It’s weird to say, but Abe Lincoln is hot right now. Piggybacking on the critical praise of Steven Spielberg’s film is a release of the DW Griffith’s 1930 film about Lincoln, one of the last pictures, a talkie, from the cinema pioneer. While virtually unknown, or at least rarely discussed in Griffith’s ouevre, under Kino Classic’s terrific restoration it survives well as a genuinely terrific, visually dynamic chronicle of Honest Abe's life.
Abraham Lincoln (1930) dir. D. W. Griffith
Starring: Walter Huston, Una Merkle, E. Alyn Warren
As the iconic American figure Walter Huston’s strong physical presence and warm affective demeanor anchors the film. Huston ages terrifically from the young Lincoln, the salt-of-the-earth prairie lawyer of his youth, to his final years as the bearded, stately and nearly gaunt President suffering under the toils of a Civil War.
At 90 minutes Griffith has to fast-forward through time quickly, but at each stage of Lincoln's life we can see the formation of the personality and conviction which equipped him to be the man who would free the slaves and still hold the country together (at the cost of his life). Some of the benchmark moments of Lincoln’s early life include the tragic romance with Ann Rutledge, a death which brings out a fine mourning scene from Huston; his courtship of Mary Todd; and his celebrated political battles with Stephen Douglas. By the midpoint Lincoln is chosen to be the Republican nominee for the Presidency and then in a cut, we move into the White House.
Griffith takes most of his time with the events of the Civil War - before, during and after. Lincoln's determination to fight and keep the Union together versus letting the Southern states go puts him at odds with everyone around him. As such, the film portrays Lincoln as a lone wolf fighting the good fight against both his friends and his foes. Griffith’s agenda is clear, and even within the context of the dramatic aesthetics of the era, the themes and character values are on the nose. At one point Huston even looks directly into the camera and says, "We must save the Union."
That said, the film admirably distills out the extraneous focusing in on Lincoln while leaving out the complex political people and events around him. As such, despite Griffith’s reputation for cinematic grandeur, Abraham Lincoln feels like a small and contained film.
And within these constraints the picture looks fantastic and surprisingly nimble and technically proficient for a director at the end of his career. The opening slave boat sequence is especially harrowing and recalls the opening sequence of Spielberg’s Amistad. Throughout the film Griffith uses camera movement and expressive lighting to maximize the visual experience. Aiding him to craft sequences like this are two of the best craftsmen in cinema at the time, cinematographer Karl Struss, who lensed Sunrise for F.W. Murnau, and art director William Cameron Menzies, perhaps best known for his work on Gone With the Wind, but a terrific director as well, as he helmed the genre sci-fi classics Chandu the Magician and Things to Come.
Abraham Lincoln is available on Blu-ray from Kino-Lorber.