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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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Fair Trade Items Now Available in the Museum Store

 By Jamie Cooper and Rebecca Downes

Fair Trade it is a movement that has gained increasing recognition within the past decade. Today, the words “fair trade” can be seen stamped on products in markets, shops and even online. But what exactly does this term refer to? Who does it benefit? How does it relate to President Lincoln?

Every day, hundreds of thousands of individuals are forced to work in unhealthy and dangerous conditions at a pay rate that is far below modern legal minimum wages. With little or no legal options for earning money, individuals are forced to accept these subpar working conditions and wages. Such atrocities happen all around the world, but they are particularly evident in third-world and developing nations. The fair trade movement seeks to solve this problem by promoting higher wages and better working conditions for the producers of products commonly imported into developed nations, such as fruit, coffee, chocolate, sugar, wine, gold, precious gems and hand-crafted goods.  In America, for example, we often purchase or consume such products with little or no thought about the individuals who painstakingly produced them.

Organizations such as the Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International (FLO) and the World Fair Trade Organization (FTO) strive to not only enhance the quality of life for the artisans and laborers in developing countries, but to also help consumers in developed countries make the best possible choices when purchasing goods. Products that have been certified by the FLO and FTO receive product labels that make them easily identifiable as fair trade goods.

Some of the most important Fair Trade items are those made by survivors of modern day slavery and human trafficking.  Through Fair Trade, these victims now have a chance to protect their communities from slavery and violence through education and employment.  With global assistance, these survivor made goods are now being sold worldwide.  To honor of President Lincoln’s legacy, the Cottage is taking a very active role in selling Fair Trade merchandise, including survivor made goods.  These items can be purchased in the Museum Store or on the online store.  Each Fair Trade product comes with a brief description card about the company or organization and the artisans that created the product.

President Lincoln believed that all people could be “self-made” by having the opportunity to achieve financial success through their own free will.  He deplored slavery in any form or fashion.  In 2012, we celebrate the 150th Anniversary of the D.C. Emancipation Act and the Emancipation Proclamation with programs throughout the year and our newest exhibit on modern day slavery and human trafficking, Can You Walk Away?

Mr. Cooper is the Senior Visitor Services Associate and Ms. Downes a Historical Interpreter at President Lincoln’s Cottage.

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New Exhibit Opening Presidents Day Weekend

On February 17, 2012, President Lincoln’s Cottage will open Can You Walk Away?, an exhibit on modern slavery and human trafficking in the United States. This exhibit is part of a year-long commemoration of the 150th Anniversary of Lincoln developing the Emancipation Proclamation at the Cottage. It will challenge perceptions of slavery in America today and raise awareness of a growing humanitarian crisis. By posing the question “can you walk away?” this exhibit will inspire people to engage with the modern abolitionist movement and to see that slavery is an ongoing issue that requires big thinking and direct action, just as it did in Lincoln’s time.

Can You Walk Away? will be located in the Robert H. Smith Visitor Education Center at President Lincoln’s Cottage from February 17, 2012 through August 31, 2013. Visitor Center hours are Monday – Saturday 9:30am-4:30pm and Sunday 10:30am-4:30pm. For more information, visit our website: http://www.lincolncottage.org

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Armed Forces Retirement Home Changes

Scott Building was gutted and the remaining building will now be demolished.

As many know, President Lincoln’s Cottage is located on the grounds of the Armed Forces Retirement Home (AFRH) in Washington, DC. This 160 year old campus began a major modernization at the beginning of 2011 with the “Scott Project.” The Scott Building has been an integral part of the campus since 1951, but lacked certain modern amenities that would enable the staff at the Home to continue to provide the very best in senior care to the residents.

This morning at around 10:30am, the wrecking ball dropped for the first time to commence the demolition of Scott Building. The majority of the wrecking ball demolition will take place on the south side of the building, in order to limit the noise to the main campus.

President Lincoln’s Cottage will remain open for the entirety of the Scott Project. Visitors to the Cottage should be assured that they will receive the same quality experience during the project as they would at any other time. And, while the reason for demolishing the Scott Building and erecting a new structure was not based on improving this view, visitors in the future will be able to enjoy a more scenic landscape facing downtown DC.

For more information on the Scott Project, read our blog from February 2011 or visit: https://www.afrh.gov/afrh/

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