Abraham Lincoln on Screen: A Filmography, 1903-1998

By Mike S. Reinhart

Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1999. xi p., 292 pp. ISBN 0-7864-0602-X. $49.95.

With the astounding proliferation of Lincoln literature in the 134 years since his assassination, one would think that we would be reaching a point of saturation. And yet, just when you thought that it had all been written, a new work comes along presenting a fresh approach, new research, or an examination of an area that has inexplicably been overlooked by historians. One such neglected area has now been addressed by Mark S. Reinhart in Abraham Lincoln on Screen: A Filmography, 1903-1998.

It is perhaps ironic that this book, a detailed examination of how Lincoln has been portrayed in film, television, and video productions, is based upon technology that was not yet dreamed of during Lincoln's lifetime. And yet, the image of Lincoln in film has had profound effects on many generations of Americans, especially those who grew up in the age of popular mass media, especially television. We are so ingrained with obtaining our perspectives, historical and otherwise, through the form of visual arts, that a historiographical examination of this medium is warranted and long overdue.

In his introduction to this book, Reinhart examines how Lincoln has been portrayed in 200 plus feature film and television productions since 1903. The author contends that while early efforts to portray Lincoln on film were reverential, almost always portraying the president as a kind and noble figure, recent works including Lincoln have used his image as more of a cultural icon, often in a jocular fashion. Reinhart cites numerous examples of the early use of the Lincoln character in which he is seen granting pardons to young soldiers convicted of numerous violations. This beneficent image of Lincoln is presented in stark contrast with the irreverent character of Lincoln that has appeared in more recent movies like 1989's Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. In this picture, Lincoln interacts with two time-traveling teenagers seeking out historical figures to complete a history project necessary for their graduation from high school.

Reinhart attributes film makers' ongoing fascination with Lincoln to three factors: the proliferation of photographic images of the sixteenth president taken during his lifetime, the importance Americans attach to the Civil War experience, and most importantly, the transformation of Lincoln into a legend in the minds of many Americans. Featuring Lincoln in movie and video productions was one way to grasp the image of Lincoln and translate his perceived importance in the national consciousness.

Despite the frequent appearance of Lincoln on the large screen and on television, author Reinhart points out that there have been but two full-length, cradle to grave productions of his life. They were The Dramatic Life of Abraham Lincoln (1924) starring George Billings as Lincoln, and D.W. Griffith's Abraham Lincoln (1930), with Walter Huston in the Lincoln role. All other films featuring Lincoln either present selected portions of Lincoln's life, or feature him as an incidental character within the context of a larger story. The two most famous movies featuring Lincoln, John Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), with a young Henry Fonda paying the part of Lincoln, and Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940), starring Raymond Massey, both present selected incidents in Lincoln's life rather than a comprehensive look at his entire life.

And Reinhart is critical of these two films; both from a historical standpoint and of the actors who portrayed Lincoln. In fact, it can generally be said that Reinhart becomes more critical of Lincoln films as the years progressed. He goes so far as to state that the introduction of sound recording into motion pictures presented filmmakers with even more difficulty in presenting an accurate depiction of Lincoln. Not only did the movie producers have to get the visual aspects of Lincoln right, they also had to get his words right.

Reinhart quite rightly saves his most vitriolic criticism of feature films for the 1977 production of The Lincoln Conspiracy. Based on the supposed discovery of the missing pages of John Wilkes Booth's diary, the film suffers from bad acting and an absurd story line in addition to the lack of any sort of true historical basis.

However, in Reinhart's eyes, the new medium of television heralded a sort of renaissance in Lincoln productions. He praises several made-for-television productions created in the early years of the medium. Among the quality television productions he cites is Abraham Lincoln - The Early Years, which aired in 1952 as five half-hour episodes of the television program Omnibus. The programs featured incidents in the early life of Lincoln, with actor Royal Dano taking on the role of Lincoln as an adult. Also singled out was Sandburg's Lincoln, which ran from 1974 - 1976 with Hal Holbrook in the title role. Curiously, Reinhart also speaks very highly of the 1956 production of The Day Lincoln Was Shot, based on the 1955 book of the same title written by Jim Bishop. Reinhart's praise for both the book and movie is singular, as it is commonly held within the Lincoln community that the book, a novelization of Lincoln's last day, is not historically accurate. The author himself has been quoted as calling the book a "pile of 'excrement'" (substitute excrement with the more vulgar euphemism for such matter).

Like his opinion on more modern-day feature film portrayals, Reinhart saves much of his criticism of television productions for more recent programs. He is particularly critical of Gore Vidal's Lincoln (1988), Tad (1994), and the more recent production of The Day Lincoln Was Shot. (1998). He is particularly captious on the short-lived UPN Network's production of The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer (1998). While his profusion of criticism of this irreverent situation comedy set in the Lincoln White House is warranted, I couldn't help but wonder if too much attention was focused on this show. Perhaps the best way to recognize the absurdity of such programs would be to ignore them completely.

The real meat, and lasting value, of Reinhart's book is the encyclopedic listing of the Lincoln related films, videos, and television productions. In reading through the listing I was often delighted that Reinhart had dug up even obscure educational films that I saw as a child. He also succeeded in bring to light countless intriguing productions of which I had never heard. Reinhart engages in providing criticism of each production, and I sometimes found myself disagreeing with his analyses. But such is the nature of commentary, and in no way distracts from the enjoyment or usefulness of the book.

Mark Reinhart's Abraham Lincoln on Screen is a useful and necessary addition to the field of Lincoln studies.

This book may be ordered directly from McFarland & Company at 1-800-253-2187 or from their website at http:www.mcfarland.com.

© Copyright Daniel E. Pearson, 2000