Greetings all – I’ve recently been asked to write a review essay on Brian J. Snee’s new book, Lincoln before Lincoln, for the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association. Of course, I happily agreed to take on the project – Snee’s book concerns the cinematic adaptations of the life of Honest Abe. I mean…how could I pass, especially since I am working on a project about depicting historical actors and events in a motion picture.
To get in the right frame of mind (I have a little time on my hands this summer) I thought I would watch a number of Lincoln films – or films at least featuring the sixteenth president as a character. Asking around through the usual social media channels for recommendations has yielded a fine harvest of Lincoln movies. So far, the most frequently recommended film is John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln, starring Henry Fonda. I’m on it…and prepared to watch it this weekend…so expect a follow up. In addition, folks have suggested I check out Lincoln in a more pop-culture setting, such as Lincoln, the time traveler (Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure) or vampire killing super hero (Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter).
But in all seriousness, there are any number of ways one can interpret the life and presidency of Abraham Lincoln: great emancipator, commander in chief, astute and practical politician, husband, father, country bumpkin, rail-splitter, and I suppose, vampire hunter. Please leave your recommendations in the comments below – before I start writing, I want to see as many Lincolns as I can.
So I have watched the premiere episode of the PBS Civil War drama, Mercy Street, which is the story of two volunteer nurses and a hospital staff in 1862 Alexandria. I will refrain from any attempt at a comprehensive review until I have watched the series in its entirety – but for now I am optimistic.
I was pleased to learn that the writers thought to infuse actual issues into the narrative. The show deftly engages gender, abolition as both a political and moral cause, and nationalism (on both sides). With luck, the show will continue on this path and give the audience something to ponder other than what could very easily wind up as an over-wrought Lifetime historical romance – much like what has become of Downton Abbey of late.
Of course, optimism notwithstanding – there were a few things that, well…just didn’t sit right. For starters, the characters seem a little cut-and-paste: one for every category, as it were. There is the fiery abolitionist, the obstinate belle, the Unionist who doesn’t care about slavery, the free black man who is too smart for his own good, the list goes on. And I won’t spoil it for you – but there were a few scenes that were so melodramatic and/or cliche that I had to smirk.
But I won’t come down too hard on the first episode. I will give the show time for some character development, some added complexity, and the ironing out of a few wrinkles. All in all – The first Mercy Street episode caught me attention – in a positive way. And so I look forward to next week.
As I spend the weekend putting the finishing touches on a web course on the Reconstruction Era, I am reminded of this moving speech by film star Hattie McDaniel, the first black person ever to be awarded the Academy Award. In the course, the final segment engages history and popular culture – in particular the film, Gone With the Wind. I focus on McDaniel’s portrayal of Mammy as well as a few notes on the actress herself. She was a fascinating woman off screen – a outspoken supporter of civil rights, she once lobbied the city of Los Angeles to purchase a home in an exclusive all-white neighborhood. Please take a moment to watch this clip – what does it suggest to you about race, historical memory, and Hollywood in 1940?
PS – the course will be live the week of January 18, 2016
This past weekend I saw the film, The Danish Girl. I was sorely disappointed. Now before you blast me for not supporting the transgender community, relax. I do – completely. Something else you might note: 1920s and 30s European history is far from my area of expertise – and thus I am sort of breaking from my usual tack on period pieces concerning American history. But still – since I discuss historically themed movies a lot, I feel I must weigh in on this one.
I went to The Danish Girl expecting to see an engaging drama reflecting on love, courage, and fortitude. But what I got was a very prettily glossed and heavily sanitized story screened with the singular objective (I can’t help but believe) to simplify an individual’s experience for a mainstream audience. The truth is – the historical Lily Elbe (played in the film by Eddie Redmayne) was infinitely more interesting than the film suggests, as were the people with whom she was most closely associated. I do not want to ruin things for you if you have not seen the film (spoilers suck). But I highly recommended you poke about the interwebs and try to get your head around exactly how complicated a person she was. In addition, the long suffering Gerda Wegener (played by Alicia Vickander) could be the subject of a fascinating biopic herself. Seriously – I would see this movie. Of course, the film is based on a novel of the same title, which deserves the lion’s share of culpability for taking liberties with the lives of real people. But still…those who wrote the film adaptation could have tried a little harder. My best estimation is that the producers rushed to make a film that would fall in step and get on the right side of twenty-first century civil rights and gender identity issues. I do not discredit their intention, I just wish they had given the central characters more life – and essentially empower the real people involved – not the shallow distilled ones.
Not that the film was all bad. Visually, it was gorgeous. The actors, landscapes and city recreations, sets, staging, and costumes all looked fantastic. And, not for nothing, but Redmayne has really mastered the art of the coquettish grin. But in terms of character depth, The Danish Girl was unsatisfying.
If you ask me (people do that from time to time) the best film I have seen that takes on transgender subject matter is Tangerine. This film is wonderful in every respect – but it is much lesser known, shot on a tiny budget with iPhone technology (in my neighborhood, no less!), and starring unknown actors. It really should get the Oscar nod – I’m not kidding.
As far as Civil War films go, this one is about as good as it gets. Why? For starters, the film addresses something that had gone more or less unnoticed in cinema until 1989 – but mainly because it gets the important stuff right. I have been using this film as a teaching tool since, well…I have been teaching.
The film has come under fire – primarily because it tells the story of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, an all black regiment, from the perspective of a white protagonist – the unit’s commander, Robert Gould Shaw, portrayed by Matthew Broderick. I was concerned less with that than its treatment of Shaw, who comes across as more of a crusader than a whiny privileged twit , which is probably more of an accurate assessment (read his letters…you’ll know what I mean). But I will let that one go – I mean, Ferris Bueller did look like Shaw and after all, the other stuff is so much more important.
The “other stuff” to which I refer is the unequal treatment of black soldiers who were fighting for the Union cause – how they suffered the indignities of racist United States policy, received less pay, were assigned mainly manual tasks, how they risked execution if captured by the Confederates, and how despite all of this, they fought and died for the Union cause (to be fair to Shaw…he risked much as well and was killed leading his troops in combat).
In the end, we challenge how the United States could ever limit the rights of individuals (as it clearly did…) of those who put on the federal uniform, took up arms, and risked their lives to preserve the Union. The film never fails to leave my students asking this very question. As such – this motion picture did its job in splendid fashion…and continues to do so twenty-six years after it first premiered.