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How we remember Lincoln says more about us than it does about him.

Was I really seeing what I thought I was seeing?

A tall figure in a stovepipe hat and long black coat, striding toward me through the fog. Staring out at the Pacific Ocean, a hint of a beard as he turned his head. These were fleeting images, glimpsed in a series of commercials for the 2013 Lincoln MKX: Abraham Lincoln, contemplative, commanding—hawking cars on TV.

Today Lincoln seems to be everywhere, in commercials but also docudramas and major motion pictures. Parodies of his life and presidency are just as common as more serious depictions. He appears in Derek Waters’ “Drunk History” (a video series posted on the website “Funny or Die”), on Saturday Night Live (played by Louis C.K.) and in the pages of The New Yorker, depicted as a bobblehead figure and a kitchen gadget (among other things) in Bruce McCall’s cartoon sketchbook “Abe-Mania!”

This recent upsurge of Abe-Mania has deep roots. Extolled as one of the country’s greatest presidents, presiding over the nation’s most important event—the Civil War—and widely regarded as the “Great Emancipator,” Lincoln has served as a protagonist in many of the stories that Americans have told themselves since the 1860s. Mostly he has been an object of uncritical devotion, his faults rarely seen or discussed in stories about the nation’s leaders and political progressives. However, the Abe-Mania of the past year suggests a shift in Lincoln’s status as an American icon.

Recent movies, television shows and YouTube shorts have focused on Lincoln and his battles against a variety of foes: Unionist Democrats, would-be and actual assassins and the more fantastical triumvirate of vampires, zombies and alien robots. They tell us much more about who we are than they tell about the man himself, and more about the nature of visual media than the significance of history.

Bromantic Partner

In all these media depictions—films, especially—the central relationship is not between Lincoln and Mary Todd, or Lincoln and his sons or even the president and his political adversaries. It is a “bromance,” in some form or another.

Bromance is a relatively recent term, used to describe an intense friendship between two men. This friendship takes precedence over the other relationships in each man’s life, and in films it drives the plot. This is most evident in Salvador Litvak’s Saving Lincoln, which tells the story of Lincoln’s political career through his friendship with Ward Hill Lamon, his bodyguard. Lincoln (Tom Amandes) and Lamon (Lea Coco) meet in an Illinois bar, and from that moment on the two are inseparable. They sing together and consult each other on political and military strategy. And in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, a young Abe (Benjamin Walker) spends the first part of the film living with Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper), who trains the rail-splitter to hunt and kill vampires. Cue the scenes of male bonding.

For a man who is supposed to “have no friends, no family,” this Lincoln attracts male friends like honey attracts bears. One of the major plot points of Vampire Hunter—Joshua Speed’s (Jimmi Simpson’s) betrayal of Lincoln to his vampire enemies— hinges on Speed’s jealousy of Lincoln’s courtship of Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and his childhood friendship with Will Johnson (Anthony Mackie). Because we see Speed stare at these couples with angry eyes, his subsequent disloyalty seems to make sense (although it is actually a ruse). Later in the film, as President Lincoln, Speed and Johnson plan strategy in his White House office, Mary appears in the doorway and asks, “May I have my husband back?” Yeah. Good luck with that.

And as a leader of a band of secret service agents on a mission to eradicate zombies from Fort Pulaski and Savannah in Lincoln vs. Zombies, Lincoln (Bill Oberst Jr.) proves to be so magnetic and manly that John Wilkes Booth (a double agent going under the name John Wilkinson, played by Jason Vail) cannot bring himself to murder the president. The relationship between Lincoln and Booth is a little more traditional in the National Geographic Channel’s docudrama Killing Lincoln, but Booth obsesses about Lincoln like a spurned lover; he is a bromantic stalker. Through Booth’s murderous act—and through the parallel “countdowns” to the deaths of both men— the president and his assassin are forever intertwined.

The bromantic Lincoln is so compelling that when he looks at you from the screen, you find yourself understanding Josh Speed’s jealousy. You want to hang out with this Lincoln, kick back in the kitchen with him, like Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) does in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. This president (Daniel Day-Lewis) is smart, amusing and fun to be around. He tells ribald jokes and funny stories, and his eyes have a mischievous twinkle. You fantasize that he will find you as delightful as you find him. You want him to notice you, and you want to be worthy of his attention.

It seems clear that the directors and lead actors of these films yearn to be Lincoln’s pal, and this desire infuses their projects. In an interview with 60 Minutes, Daniel Day-Lewis said, “I never ever felt that depth of love for another human being, that I never met.” Director Salvador Litvak explained that he chose to base Saving Lincoln on Lamon’s Recollections of Abraham Lincoln (1895) because that text made him “really feel what it was like to be around Lincoln, and be his friend.”

This hankering to be friends with a long-dead president seems a little odd. But then again, many of our friendships today are mediated through computer screens, phones and other hand-held devices. You might have Facebook “friends” you have never actually met in person. You can follow celebrities on Twitter and convince yourself that you’re part of their entourage. So perhaps this aspiration to become buddies with Lincoln is not so strange after all.

The bromantic portrayal of Lincoln may also be a reflection of recent approaches in American history. Biographers have embraced social history, and have come to focus more on the emotions and frailties of their subjects. It is also a reflection of the nature of historical film. These relationships, especially the ones developed between Lincoln and the viewer, bridge the distance between the present and the past; they work to bring us into Lincoln’s world, and into an imagined relationship with him. This creates for viewers a kind of illusory reality—which is, of course, what movies are intended to do.

Action Hero

This is why the simultaneous trend in depicting Lincoln as an action hero fighting fantastical enemies is so fascinating. The writers and directors behind Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies and the YouTube trailer Abraham Lincoln: Alien Puncher have all taken this American icon and turned him to other uses. Vampire Hunter is the most prominent of these, having been based on a bestselling novel and boasting the biggest budget ($69 million). Zombies is a “mockbuster” that went straight to video, and Alien Puncher is a spoof— it’s not even a movie really, but a trailer for a nonexistent movie. All three of these films suggest that the central questions of Lincoln’s biography—how he became the United States’ most revered president—can be answered through his entanglements with the uncanny.

By reimagining Lincoln as an action hero, these films also rewrite Civil War history, and the history of slavery. That the slave traders and owners are also vampires in Vampire Hunter is not a coincidence. The film explains slavery as an elaborate system to feed vampires and prevent them from rising up; this arrangement has been the key to holding the Union together. When the war breaks out, Jefferson Davis (John Rothman) goes to meet with the ancient leader of the vampires, Adam (Rufus Sewell), to recruit vampires to the Confederate cause. “If we support you,” Davis says (apparently referring to the Confederacy’s insistence on the legalization and expansion of slavery), “you will need to support us.” The vampires go to war dressed in gray, and this (the film contends) explains the Rebels’ victories through early 1863. Slaves and free blacks get their revenge, however; they are the ones who deliver all the North’s silver to the battlefield outside Gettysburg, where the vampires are defeated and the tide of the war turns.

In Zombies, the only member of the secret service team to recognize the undead for what they are is the one black man in the group. “They act like zombies,” he says. When the others look incredulous, he explains. “[It is a] Bantu word I learned from my mother. Corpses brought back to life by magic. But they were only used as slaves.” Both the epidemic of the undead and slavery are understood to be national “infections,” which can only be cured through total annihilation. Like Vampire Hunter, this film suggests that all Americans—Northern and Southern, black and white—are implicated in slavery and its expansion. Lincoln fights against this national infection with the pen and the scythe, through both the Emancipation Proclamation and his campaign to obliterate the zombies gathering in Georgia.

When a young Lincoln transports himself to a future in Alien Puncher, he discovers that alien robots have taken over the earth and enslaved the humans they have not killed. “We gotta destroy [them],” he tells a lone survivor. “Slavery just ain’t right.” And in the seconds before he launches himself skyward to punch the alien robot mother ship into submission, Lincoln looks at the camera and says, “Emancipation. Proclamation!” In the final scene of the trailer, the survivor says to Lincoln, “Remember what you said about slavery?… Remember that when you get back.” Lincoln looks confused, then says: “Ooooh! The slaves! Good call.”

These films have no basis in reality or historical authenticity, of course— and this is part of their charm. Vampire Hunter makes some effort to root its tale of bloodsucking and vampire decapitation in the actual history of Lincoln’s presidency and the war, but Zombies quickly veers away from any recognizable historical narrative—at one point Lincoln props up a young Teddy Roosevelt (Canon Kuipers) on his shoulders and teaches him how to shoot. The entertainment value of these films is in the contrast they create between our traditional vision of the serious, careworn Lincoln—with wrinkles like deep crevasses, wearing his long, somber black coat—and the vigorous, almost supernatural Lincoln striding through the forest, dispatching vampires and zombies with brutal efficiency.

Abe-Mania Forever?

Lincoln the action hero is similar to Lincoln the bromantic partner in that they both diverge radically from Lincoln the untouchable political genius. In all these films and television shows—and even in the satirical YouTube videos—Lincoln becomes more human and way more interesting, even (or especially?) when he displays his supernatural abilities. But this doesn’t mean that these filmmakers have smashed the pedestal to pieces. Lincoln is still an object of devotion in all these media visions. We love him even more when we see his flaws, and listen to him sing out of tune, and when we watch him leap into the air in slow motion, swinging an ax. And especially when we hear him speak. The Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural should really get closing credits in all these productions for the important role they play in establishing Lincoln’s iconic eloquence.

The president’s impending death (though not always the death itself) is integrated into most of these films. We feel terribly sad when we watch him climb into the carriage that will take him to Ford’s Theatre on the evening of April 14, 1865. Even Louis C.K.’s Lincoln confesses, “One thing I’m really sure of, is that someone is going to murder me.” Lincoln’s death cemented his historical role as a tragic hero. These films do not evade this vision of him—they embrace it.

And no wonder—the tragic hero is the most popular of all heroes in literature and film, and dramatic irony is the most useful of narrative devices. The audience gets a thrill out of the contrast between the character’s limited knowledge of his situation and our own understanding of what is to come. Most audience members actually do know how historical films end. This awareness creates an intense, fraught connection between the viewer and Lincoln; we know our time with him is brief, and we should enjoy it while we can.

It’s hard to say whether Abe-Mania will continue over the next few years. There are certainly enough anniversaries coming up to warrant it: the Gettysburg Address, the second-term election, the Second Inaugural and especially the assassination. As American culture continues to evolve, our relationship with Lincoln—and our depictions of him in visual media—will shift accordingly. He will be the Lincoln we need him to be, and we will hold him to us even as we watch him walk away.


Megan Kate Nelson teaches in the History and Literature program at Harvard University. Her most recent book is Ruin Nation: Destruction and the American Civil War.

Originally published in the August 2013 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.