Abraham Lincoln (1930)
“The wonder film of the century, about the most romantic figure who ever lived!”
Director: D W Griffith
Cast: Walter Huston, Una Merkel, William L. Thorne
Synopsis: An episodic biography of the 16th President of the United States.
The movie Abraham Lincoln is a lot like its title: no-nonsense, to-the-point, dull and unimaginative. Director D. W. Griffith’s mercurial career was already waning as the silent era drew to a close, and this, his first sound movie, bears all the hallmarks of a man struggling to adapt to a new medium of which he is, perhaps, afraid or — to be more charitable — which he sees as a step back in the art of film-making. He seems reluctant to wander from the arena of which he was master: there are a number of silent interludes and intertitles (and a rather pointless prologue, whose only purpose seems to be to remind us that slavery is wrong). Griffith also uses tinting throughout — a practice that was largely forsaken with the advent of sound, although I suppose there was no artistic or technical reason why this technique should have fallen into misuse.
Lincoln’s life is told in straightforward fashion, from his birth in a modest wooden cabin to his famous assassination in 1865, and as a result the story is highly episodic until we reach the Civil War. Lincoln’s formative years are dealt with in a matter of minutes, and his first love (a simpering Una Merkel in an early role) shares a total of three scenes with him before succumbing to an unspecified illness — and one of those three scenes is her agonisingly corny deathbed scene (“We must be brave,” she intones in a high, quavering voice, “it’s getting so dark and lonesome,”). Throughout the film, one has to make allowances for the fact that the movie was made while sound was still in its infancy: microphones were primitive, which is the main reason for the actor’s stilted delivery of their lines and the static nature of the film — only during one Civil War battle — which includes one of the director’s trademark cavalry charge at the camera — does Griffith open up the film, and for a few brief moments it comes alive. A little more attention to Lincoln the boy and young man might have given us a better insight into the older man as he took on the mantle of president.
Having raced through the first half-century of Lincoln’s life — including a surreal sequence in which the future president takes on all-comers in a free-for-all before lying on his back to drink corn whisky from a barrel as big as the man himself (shades of Dubya!) — the film slows to a crawl to focus on the Civil War, and Lincoln’s unwavering determination to preserve the Union. Sadly, apart from the aforementioned battle scenes, the course of the war is relayed to the viewer via numerous conversations between Lincoln and his aides, Lincoln and his soldiers, Lincoln and his family, etc. At the point in the movie when we should be thundering towards a climax, it all becomes increasingly dull, and I found myself wishing the great man would make that fateful trip to the theatre.
Of interest only to movie scholars and buffs, Abraham Lincoln has historical worth, but very little entertainment value.
(Reviewed 5th January 2007)