Lincoln Before Lincoln

Spielberg Not the First to Direct Honest Abe

Nov. 17, 2012
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  It’s tempting to suspect that Abraham Lincoln was D.W. Griffith’s mea culpa for The Birth of a Nation—except Griffith probably never thought he did anything wrong. Abraham Lincoln (1930), Griffith’s last significant film, has been issued by Kino Lorber on Blu-ray in the most complete version to surface since it played in movie houses, intact except for the soundtrack of the opening sequence.

Walter Huston, probably best remembered nowadays as the grizzled prospector in his son John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), filled the title role. He drapes young Lincoln with an amiable aura—a bookish beanpole who could lick any comer in a fair fight. And that’s kind of how he plays Honest Abe as President—plus the gravity of high office coupled with the horror of presiding over the Civil War. Curiously, some incidents in Griffith’s telling are echoed in Spielberg’s Lincoln, including his pardoning of a young soldier for cowardice and his hope that Jefferson Davis will evade capture and slip into exile.

Griffith was a curious director from a contemporary perspective, wedded to the theatrical conventions of the Victorian Age while eager to execute terrific cinema out of battle scenes, galloping horses and massed armies in motion. Abraham Lincoln, unlike The Birth of a Nation, raised few eyebrows over politics. Slavery was condemned, the Union was preserved and John Wilkes Booth is a melodrama villain with madness gleaming from his eyes.

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