21 December 2008 | MartinHafer
While not "gospel", it sure sticks much closer to the truth than other Lincoln films of the era
Abe Lincoln is one of the most misunderstood figures in American history--perhaps THE most misunderstood. So much of what we assume are facts are actually myths and misrepresentations--some of which were promoted by writers and some by films of the 30s and 40s. While ABE LINCOLN IN ILLINOIS is far from perfect, it is light-years ahead of the other contemporary works in giving a balanced account of Lincoln's life. While heroic in many ways, Lincoln is more of a man in this film and the facts are generally true--and that's a lot more than can be said of such sentimental hogwash as D.W. Griffith's 1930 fiasco ABRAHAM LINCOLN--which is basically one myth after another strung together!! I can say all this because I am well educated about the man and am an American history teacher--so my opinion should mean something.
One of the common myths that has abounded was the Ann Rutledge romance. While it's uncertain exactly how much they were in love (was it just a passing romance or something deeper), it's obvious that they were NOT as they were portrayed in ABRAHAM LINCOLN with all of its syrupy sweetness. Read up on the controversy yourself--opinions vary and there's no concrete evidence to prove either extreme. Here in ABE LINCOLN IN ILLINOIS, they seem to take the position that the love between them was just beginning to blossom when she died and that that was about it.
Another myth is that Lincoln was 100% against slavery and that he personally freed the slaves (that was actually done by Congress and the 13th amendment). The real life Lincoln, though opposed to slavery, was more concerned with unity and preserving the nation. Fortunately, ABE LINCOLN IN ILLINOIS gets this right--they show Lincoln as being torn by these two divergent interests. Most books and films portray him as "the Great Emancipator"--though Lincoln would have allowed slavery to keep the country from war and he did see class distinctions between the races.
The other big myth is that Lincoln was sort of a "dumb hillbilly" and that he stumbled into greatness. While in this film he is a simple man, of sorts, he also is amazingly clever and has a great way with dealing with people. And, occasionally, he was a bit devious. While the film doesn't have a chance to show his political savvy and willingness to "forget" the Constitution during the war in order to keep the country together, he is relatively shrewd in this film.
As for Mary Todd, in the film as in real life, she was a conniver and a very unstable woman. While her mental instability was only briefly shown in this film (as in reality--her mental condition greatly deteriorated after her husband was President as well as his death) but at least it was mentioned. Plus, her intense drive was a major focus of the film--as it was in Lincoln's own real life. She was a hard-driving and rather nasty woman if you read more about her (and rather mentally unstable in her later years).
As a long-winded teacher, I could go on, but probably should wrap it up now. The film is reasonably accurate and tends to show Lincoln, warts and all--something films up until then neglected. Additionally, Raymond Massey's performance was superb and the film was both entertaining and inspiring. Interestingly enough, Massey was a Canadian and did a much better job than the Americans who have tackled this role.