Oct 182012

Rating: ★½☆☆☆

United Artists, 1930, 90 minutes
Cast: Walter Huston, Una Merkel, Kay Hammond, E. Alyn Warren, Oscar Apfel, Hobart Bosworth and Ian Keith
Story: John W. Considine, Jr.
Adaptation: Steven Vincent Benet
Producer: D.W. Griffith
Executive Producer: Joseph M. Schenck
Director: D. W. Griffith

Historical Background

Born in a log cabin, Abraham Lincoln (February 12, 1809-April 15, 1865) taught himself enough law to become a lawyer. An ambitious man, he was elected repeatedly to the Illinois state legislature, where he became a leader of the Whig party. After a single term in Congress (1846-1848), Lincoln’s political career seemed to have peaked. As the debate over slavery tore apart the nation in the 1850s, the Whigs appeared increasingly irrelevant, so Lincoln joined the newly formed Republican party. Although he lost a hard-fought campaign against Democrat candidate Stephen Douglas for a senate seat in 1858, a series of debates between the two men had attracted national attention, especially among the growing abolitionist movement. Chosen as a compromise candidate during the 1860 Republican convention, Lincoln won election as president, aided by the breakup of the Democrat party over slavery. Convinced that he intended to destroy their way of life, the southern states seceded, starting a long and bitter civil war (1861-1865). When Lincoln decided to emancipate the slaves, it seemed likely that he would lose the 1864 election, but several victories on the battlefield ensured that he was given a second term with a sizeable majority. Unfortunately, Lincoln was assassinated shortly after the war ended.

Plot Summary

Abraham Lincoln’s (Walter Huston) entire life is presented through a series of episodes, beginning with his birth in a log cabin, and then shifting to New Salem, Illinois, where he is a clerk in a store and courts Ann Rutledge (Una Merkel) while studying to be a lawyer. Her sudden death from a fever breaks his heart, but he recovers enough to become a rising young lawyer in Springfield. Society belle Mary Todd (Kay Hammond), is being pursued by the famous politician Stephen Douglas (E. Alyn Warren), but she takes a fancy to Lincoln, and they eventually marry, even though he is still in love with Ann Rutledge. Although Lincoln loses a race against Douglas for a Senate seat, he attracts the attention of the leadership of the Republican Party and becomes its presidential candidate. Winning election as president, he faces the secession of the southern states. Both sides raise armies but when the war proves longer than expected, numerous senators call for an end to the fighting, even if the price of peace is that the South is permitted to leave the Union. However, Lincoln perseveres and announces the Emancipation Proclamation. Receiving a sudden inspiration while pacing at night, Lincoln appoints Ulysses Grant commander of the Union army, and he quickly turns the tide, forcing Confederate general Robert Lee to face the need to surrender. Although Lincoln wins re-election, he is assassinated by John Edwin Booth while attending a play.

Historical Accuracy

Determined to show that Abraham Lincoln was more of a ladies man than has previously been been thought, the script devotes a considerable amount of screen time to his romances, skipping over less important periods of his life, namely his service in the state legislature and his term as a congressman. It is believed that Lincoln and Ann Rutledge had an understanding that they would wed but it was a difficult situation since she was already engaged. The screen Lincoln is way too aggressive in his pursuit of Ann, holding her and trying to kiss her in public. Public displays of affection were not accepted at the time and there is no mention of her fiance. The relationship between Lincoln and Mary is also glamorized. While the real Lincoln did break off their engagement, he did not actually stand Mary up at their wedding, and it seems likely that pressure from her status-conscious relatives, not fear of commitment, was the cause.

The senate race between Lincoln and Douglas is represented by an incredibly lame debate, consisting of each man making a few statements, but Lincoln ends his speech with the famous phrase “A house divided against itself can not stand,” which meant that the nation could not survive half-free and half-slave. The real Lincoln did attract attention from the leadership of the Republican party but he was not acclaimed as the ideal candidate. Actually, he was a compromise candidate chosen by party heavyweights opposed to New York Senator William Seward, the front-runner.

Unbelievably unlikeable, the screen Mary Lincoln is a self-centered, abrasive shrew, which is an unfair portrayal. There is little doubt that she was a difficult woman, but she was devoted to her husband and family.

It is the only movie to show Lincoln’s habit of pacing at night in socks and nightshirt, which drove his wife crazy. Like the real man, the fictional Lincoln is constantly saying “that reminds me of a story,” which sounds like it would have been annoying but he was very popular. However, the script did use a considerable amount of the real man’s words, including his reasoning that deserters should be spared execution since a man can not do anything if God gives him cowardly legs.

The movie’s greatest error is the depiction of the cabinet, and presumably all of the legislature, as spineless, weak appeasers. There is not a single leader in the movie who backs Lincoln during the war or even pushes him to be more radical. Instead, Lincoln must drive the weak politicians to preserve the Union. The idea that the members of the cabinet agree to basically surrender to the south is simply silly, those seven men could not agree on anything, and several of them loathed each other. While the real men had responsibilities and led departments, the members of the screen cabinet spend all of their time fretting over the president’s bold decisions, while Lincoln remains cool and collected. In addition, the genuine Lincoln was under tremendous pressure from the radical wing of Republican Party to emancipate the slaves, but he proceeded gradually until he was confident that he had enough national support.

Furthermore, General Winfield Scott, senior general in the army, is shown as old, which he was, and almost comically inept, which he definitely was not. In fact, realizing early that the war would be long and hard, Scott had pressed for a blockade, which was initially ignored by Lincoln, but eventually played a key role in the defeat of the south.

Lincoln is portrayed as a saint-like figure, who perseveres in his quest to reunite the Union despite the obstacles placed in his path. There is a spiritual aspect to all of his achievements: the decision to put Grant in charge of the entire army comes as an inspiration while pacing at night; and Union general Phil Sheridan wins a victory against Lee (who is standing in for Jubal Early) in the Shenandoah Valley seemingly because Lincoln had a vision of a ship safely reaching port. Actually, the decision to appoint Grant commander in chief of the Union army was expected, since he had been Lincoln’s favorite general throughout most of the war because he won battles and did not constantly ask for more troops. Moreover, the genuine Lincoln delayed only because he feared that Grant had presidential aspirations, and he had little desire to elevate a rival. Like a proper saint, Lincoln always remains calm, although the real man was understandably fearful about the nation’s future and was visibly worn down by his burden.

The only excitement in the film occurs when Phil Sheridan leaves his HQ to lead a counterattack that takes the enemy by surprise, winning a major victory. It may seem hard to believe that he had been having dinner and did not even know that his army was on the verge of a rout, but it is true, he was ten miles away from the army when Early made an unexpected attack, and heard the sound of artillery, so he rode off to rally his men. However, the actor who plays Sheridan is too old, twice the age of the real man, who was in his early thirties during the war.

Black people, free or slave, are never seen in the film, except for one white man in blackface during John Brown’s failed attempt to spark a slave uprising at Harper’s Ferry, who throws away the rifle he was given by Brown’s men, implying that the slaves did not want to be free.

While the real Ulysses S. Grant was justly famous for his fondness for alcoholic beverages, and his critics spread rumors that he was a drunk, he actually kept his drinking under control for most of the war, and he certainly never sat knocking back whiskey while talking to Lincoln. At least, the script keeps Lincoln’s comment that if he knew what brand of whiskey Grant drank, he would send barrels to his other generals.


Una Merkel, the actress playing Ann Rutledge, later became famous for her comic delivery, but clearly had trouble with her role, since she always sounded like she was about to break into song.

Walter Huston’s makeup in the early scenes gives him an uncanny resemblance to the Joker, but he starts to look more like Lincoln as the movie progresses.

Although director D. W. Griffith had been one of the giants of the silent film industry, he was a recovering alcoholic and his career had fallen into decline by the time of the movie. Abraham Lincoln was Griffith’s first film with sound, and he did not smoothly adapt to the transition from silents to sound. Neither Abraham Lincoln, nor Griffith’s next sound film The Struggle (1931) were successful, and he never made another film.

The episodic approach makes it difficult to follow the plot. The approach had been suggested by Carl Sandburg, whose biography of Lincoln’s life, The Prairie Years, had sparked Griffith’s interest in the project. Approached to serve as a consultant, Sandburg wanted to be involved in writing the script but Griffith refused to pay his high asking price, although he did keep the episodic approach. Pulitzer Prize winner Stephen Vincent Benet was hired instead, but he accurately predicted that Griffith would take his script and add love interests and Negro comedy characters, thus ruining its value as an historical epic and ensuring its failure. An additional factor was the involvement of John W. Considine, Jr., who had a reputation for making writers, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, miserable, and worked for Joseph Schenck, president of United Artists whose relationship with Griffith had deteriorated so much that he was trying to push Griffith out of the studio that Griffith had helped found. Griffith’s health had been bad, and had worsened by the end of the production, so Considine oversaw the final cut, therefore it is impossible to say who is to blame for the film, but there is little to praise.

Adopting an episodic approach to the life of Abraham Lincoln, the movie turns a shrewd, intelligent man into a saint-like figure, who leads the government to win a war and free the slaves, without actually showing any black people, presumably to avoid offending white audiences in the south. Made in a different era, when actors and directors had not fully adjusted to the switch from silent movies to sound, the film is honestly hard to watch. Infamous for the racist Birth of a Nation (1915), where the Klu Klux Klan save the South from an alliance of blacks and northern whites, director D.W. Griffith hoped that Abraham Lincoln would salvage his reputation and his career. It did neither.

There is no trailer that I could find so here is the full movie.

  • Thank you for this excellent scholarly review at at time most appropriate with the release of Spielberg’s new film.   And thank you for this excellent web site.

    • historyonfilm

      I appreciate the compliment, and I am glad that you found the review interesting.

      • John Dunbar

        Thanks.  I also informed you that in my retired years as an academic historian i’m trying to work out a History of History on Film and asked you about any sources you might know on the topic.  I can’t find a book by that name so if I remain empty handed I’ll just write one myself.  Unfortunately, me e-mail REPLY ADDRESS WAS CORRUPTED.    So if you have the time and energy to reply to that please use johndunbar@execulink.com.  As a reward I’ll send you something I’ve written that might wind up in that book.