Richard Nisley


Abraham Lincoln: three movies/three reviews
Pop Culture Released - Sep 05, 2020
ABE LINCOLN IN ILLINOIS (1939)

"Not much to look at, nothin' to see . . . " That would be Abraham Lincoln. And while he never spoke these exact words (they're from a popular song, "She's Funny That Way") they pretty much summarize Lincoln's view of himself–as a country bumpkin whose hair wouldn't stay combed, and whose clothes rarely fit him. That's the Abe Lincoln who emerges in "Abe Lincoln of Illinois" played to perfection by veteran stage actor Raymond Massey (who bears a striking facial resemblance to Lincoln). As Lincoln, the Canadian actor assumes a backwoods accent that sounds completely convincing when he describes himself as, "a plain common sucker with a shirttail so short I can't sit on it." The movie follows Lincoln's years as a resident of Illinois, up to his election as our nation's 16th president.

The movie begins with Lincoln's formative years in the rustic town of New Salem, Illinois, where he takes up the study of law, falls in love with Anne Rutledge (who was destined to die young), fails as a businessman, and runs successfully for a seat in the state legislature; to his years in Springfield, where he practices law, woos and marries Mary Todd, runs unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate (losing to Stephen Douglas), and attracts national attention in the famed Lincoln-Douglas debates, that in 1860 leads to his nomination as the Republican party's candidate for the U.S. presidency.

Despite his woeful appearance and self-deprecating humor, Lincoln was a self-educated man of exceptional intellectual gifts; this is the Lincoln who emerges in "Abe Lincoln of Illinois", a charismatic leader who, despite appearances, was a brilliant thinker and politician. This is brought into sharp focus in a single 10-minute scene (that summarizes the six Lincoln-Douglas debates), where Lincoln makes a compelling case for the abolition of slavery, and concludes with these immortal words, "a house divided against itself, cannot stand."

The winds of civil war are blowing in the closing scene, where a saddened, sobered Lincoln bids his neighbors goodbye, and boards a train bound for Washington D.C.

Based on Robert E. Sherwood's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, "Abe Lincoln of Illinois" the movie stands as a prequel to "Lincoln," Stephen Spielberg's 2013 movie starring another Lincoln look-alike, Daniel Day-Lewis.


YOUNG MR. LINCOLN (1940)

Lovingly directed by John Ford, "Young Mr. Lincoln" is more a character study than a carefully plotted Hollywood motion picture. Indeed the movie is something of a think-piece. It's beautifully photographed, and captures the pioneering spirit that dominated Lincoln's early years in New Salem, Illinois. The perfectly cast Henry Fonda reveals Lincoln as a modest man, and a thinker, who reads books, and enjoys the company of his rustic, rough-and-tumble friends. Highlights include Lincoln facing down a lynch mob, a telling scene in which he quotes the Bible to quell their hostility ("Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be obtain mercy" [Mathew 5: 7]); Fonda delivers the lines with appropriate modestly and under-stated conviction. The other big scene shows Lincoln the lawyer in action, as a persuasive speaker to a jury of peers. On the surface, the case appears hopelessly lost, his clients (two brothers) are faced with being hanged for a murder they did not commit, until Lincoln realizes the testimony of their accuser (played by veteran actor, Ward Bond) has a flaw; his testimony is based on the fact that a full moon was out the night of the murder thus enabling him to clearly identify the killer. Lincoln then checks in the Farmer's Almanac and learns the moon was not out that night. Exposed to the truth, Bond admits that, yes, he and not the brothers is responsible for killing the victim.

A young Milburn Stone, who would go on the play Doc in the hit TV series "Gun Smoke" makes an appealing if under used Stephen Douglas. Accompanying the DVD are two essays: one about Mr. Fonda, and the making of "Young Mr. Lincoln", the second about John Ford and his films. If you are an admirer of Abraham Lincoln, or of the classic films of John Ford, this DVD is for you.

In 2003, YOUNG MR. LINCOLN was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

LINCOLN (2013)

Stephen Spielberg’s “Lincoln” is as much about passage of the Thirteenth Amendment as it is about our 16th president. This is a good thing, as there’s nothing quite like conflict to reveal character, and Abraham Lincoln was a man of infinite character. He was not a flatterer, neither was he moved by flattery. He was passionate, honest, plain-spoken, and while every inch a politician, he never stooped to pettiness, jealousy, or grandstanding. As historian Alistair Cooke once observed (and the movie illustrates perfectly), “Abraham Lincoln had an extraordinary feel for the humanity of quite inhumane people and tolerated them long enough to get what he wanted from them—contractors, war profiteers, wheeler-dealers, the scum of the republic. He dignified the trade of politician like few men before or since.”

In this time of covid and poisonous political rhetoric, these three movies reveal a brighter and more assuring side of American politics and politicians, that will uplift your spirits.

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