Celebrating Lincoln

It’s interesting to me that Abraham Lincoln, our sixteenth president, has not been the subject of more well-made movies. But with his birthday coming up this weekend (February 12), I wanted to mention a couple that are worth your time, if you’re a fan of good movies.

The first is Young Mr. Lincoln, a 1939 movie directed by John Ford and starring Henry Fonda. The two of them would work together on a number of other films going forward, including 1940’s The Grapes of Wrath, but this was their first movie together. Fonda does a great job playing Lincoln as a gangly twenty-something young man, trying to make his way as a lawyer in Springfield, Illinois – short on formal education but long on common sense and simple decency. Among his first clients are two brothers accused of murdering a man. The trial in which he defends the brothers gives Fonda the opportunity to show Lincoln as a great storyteller and observer of the human condition, which he, in fact, was. The story is loosely based on an actual case of Mr. Lincoln’s.

Henry Fonda as “Young Mr. Liincoln,” in John Ford’s 1939 movie of the same name.

According to IMDB.com, Henry Fonda did not want to portray Lincoln and originally turned down the role, saying that he was not worthy to play the great man. John Ford convinced him to do a screen test in full make-up and costume, and it was only after he saw the performance on the screen that Fonda relented and accepted the part.

In addition to Henry Fonda, the film also features a young Ward Bond as one of the eyewitnesses. He became one of Hollywood’s busiest and most versatile character actors, and went on to work with John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper, Jimmie Stewart, and many others. In addition, in the 1950s, he starred in Wagon Train and other TV productions.

A second and more recent Lincoln movie that I would recommend is 2012’s Lincoln, starring Daniel Day-Lewis, and directed by Steven Spielberg. But be advised – this is NOT a movie for people who watch a movie for the special effects or like to see stuff blown up. There’s an actual story here. Also, if you don’t like movies where you have to pay attention to dialogue, then this is probably not a film you will enjoy. But if you enjoy history, if you like movies where words matter, if you enjoy seeing incredible actors at the top of their craft, then you owe it to yourself to see this, or maybe watch it again.

Here’s the story: It is January 1865. The American Civil War is in its fourth year, and Lincoln has just been reelected. Two years earlier, he had issued the Emancipation Proclamation, but now he is seeking to abolish slavery once and for all through the proposed 13th Amendment. The amendment has passed the Senate but does not have the necessary two-thirds majority to pass the evenly divided House.

When his advisers are whining because they’re still two votes down, Lincoln thunders, “The abolition of slavery by Constitutional provisions settles the fate, for all time, not only of the millions now in bondage, but of unborn millions to come – a measure of such importance that those two votes must be procured. I leave it to you to determine how it shall be done but remember that I am President of the United States, clothed with immense power, and I expect you to procure those two votes.”

Daniel Day-Lewis in his Oscar-winning performance as “Lincoln,”
Steven Spielberg’s salute to the sixteeenth president.

Daniel Day-Lewis is simply phenomenal to watch in this Oscar-winning role, and he is surrounded by tremendous talent, including Sally Field, David Strathairn, Tommie Lee Jones, and the late Hal Holbrook, just to name a few. The private, screaming fight between the President and Mrs. Lincoln is one of the most amazing scenes ever filmed and shows two truly great actors holding nothing back. I also love the way Spielberg structures the storytelling here. The movie opens with remembrances of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and closes with his Second Inaugural.

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

I’m telling you, words matter, and they absolutely shine in the hands of this director, this script, and these actors. “Lincoln” is a gem.

Visiting DC

During our recent vacation, we went to Baltimore, to visit our daughter, Brittany; while we were there, we took a day and went down to Washington. My wife had toured DC several years ago, but although I had been through there, I had not been able to visit any of the historic locations in that city on the Potomac. We made reservations with one of those companies that offer guided bus tours, and off we went.

Brittany helped us plan how to navigate the commuter trains to get there and find the starting point for the tour. Any day that begins with riding a train is a good day as far as I’m concerned, and we had no problem finding our way through the maze of above-ground and subway trains, and sure enough, when we came back up into the sunlight, the tour buses were right in front of us.

A word about these buses: they were about the size of a short school bus, but made with a retractable, open roof, especially designed for tour purposes. We checked in, and were assigned to a particular bus, and didn’t have to wait long before Craig, our driver, and Alisha, our tour guide, came on board and welcomed us to their city.

Alisha was a young, vivacious, African American woman with the build of a long-distance runner. In the course of our tour, she mentioned that she had been working as a guide for over five years (which meant she was older than she looked to me!) – a Washington native and a fan of both learning and telling history. As Craig chauffeured our bus, Alisha gave us some background on the city, how it was laid out and when construction began.

We parked near the Washington Monument, but she began moving us in the opposite direction for our first stop. We came out from behind some trees, and what I saw, literally took my breath away.

Here I am, standing on the South Lawn of the White House

It was the White House. We were standing on the South Lawn, which it turned out, was as close as we could get. It didn’t matter. I was thrilled to be there, and to see the Executive Mansion where every president since John Adams has lived. She pointed out some of the other historic buildings that were within our view, before shepherding us back across the street, to get a better look at the Washington Monument. Later on we would stop off at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue and see the Capitol Building.

We headed over to the World War II memorial. This is one of the newer structures in DC, having opened in 2004. It features two large, semi-circular areas – one for the European Theater, and one for the Pacific. There is a special “Gold Star” wall, honoring the more than 400,000 Americans who died in that war. Later, we visited the Vietnam War Memorial, and on that famous black stone wall, I found the name of a young man from Haskell. I’ll have more to say about both of those walls in a future article.

From there, it was on to the Jefferson Memorial, where his statue stands next to some of his words from the Declaration of Independence. And that was just the first of several locations that we visited that day, that call to mind some of the words that are important to our country and to history. Words are important, because they carry ideas – ideas that are truly foundational to our republic. “We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal.” Words of power.

Our next stop was a further reminder of this, as we visited the memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King. There, engraved on the arches leading to and away from the stone statue that honors him, were 14 of his most famous quotations, including one of my favorites: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

A quick lunch, an enjoyable boat ride on the Potomac River, and then it was on to the installation honoring President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and again remembering his words – “Fear itself” and his “Fireside Chats” – words that led this nation out of the Great Depression and through the darkest days of World War II.

From there, we had another powerful demonstration of the power of language at the Lincoln Memorial, with his Second Inaugural Address engraved on one wall, and the Gettysburg Address on the other: “That this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

God Bless America.