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Lincoln 2012: Vampire Hunter and (international) Box Office Slayer

By Catherine Clinton

My obsession with action adventure films and my status as a Lincoln scholar, I decided, would make me a perfect candidate to enjoy Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

The fractional truth — a concept Lincoln alludes to in the film’s voiceover — can become a dangerous thing, but it also allows for complex, entertaining eccentricities. Especially in this souped-up digital age, it’s nice to have a nod to the past: like the animated television series Clone High (2002) as the teenaged Lincoln struggles with his rival JFK for the attentions of Cleopatra, and more recently the 2010 Drunk History episode on YouTube with Will Ferrell and Don Cheadle. I had my heart set on loving this new high concept mash-up of the slasher-horror with a true red, white and blue biopic. Yet I was somewhat disappointed, especially as a fan of the book.

I found Seth Graham-Smith’s vampire hunter volume an engaging tongue-in-cheek novel cleverly exploiting Lincoln’s mythic status, revisionist views on race and slavery, not to mention the current craze for vampires. For Lincolnistas the volume presents a parlor game of catching the errors or sorting out the real from fake quotes. The film is even more mind blowing, and for the uninitiated, a fairly unbelievable introduction. But from his law partner William Herndon forward, Lincoln has been a commodity — thus liberties will be taken and outrageous claims made. It would’ve been nicer for Graham-Smith to have been more faithful to his own text with his screenplay adaptation, but as any member of the Screenwriter’s Guild knows, being faithful to the text is a fantasy no producer will buy.

Aficionados of horror films revel in the cheesy comfort of the fantastic directly competing with the familiar which produces hairs rising on the back of the neck. The book and film both raise a series of improbable questions, even if you believe in these fanged creatures of the night.

Like what if Lincoln’s mother died at the hands of some dastardly vampire rather than the milk sickness to which her death has been attributed for a century and a half? What if Abraham Lincoln had used his skills as an axman to kill these monsters in a campaign of just revenge? (But the film seems to miss a trick to not have him whittle some stakes!) What if slaves shipped downriver are being consumed literally, rather than just being worked to death in the fields?

But questions and dialogue aside, this is a dazzling spectacle with epic and operatic features.
The balletic slo-mo special effects of the strapping railsplitter being trained as a vampire hunter attract a special crowd of filmgoers; not just the fans of Tim Burton  (producer) or Timur Bekmametov (director, whose 2008 Wanted, was a critical and box-office hit), but also legions within the newly emerging youth market seeking 3-D action adventure. Viewers get a screen soaked in blood and irony. My favorite cynicism was the vampire leader Adam’s plea that his people be allowed their own nation. Thus paving the way for a sequel: Vampire Nation — back to the “what if the Confederates had won” parlor game of the Civil War centennial era!

An appealing contemporary “what if” is posed with slavery in league with the darkest of horrors, vampirism. Bondage is portrayed with striking imagery; gore and bloodlust dominate in scenes where slavery appears, with the tip of the lash extending itself 3D nearly to the viewer’s own goose-bumped flesh. Most weirdly apt within this sectional fantasia: Jefferson Davis calling on Adam for military assistance from vampire troops!  How the Lincolns plot and prevail to defeat Confederate vampires at Gettysburg forms the movie’s dramatic and sensational climax.
Hats off to the sexy youthful actors who provide viewers with more than just pretty faces. Dominic Cooper’s Henry–a man with a secret, who’s also a man with a mission–provides an interesting foil for the young man from Pigeon Creek. This tension between means, desires and a higher morality has a spiritual dimension which at times lifts the script out of its blood-soaked, grimy depths. But the higher ground is too seldom sought and even more rarely reached.

At times the continuity coordinator seems to have lost the thread – as do some of the viewers – but what the hell was Harrison Ford trying to find/accused of/ running from in The Fugitive? Thus often it’s not about the plot — and in this film, the moralistic streak for Lincoln comes shining through, manufactured by 150 years of scholarly hagiography, iconic cultural motifs, and just plain pop fiction. Babraham– as he has been affectionately labeled–comes off as an “aw shucks” superhuman figure in Bakmametov’s twisted tribute.

The filmmakers demonize racism, championing the heroics of abolitionism, giving Lincoln an African-American ally to fight bloodsucking bats on a train! At least the auteurs have given this central black character (William Johnson) agency, as well as the name of an African-American servant who accompanied the Lincolns from Springfield to Washington.  Anthony Mackie provides a charismatic performance, which detracts from his role in plot absurdity. Harriet Tubman is also provided a cameo–in yet another portrait with 99% inaccuracy (similar to Stephen Douglas & Joshua Speed). Yet Tubman’s genuine one percent also triumphs as a plot device–power to the Underground Railroad and who has the final taste of victory and freedom.

Lincoln’s life and legendary status makes him a perfect star–to promote his own destiny, as he clearly does in this offbeat film epic. Benjamin Walker (so effective on Broadway in the role of Andrew Jackson in the musical “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” that he may want to specialize in playing Presidents!) is relatively unknown to film audiences– which gives him an advantage. Who is this, if not our man Lincoln?

The general public’s ignorance about Mary Lincoln– played by the fetching Mary Elizabeth Winstead, allows viewers to shoehorn the Lincoln-Todd romance into a formulaic cliché about boy meeting girl. The writer and director throw in enough authentic emotive touches to create chemistry on screen. But I recognize that only Mary Lincoln biographers will be satisfied by this saccharine rendition of Lincoln’s romance and marriage. And even I wouldn’t try to sell an audience on such an heroic Mrs. Lincoln…who leans toward anti-slavery and braves the open road at night with a black woman. The audience is roused nearly to applause when Mary avenges her child’s death, and puts an end to the phantasmagoric creature played by Erin Wasson–a female vampire with such slither and style that she conjures up Nicole Kidman in Cold Mountain crossed with Catwoman. Although most cinematic vampires have been men–and the sexualized undertones are far from subtle in these portraits–perhaps the most effective vampire within this saga is the enigmatic Vadoma–who struts and connives until she meets her match (no spoilers). Her voracious demonization of womanhood harks back to Philip Burne- Jones’ painting of a female leaning over a supine man, which scandalized London when exhibited in the 1890s. In a film dominated by male fantasy, women do not fare as poorly as your average Hollywood vehicle.

When Mary, in a witch-like fury, pummels her husband’s chest angrily after the death of their son, Willie, Graham-Smith may or may not be aware of the historical debate surrounding Abe’s marriage. One prominent Lincoln historian has labeled him an “abused spouse,” claiming Abraham was a victim of Mary’s domestic violence. In any case, intellectual malapropos abound and overshadow the earnestness with which these filmmakers pursue their political message about Lincoln’s “magical properties.” But this nevertheless may work magic globally, as Lincoln the Vampire Hunter topped the charts during its opening summer weekend in the U.K.

And by the film’s end the weight of the evils of vampires, not to mention his secret life as a vampire hunter, mark Lincoln’s face and seal his fate. Anything that awakens curiosity about the Civil War during this sesquicentennial era must be applauded, even if we wince through fiction and pop projects. My only reservation is if the Vampire Hunter image spawns other less intentional horror depictions; with the announcement of a documentary adaptation of Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Lincoln, I shudder. But clearly, Americans hunger for Lincoln, and filmmakers will slake this thirst for a new generation, as well as that of their parents and grandparents. Lincoln’s star power goes 3D, vampires and all!

**

Catherine Clinton holds a chair in U.S. history at Queen’s University Belfast and
is the author of Mrs. Lincoln: A Life (2009) and Harriet Tubman: The Road to
Freedom
(2004). She serves as a member of President Lincoln’s Cottage Scholarly Advisor Group.

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Spooky Encounters at Historic Houses

By Rebecca Downes

It is a chilly and foreboding afternoon.  A host of withered brown leaves scratch and skitter across the pavement and crunch eerily underfoot. You walk slowly up to the looming old house and hesitantly turn the door knob. The front door swings open with a loud, echoing squeeeaaaakkkk. Dim lights flicker as you make your way through the house. The wooden floors creak and groan. Then, from the corner of your eye, you glimpse a shadowy figure on the far side of the room. You turn your head for a closer look—but whatever you saw has vanished. The hairs on the back of your neck raise as you consider the possibilities. Was it simply your imagination? Or did you just witness a ghostly visitor from the spirit world?

Fear not, history and museum buffs—this is not a promotion for the latest horror film; what it could be is your next visit to a historic home. Historic house museums are a fascinating way to experience the past, particularly in the days leading up to Halloween. According to ancient beliefs, October 31st is the one day of the year when the veil between the spirit world and our own is lifted. For a brief period of time, the dead are given free rein to roam the earth and communicate with the living. A centuries-old historic house is the ideal setting for such an encounter.

Often large, creaky and a bit drafty, historic houses are a tangible reminder of the passage of time. These homes have borne witness to sorrows and joy, life and death. If spirits do exist, it seems logical to assume that many would return to the homes in which they resided and, perhaps, even died. For the living, knowledge of what happens to humans after death remains an unsolvable mystery. For those with faith, curiosity, and even hope that there is indeed life after death, historic homes remain the perfect backdrop to investigate and ponder one’s own beliefs.

President Lincoln’s Cottage at the Soldiers’ Home has played host throughout the years to many individuals who have been curious about the afterlife—the most notable being Abraham Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln.  Mary hosted a number of séances at the Cottage in hopes of reaching hear dear, deceased sons, Willie and Eddie.

Oral histories, folklore and urban legends document spooky encounters with ghostly apparitions and unexplained bumps in the night.  Here you can discover more information about Mary Lincoln’s attempts to communicate with the dead. Have you ever seen a ghost or witnessed something unexplainable while visiting a historic home or Civil War site? We’d love to hear about it. Document your own spooky encounters in the comment box below!

Ms. Downes is a Historical Interpreter at President Lincoln’s Cottage.

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Remembering the Gettysburg Address

lincoln statue
Lincoln Statue at Gettysburg by Studio EIS
By Niles Anderegg

The Gettysburg Address is perhaps the most famous and often quoted speech in American history, so much so that the original intent behind Lincoln’s words has sometimes been lost or minimized by the transformation of those words from a speech given in the midst of civil war to something near to American scripture.  From time to time, we need to reexamine what Lincoln said and what his goals were when he delivered this famous little speech.

The Gettysburg address is that rare document that speaks to the moment and also to the future.  On that November day 147 years ago, Lincoln used his “few appropriate remarks” to speak to both the sacrifice of the soldiers who fought there and more generally to a nation still struggling with Civil War. What makes the Gettysburg Address the speech we fondly remember today, however, is that Lincoln wanted to talk about something beyond the cemetery he was dedicating or even the war he was defending. Lincoln spoke to what is important about America.  He talked about why this nation is the last best hope on earth, something that speaks to us as much today as it would have then.

Lincoln famously begins his speech with the words “four score and seven years ago.”  This beginning is not only stating a chronological fact, but it is taking the nation back to the founding moment, to the revolution of 1776.  The importance of 1776 is not just the event itself but also what the founders said those 87 years before.  Lincoln, by focusing on the revolution, and more specifically the Declaration of Independence, is making an argument about what America stands for.  In that same first sentence, he simply and directly states his case: “a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”  By highlighting these words from the Declaration of Independence, he is indirectly speaking to the issue of slavery, and in doing so is trying to expand the cause of the war from just saving the union to redefining the union, or, in Lincoln’s own words, giving the nation “a new birth of freedom.”  As Gary Wills has written, “The Gettysburg Address has become an authoritative expression of the American spirit—as authoritative as the Declaration [of Independence] itself, and perhaps even more influential, since it determines how we read the Declaration.”

Today it might seem strange to view the Declaration and the ideas that are found in it as controversial, but in Lincoln’s time they were controversial.  Anti-administration newspapers, both here and abroad, understood what Lincoln was saying at Gettysburg and tried to refute his argument about the importance of the Declaration.  For example, the New York World argued that the country came not from the Declaration but from the Constitution, which, they insisted, “says nothing whatsoever about the equality.”  But the Constitution was written in order to address the practical issues of government and law, and so instead of talking about the ideals of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” the Constitution talks about “life, liberty, and property.”  The Declaration, on the other hand, spoke not to practical issues of government but rather to the reasons why this new nation needed to be conceived.  As Ronald C. White notes, “Lincoln, although admiring the Constitution, labored under its constrains for the first years of the war.  At Gettysburg, he chose to emphasize the liberties emblazoned in the Declaration of Independence.”

In the Gettysburg Address, however, Lincoln was not dismissing the Constitution in favor of the Declaration of Independence.  Instead, he was elevating the Declaration to almost equal footing with the Constitution, and claiming that it represented what his Secretary of State, William Seward, had once called “the higher law.”  The Constitution is the law of the United States, but Lincoln saw the Declaration as the spirit of United States, and he realized that in order for that nation to live, the law and the spirit must be one.  As Daniel Webster, one of Lincoln’s political heroes, put it, “liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable!”

Mr. Anderegg is a Historical Interpreter at President Lincoln’s Cottage

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Upcoming Cottage Conversation

ivan schwartzDon’t miss the next Cottage Conversation event at President Lincoln’s Cottage on November 4, 20011 with Ivan Schwartz from Studio EIS.

The artist responsible for the “Lincoln & His Horse” sculpture at the Cottage and the “Lincoln” sculpture at Gettysburg, Schwartz will discuss Picturing History: a 21st Century Sculptor in the 19th century.

Ivan Schwartz is a sculptor, painter, and inventor. He’s always been interested in what lies in our peripheral vision – exploring the shorthand of visual language as a storyteller.

Often seen as the face of StudioEIS, Ivan lectures, and is writing a blog about visual storytelling that can be seen on StudioEIS’ website. He can also be seen in the History Channel’s Save Our History series, “The Search for George Washington”, an important documentary about the making of the forensic George Washington sculptures created for Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens.

Ivan received his degree in Sculpture from The College of Fine Arts at Boston University before spending a year working and studying in Pietrasanta, Italy in the early 1970s. He was the recipient of a Distinguished Alumni Award from BU in 2003, and has shown his paintings in New York since 1981. Ivan was a member of the Dean’s Advisory Board at Boston University’s College of Fine Arts until the end of the 2009 academic year. He was also a founding board member of Art Omi, an international arts workshop located in NY State.  

On Thursday, November 4, the night will begin with a reception at 6:00pm followed by the lecture with Ivan at 6:30pm. For reservations and to purchase tickets call (202) 829-0436 x31228 or email alison_mitchell@nthp.org. Limited seating – advanced reservations highly recommended.

For more information on public programs at President Lincoln’s Cottage visit http://www.lincolncottage.org/news/programs.htm

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“Abraham Lincoln: One Man, Two Views” Exhibition Open at Montgomery College

Lincoln and his horse, Photo (C) Carol M. Highsmith Photography

Montgomery College will host the exhibition “Abraham Lincoln: One Man, Two Views, StudioEIS and the Art of Visual Storytelling; Two New Sculptures of Abraham Lincoln in His 200th Year” by sculptor Ivan Schwartz from February 8 – March 4, 2010, at the College’s Takoma Park/Silver Spring Campus.  “Lincoln: One Man, Two Views” provides a visual journey through the creative process used by Schwartz and his creative team at StudioEIS to arrive at two new bronze sculptures of President Lincoln, both dedicated last year in celebration of the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth. An independent artist and designer, Schwartz is founder and director of Brooklyn-based StudioEIS, which has produced hundreds of sculpture projects in the public and private sectors for major museums and cultural institutions in the United States and abroad. The exhibition follows the process — from simple sketches to final installations — of two of Schwartz’s latest bronze sculptures, including “Lincoln and his Horse at President Lincoln’s Cottage” at the Soldiers’ Home, Washington, D.C. and “Lincoln at the National Military Park and Visitor Center, Gettysburg, Pa.”  The opening reception for the exhibition was held on the evening of February 16th.  The program, which included President Lincoln’s Cottage Acting Director /Curator Erin Carlson Mast, will be broadcast by Montgomery College.

Lincoln, at Gettysburg

The exhibition at Montgomery College features the early designs, photographs and scale models of the sculptures in various stages of production, as well as a small replica of the artist’s studio at StudioEIS. This exhibit developed after Schwartz presented a lecture on “The Sculptor as Visual Storyteller” at Montgomery College in April 2009. Sponsored by the College’s Paul Peck Institute for American Culture and Civic Engagement, Schwartz’s lecture was one in a series of events held at the College, supported by a grant from the Maryland Humanities Council, to commemorate the Lincoln Bicentennial.

The exhibition “Lincoln: One Man, Two Views” will be located in the ground floor of The Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation Arts Center on the west side of the Takoma Park/Silver Spring Campus. The center is located off Georgia Avenue at 930 King Street, Silver Spring, Md. Gallery hours will be weekdays 8 a.m. – 4 p.m. and Saturdays 9 a.m. – 3 p.m.
For additional information about the upcoming exhibit and the gallery, visit www.montgomerycollege.edu/Departments/artstp/gallery

Read a review of the new exhibition here: http://www.gazette.net/stories/02102010/entemon120316_32550.php

Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this post and associated programs or materials do not necessarily represent those of President Lincoln’s Cottage.

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Abe Lincoln on the Big Screen: The Dramatic Life of Abraham Lincoln

By Niles Anderegg

Abraham Lincoln has been and continues to be one of the most fascinating people in American history. He has inspired many writers and artists to depict his life and times. The same has been true for filmmakers in and out of Hollywood. Doing a simple Internet Movie Data Base (IMDB) search reveals 214 films and TV programs that list the 16th president as a character. Some of these films are well-known, such as Young Mr. Lincoln and Abe Lincoln in Illinois. But the first full length feature film about Lincoln is the 1924 silent movie, The Dramatic Life of Abraham Lincoln.

Movie poster for The Dramatic Life of Abraham Lincoln

The Dramatic Life of Abraham Lincoln was by no means the first film about Lincoln. In the first two decades of the 20th century, there were several short films (one or two reels–about 12 to 24 minutes) about Lincoln’s life, though these generally focused on a specific incident of history. Lincoln was also a minor character in several other films of the period, most famously in D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. The Dramatic Life of Abraham Lincoln, however, is the first to attempt a depiction of Lincoln’s life from birth to death. (The only other film to cover Lincoln’s entire life is another D. W. Griffith film, a “talkie” from 1930, simply called Abraham Lincoln.)

Unlike Griffith’s Lincoln biopic, which has been criticized for its historical inaccuracy (for example, Griffith has Lincoln giving his second inaugural address at Ford’s Theater right before the assassination!), The Dramatic Life of Abraham Lincoln was praised for its accuracy, in part because the producers of the film, Al and Ray Rockett, did exhaustive research into Lincoln both by reading available secondary sources and by conducting their own interviews of those who were still alive and could remember Lincoln. Despite all of this research, the movie is not without its historical errors. Perhaps the biggest flaw has to do with the Gettysburg Address. When the Rocketts were doing research they interviewed 101-year-old former Senator Cornelius Cole, who told them that he had accompanied Lincoln to Gettysburg and that the president had made his famous speech without any notes.  So the movie depicts Lincoln delivering the speech extemporaneously. This, of course, is not true: Lincoln carefully prepared his speeches, especially by the time he was president, and the Gettysburg Address was no exception. Furthermore, Senator Cole does not appear on John Hay’s list of people who traveled with Lincoln to Gettysburg.

Historical accuracy is not the only issue that contributes to making a good Lincoln film. Probably the most important factor is the casting of Lincoln. In The Dramatic Life of Abraham Lincoln, the actor chosen to play Lincoln was George Billings, who was not a star by any stretch of the imagination. Most of his career was on the stage and The Dramatic Life of Abraham Lincoln was his most successful film role. This success, however, did not come without problems: Billings, like a number of actors before and after him, would become typecast as Lincoln. In fact, IMDB lists only five actor credits for him, four of them, including The Dramatic Life of Abraham Lincoln, are for playing the president. And it was not just on the silver screen that he would be typecast as the 16th president: he also portrayed Lincoln on stage. One of the plays he appeared in was a two-man show that toured the midwest in 1927. In that production, the only two characters were Lincoln and his secretary, John Hay. Billings, of course, played the role of Lincoln, but interestingly the role of Hay was given to a young actor by the name of Henry Fonda, who would go on to greater fame playing a young Lincoln twelve years later, in John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln.

Mr. Anderegg is an Historical Interpreter at President Lincoln’s Cottage.

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