still setting the record straight on many, many questions people ask about the 16th president. The following is taken from pages 247–248 with the permission of the author.

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Best Lincoln movie: Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), starring Henry Fonda, and Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940), with Raymond Massey, are both classics.

Worst Lincoln movie: Two made-for-TV movies compete for the prize …

Lincoln (1988), based on (Gore Vidal’s) novel, starts with the questionable historicity of its script and the even more questionable casting of Mary Tyler Moore as Mary Todd Lincoln. An excellent performance by Sam Waterston as Lincoln is not enough to redeem it, but it guarantees that it’s not as bad as The Lincoln Conspiracy (1977), which has (Secretary of War Edwin) Stanton involved in the assassination plot, the wrong man killed at the Garrett farm, and Booth escaping to roam the earth.

Best Lincoln on TV: The best Lincoln performance is definitely Sam Waterston’s, but the best use of Lincoln as a character has to be his appearance in ‘The Savage Curtain,’ episode 77 of Star Trek (1969).

"He arrives floating in outer space and ends up participating in a celebrity death match on a team with Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and a Vulcan hero against Genghis Khan and three other bad guys, for the benefit ofsome alien rock people who want to know whether good is stronger than evil. It is, but Abe gets killed (again). Three out of four stars."

Worst Lincoln on TV: In 1998, a sitcom called The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer aired a few incredibly unpopular episodes.

The premise was that a black British nobleman somehow wound up as Lincoln’s butler, creating all kinds of opportunities for comedy against a backdrop of slavery and civil war. If Hogan’s Heroes could try (albeit unsuccessfully) to make something funny out of life in a Nazi stalag, why not this? Apparently the writers had Mary Lincoln lusting after the butler, Lincoln lusting after young Union soldiers with their washboard abs, and General Grant lusting after anything he could drink. How could it miss? It was cancelled so quickly that I have to admit I never saw an episode, yet I still feel confident awarding it the prize for the worst Lincoln ever on TV.

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Click here to read HistoryNet’s report on six Lincoln movies, from 1913′s When Lincoln Paid the Debt to 2011’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer.

3 Responses

  1. Rosie

    I agree that Sam Waterson gave the best performance as Abraham Lincoln. Ironically, I feel that Benjamin Walker is a close second.

    But “GORE VIDAL’S LINCOLN” as one of the best Lincoln movies? I disagree. Even if it wasn’t completely historically correct, so what? It was an adaptation of a fictional book, not a documentary. There is no such thing as a historically correct historical drama.

    • Gerald Swick

      If you re-read the assesment, Rosie, you’ll see that “Gore Vidal’s Lincoln” was named one of the worst, not one of the best, despite Sam Waterston’s performance.


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