Sunday 11 March 2007

Abraham Lincoln (1930) D W Griffith

The story of Abraham Lincoln's life had been told before D W Griffith got his hands on it, but by 1930 there was sound and there was Walter Huston. It must also have been special to Griffith himself, as he did more than direct it: according to the credits he 'personally directed it'. It has an epic feel to it, even though it's only just over an hour and a half long and it feels like about ten minutes. Huston is also a logical choice. He was always a respectable sort of actor, unless he chose to go somewhere extreme such as in Kongo; he was tall, powerful and with plenty of presence; and he was very capable of being rough around the edges.

Now I'm English. I really don't have much background with the father of the American nation and thus don't have any real clue about whether this is accurate history or Hollywood hogwash. No doubt it's somewhere between the two, but the longer it ran on in a highly melodramatic manner the more it feels like the latter rather than the former. The first minute does nothing more than see him born, but within five more he's outwrestled the champion of the county, drunk his reward out of the barrel and shirked on his rail splitting duties in order to clumsily woo Ann Rutledge. Now I understand why he's the father of his country and it's got nothing to do with Gettysburg.

As for the film, it's very obvious that it's a 1930 production. It still has many hangovers from the silent era such as the overacting throughout, the title cards and the outrageous makeup plastered all over Walter Huston's face, yet it has sound and such sound that we really have to concentrate to catch, given the poor quality of it. Griffith does a lot better job than many managed in 1930 in his debut sound picture, but he obviously wasn't happy with the very concept of it as he only made one more before retiring. I'm a huge fan of both Walter Huston and Una Merkel but they both sound terrible here, partly because they're having to speak so slowly and surely that they sound like morons. Thank heaven for the rapid advances in sound recording technology that each successive year would bring.

Anyway the film rattles on so quickly that I kept losing track, especially not being particularly knowledgeable about the characters being portrayed. It felt like every scene was a butchered version of one originally five times longer and with the next five scenes missing. Abe meets Ann, starts to woo her and suddenly she's dead. So off he goes into the countryside to mourn but he's immediately found and is instantly on the rise politically. As soon as someone called Mary Todd starts talking about him, he's introduced, they dance and suddenly he's late for their wedding. I started to keep my eyes forced open because every blink must have lost me a couple of years. It cost Lincoln more time to sit and look puzzled after signing something or other at one point than it took for him to become President of the United States.

Only when we reach the American Civil War does it slow down but it slows down so much in comparison to the first fifty years of Lincoln's life that I almost fell asleep. I imagine it's like being in a drag race: breakneck speed for a short period of time and then such a deceleration that it feels like you're not moving any more. I tried to continue to watch intently but I have less idea of how the war really ran than I did before I started watching the film. Judging from this version, nobody wanted the war except Lincoln, who thought it would be over quickly, and when it wasn't he had no clue how to proceed. He threw men and resources at the war and though nothing at all worked, suddenly he won. That doesn't sound particularly realistic to me.

The only time this film seems to have any coherence, for want of a better word, was in the scenes at the front lines which appear precisely as they ought. Griffith was always great at framing his scenes wonderfully when there were so many people on screen that framing scenes wonderfully would appear to be no option at all. Of course many of these scenes would have worked just as effectively without sound, so none of it is surprising at all. Unfortunately there's nothing else here except confusion. Huston really looks the part but he's worse here than in any other film of his I've seen, Merkel is wasted and nobody else is even remotely noticeable except Ian Keith who plays John Wilkes Booth and he's more like a adventure serial villain. As history, I haven't a clue how valid it is; as filmmaking it's a waste of quite a few great talents. No wonder Griffith quit after only one more film.

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