Perhaps stung by the charges of racism that surrounded the release of The Birth of a Nation in 1916, when D.W. Griffith set out to make his first talkie he hoped to adapt Stephen Vincent Benet’s Civil War inspired prose poem John Brown’s Body. When United Artists balked at the idea, Griffith settled on making a film on the life of the 16th President of the United States Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Vincent Benet was tapped to write the screenplay.
Griffith presents Lincoln’s life as a series of episodes, beginning with his 1809 birth in a Kentucky log cabin. Things then shift to New Salem, Illinois; at 22, Lincoln (Walter Huston) is working a store clerk. By 1834, Abe is working as a rail-splitter and courting Ann Rutledge (Una Merkel) while studying to be a lawyer. When Ann dies abruptly of a fever, Lincoln is left heartbroken. Upon returning from fighting the Indian wars, Lincoln opens a law practice in Springfield. At a ball given by a former governor, Lincoln meets society belle Mary Todd (Kay Hammond), who is being pursued by the influential politician Stephen Douglas (E. Alyn Warren). However, she takes a shine to Lincoln and they eventually marry, though he is still dealing with his sadness over Ann Rutledge’s death.
From there we move on to Lincoln’s political rise, where he loses a race against Douglas for a Senate seat, but attracts the attention of the Republican Party leadership and becomes a candidate for President. After winning the presidency, Lincoln faces the secession of the southern states. Both sides produce armies, but when the Civil War goes on longer than expected, numerous senators call for an end to the fighting, even if it means the South is allowed to leave the Union. However, Lincoln perseveres and signs the Emancipation Proclamation. And having gotten the idea while pacing at night, he appoints Ulysses S. Grant commander of the Union army. General Grant quickly turns things around, forcing Confederate general Robert Lee to face the need to surrender. Lincoln wins re-election; he is assassinated on the night of April 14th 1865 at Ford’s Theatre by John Wilkes Boothe.
D.W. Griffith certainly took plenty of liberties in constructing Abraham Lincoln. Large parts of his life, such as his time in the Illinois in the state legislature and his term as a congressman have been excised from the story in favor of telling of his time with Anne Rutledge. While it’s believed that the two had an understanding they would marry, it was a difficult situation since she was already engaged. The relationship between Lincoln and Mary Todd has also been sensationalized here. While the real Lincoln did break off his engagement at one point, he didn’t actually stand Mary up at their wedding. More than likely, pressure from her status-conscious relatives was an issue.
Perhaps most disappointingly, Lincoln’s famous debates with Stephen Douglas during his run for the Senate are represented by just a few lines. At its core that is the biggest problem with D.W. Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln; at just 93 minutes, the director glosses over major historical moments in minutes, if not seconds. But despite these issues, Abraham Lincoln is well worth watching for one reason: the performance of Walter Huston in the title role. While some of the other actors overplayed their parts—perhaps they were uncomfortable with the new medium of sound—Huston brought a real intelligence to his character. He plays Lincoln as a man of gentle humor, great patience and strength. Huston carries his body in a way that makes you believe that Lincoln was a man carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. While Huston may not have been given the best material to work with, his portrayal of Lincoln has to be of the best on film.
Framed in 1.20:1, Kino Lorber has delivered Abraham Lincoln to 1080p based on a 35mm restoration coordinated by the Museum of Modern Art. This version includes about three minutes of footage missing from prints in the public domain. However, since audio was mussing for the added footage, subtitles are used in its place.
Now on to the actual look of the transfer. Don’t expect anything remotely approaching any of today’s Blu-ray’s. You’ll notice scratches throughout. Nevertheless, Abraham Lincoln looks 100 times better than any of the copies I’ve ever seen made available in the public domain.
Audio does crackle a bit throughout, but always manages to be understandable. You will find it dips to the low end on occasion, which might have you reaching for the volume control, but considering its age, the audio isn’t bad.
The following special features are included:
- Introduction to The Birth of a Nation, featuring D.W. Griffith and Walter Huston (filmed during production of Abraham Lincoln.