Lincoln film gets mixed reviews by panel
CHAMPAIGN – Steve Beckett had expected the D.W. Griffith film "Abraham Lincoln," released in 1930, to be full of factual inaccuracies.
After seeing it Friday during LincolnFest at the Virginia Theatre, he said he was not disappointed in that regard.
The first of only two sound films made by Griffith, the movie stars Walter Huston as a somewhat oafish rather than awkward Lincoln, as Dannel McCollum put it. Still, Beckett said the film is important, as it reflects society's view of Lincoln as nearly godlike.
Beckett, an attorney, and McCollum, former mayor of Champaign, were among panelists who spoke after the screening of "Abraham Lincoln." LincolnFest, a film festival that pays tribute to the life and legacy of Lincoln, continues today and will end Sunday.
Steve Shafer, a retired University of Illinois professor who has taught a course on film and history since 1974, said Griffith was often criticized for the episodic structure of "Abraham Lincoln." Shafer said that, in a sense, the movie resembles a pageant typical of the stage work of the 1920s.
Shafer also noted the "antique style" of the slow delivery of lines, saying filmmakers at that time believed audience members could not otherwise understand the dialogue.
Yet Griffith, who had problems with alcohol at the time he made the Lincoln biography, succeeded with some of the visuals, among them the mustering of Civil War troops. Those scenes show he could have succeeded in the sound era, Shafer said.
Shafer also said Griffith was directing a screenplay written by Stephen Vincent Benet, but had wanted Carl Sandburg to write the script.
Panelist Andrea Press, chair of the Department of Media Studies at the University of Virginia, said "Abraham Lincoln" was the first historical epic in sound film and comes off as "groping to see what a historical sound epic would look like."
And, she added, "Some of the stereotypes we see about romance and family – we really see the seeds of them in this film," particularly in the ways Griffith portrayed Ann Rutledge (Una Merkel) and Mary Todd Lincoln (Kay Hammond) and their relationships with Lincoln.
Panelist Mark Reinhart, author of "Abraham Lincoln on Screen: Fictional Documentary Portrayals on Film and Television," said the slow dialogue and scene movement resulted in a lack of political intricacies in the movie, though that was common at that time in film history.
Panelist Richard Leskosky, director of the UI's Unit of Cinema Studies, had checked Griffith's "Abraham Lincoln" out from the UI Undergraduate Library earlier Friday and had watched it before going to the Virginia.
Compared with that, he said, the print shown at LincolnFest has several scenes missing, among them a prologue showing the hold of a slave ship, a slave dying and his body being tossed overboard.
Reinhart said it's not unusual for copies of older films to have different scenes missing, and that they vary from print to print.