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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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The War Begins

By Zachary Klitzman

Bombardment of Fort Sumter (1861), Currier & Ives

The American Revolutionary War has Lexington and Concord. The Spanish-American War has the Maine. World War II has Pearl Harbor. And the Civil War has Fort Sumter. Just like those other wars, the War Between the States was sparked by a single event, a single event that plunged America in armed conflict. Today, we celebrate the sesquicentennial of that fateful day, April 12, 1861.

Fort Sumter sat atop a man-made island in the mouth of Charleston Harbor, about four miles from downtown. It was designed for 650 men and 135 guns in three tiers, yet never reached its full capacity, and in fact was unfinished in 1860. The fort became a flashpoint when Union commander Robert Anderson secretly moved his force from indefensible Fort Moultrie to Fort Sumter six days after South Carolina seceded in December of 1860. (Anderson, along with General Winfield Scott and then-U.S. Senator Jefferson Davis, had been instrumental in founding the Soldiers’ Home in 1851. In fact, the building known today as President Lincoln’s Cottage was called the Anderson Cottage from 1889 until the National Trust took over stewardship in 2001.) The Confederate government sent several envoys requesting Anderson to relinquish the fort. Anderson refused, even though the Confederate general in charge of Charleston’s defenses was P.G.T Beauregard, a former West Point protégé of Anderson’s.

The Sumter crisis gave President Lincoln his first major challenge. In his inaugural he had promised that he would not start any war with the South, yet would “hold, occupy and possess” forts and garrisons controlled by the Federal government. The ensuing dilemma about whether or not to reinforce Sumter stressed the President. He often had sleepless nights, suffered from migraines and even fainted once trying to get out of bed. Looking back on the crisis in July 1861, Lincoln told his close friend and Illinois Senator Orville Browning – who visited the Cottage multiple times — that “of all the trials I have had since I came here, none begin to compare with those I had between the inauguration and the fall of Fort Sumter. They were so great that could I have anticipated them, I would not have believed it possible to survive them.”[1]

The conflict came to a climax in the wee hours of April 12. After one final ultimatum at 3:20 am was rejected by Anderson, a signaling shot erupted over Fort Sumter at 4:30am. Unlike the events that triggered the American Revolutionary War, Spanish-American War and World War II, there is more evidence documenting who opened the hostilities at Fort Sumter. After the signaling shot, Edmund Ruffin, a fire-eater secessionist from Virginia, had the honor of firing one of the first direct shots towards Sumter. Upset at the Upper South’s reluctance to secede, Ruffin had previously written that “The shedding of blood will serve to change many voters in the hesitating states, from the submission or procrastinating ranks, to the zealous for immediate secession.”[2] Although no blood was shed during the 34-hour attack (only a horse was killed), the stage was set for civil war.[3]

The firing on Fort Sumter enraged the North. The day after the surrender of the fort, Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to help squash the rebellion “too powerful to be suppressed by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings.”[4] The response was overwhelming; most states exceeded their quota of regiments, mustering 90,000 volunteers. As one Northern editorial wrote:  “All squeamish sentimentality should be discarded, and bloody vengeance wreaked [sic] upon the heads of the contemptible traitors who have provoked it by their dastardly impertinence and rebellious acts.”[5] Though Lincoln did not react so furiously, he did tell a group of Southerners that his strategy had changed. Besides his previous goal “to hold, occupy and possess” federal property, his new aim was “to reposes, if I can, like places which had been seized before the Government was devolved upon me. And, in every event, I shall, to the extent of my ability, repel force by force.”[6]

It was, in effect, Lincoln’s declaration of war.

***

If you would like to see a cool visual depiction of the Battle of Fort Sumter, check out this neat animated map from the Civil War Trust .

And on Twitter, the Washington Post has a real-time thread of quotes from Anderson, Beauregard and other major players.

Mr. Klitzman is the Executive Assistant at President Lincoln’s Cottage.

[1] Quoted in James McPherson Tried By War, New York: Penguin Book, 2008, 12.

[2] Quoted in James McPherson Battle Cry of Freedoom, New York: Oxford University Press, 1988, page 273.

[3] The first Union soldier to fire a shot back at the Confederates is also well-known: Captain Abner Doubleday, who often is incorrectly credited with the invention of baseball.

[4] Quoted in McPherson Battle Cry of Freedom, 274.

[5] Quoted in McPherson Battle Cry of Freedom, 275.

[6] Roy P. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Lincoln, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953-1955, IV:330.

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