Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1860s

Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1860s: 

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1860s

1. “Lincoln” (2012) – Steven Spielberg directed this highly acclaimed film about President Abraham Lincoln’s last four months in office and his efforts to pass the 13th Amendment to end slavery. Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis, Oscar nominee Sally Field and Oscar nominee Tommy Lee Jones starred.

2. “Shenandoah”(1965) – James Stewart starred in this bittersweet tale about how a Virginia farmer’s efforts to keep his family out of the Civil War failed when his youngest son is mistaken as a Confederate soldier by Union troops and taken prisoner. Andrew V. McLaglen directed.

3. “Angels & Insects” (1995) – Philip Haas directed this adaptation of A.S. Byatt’s 1992 novella, “Morpho Eugenia” about a Victorian naturalist who marries into the English landed gentry. Mark Rylance, Kristin Scott-Thomas and Patsy Kensit starred.

4. “Class of ’61” (1993) – Dan Futterman and Clive Owen co-starred in this television movie about recent West Point graduates and their experiences during the first months of the Civil War. Produced by Steven Spielberg, the movie was directed by Gregory Hoblit.

5. “The Tall Target” (1951) – Anthony Mann directed this suspenseful tale about a New York City Police sergeant who stumbles across a plot to kill President-elect Lincoln and travels aboard the train carrying the latter to stop the assassination attempt. Dick Powell starred.

6. “Far From the Madding Crowd” (1967) – John Schlesinger directed this adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel about a young Victorian woman torn between three men. The movie starred Julie Christie, Alan Bates, Terence Stamp and Peter Finch.

7. “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” (1966) – Sergio Leone directed this epic Spaghetti Western about three gunslingers in search of a cache of Confederate gold in New Mexico, during the Civil War. Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach starred.

8. “Cold Mountain” (2003) – Anthony Minghella directed this poignant adaptation of Charles Fraizer’s 1997 novel about a Confederate Army deserter, who embarks upon a long journey to return home to his sweetheart, who is struggling to maintain her farm, following the death of her father. The movie starred Oscar nominees Jude Law and Nicole Kidman, along with Oscar winner Renee Zellweger.

9. “Little Women” (1994) – Gillian Armstrong directed this adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel about four sisters from an impoverished, yet genteel New England family. The movie starred Winona Ryder, Trini Alvarado, Christian Bale and Susan Sarandon.

10. “The Beguiled” (1971) – Clint Eastwood starred in this atmospheric adaptation of Thomas Cullinan’s 1966 novel about a wounded Union soldier who finds refuge at an all-girl boarding school in 1863 Mississippi. Directed by Don Siegel, the movie co-starred Geraldine Page and Elizabeth Hartman.

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“LINCOLN” (1974-76) Review

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“LINCOLN” (1974-76) Review

During the first half of the Twentieth Century, poet and historian Carl Sandburg wrote a six-volume biography on the life of the 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. Years passed before David Wolper (“ROOTS”, “THE THORN BIRDS”, and the “NORTH AND SOUTH” TRILOGY) produced a six-part miniseries on Lincoln’s life and career, based upon Sandburg’s work.

“LINCOLN” is not what I would your usual biography with a straight narrative. With the exception of one episode that centered on Lincoln acting as a defense attorney in the 1830s and another that focused on the period between his first election and inauguration, the majority of the episodes centered on his administration during the U.S. Civil War. And not in any particular order. Below is a list for those who prefer to watch the entire miniseries in chronological order:

(1.03) “Prairie Lawyer” – Lincoln goes against future political adversary Stephen A. Douglas when he defends physician Dr. Henry B. Truett against murder charges in 1838.

(2.02) “Crossing Fox River” – This episode covers Lincoln’s life between winning his first presidential election in November 1860 and attending his first inauguration in March 1861.

(1.01) “Mrs. Lincoln’s Husband” – In the wake of the death of the Lincolns’ second son William “Willie”, First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln‘s erratic behavior embarrasses and endangers her husband politically when a cabal of Republican senators question her loyalty to the Union.

(1.02) “Sad Figure, Laughing” – Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase and his daughter Kate attempt to undermine President Lincoln’s bid for re-election during the 1864 presidential campaign, when they become aware of how Lincoln’s jokes and stories seem to erode their fellow Republicans’ confidence in him.

(2.01) “The Unwilling Warrior” – Lincoln finds himself forced to learn the art of war, as he searches for the right general to lead the Union Army to victory between 1861 and 1865.

(2.03) “The Last Days” – Following the Army of Northern Virginia’s surrender at the Appomattox Court House, President Lincoln plans Reconstruction with his cabinet and discusses a post-presidential future with the First Lady.

“LINCOLN” managed to garner a great deal of critical acclaim back in the mid-1970s. Did it deserve it? Perhaps. I found myself somewhat impressed by the production. The miniseries, from a visual point-of-view, has managed to hold up rather well in the past forty years. Aside from the exterior shots, the photography struck me as somewhat sharp and colorful, thanks to cinematographer Howard Schwartz . More importantly, director George Schaefer managed to avoid that “filmed play” aspect that had tainted many British television productions and a few American productions. Somewhat. There were a few scenes that seemed to stretch a tad too long in “LINCOLN”, but not fortunately long enough to stretch my patience too thin.

A part of me wishes that “LINCOLN” had included more scenes of Lincoln’s life before the Civil War. The 1974-76 miniseries must be the first of three productions titled “LINCOLN” – the other two being the 1988 miniseries and the 2012 Steven Spielberg movie – that seemed to be about Lincoln’s years in the White House. Another aspect of this miniseries that I found a bit odd is that it did not feature any African-American characters, other than the occasional extra portraying a White House servant. I think. There is a chance that my memory might be playing tricks with me. I simply find it odd that a production about a U.S. president who had such a strong impact on the history of African-Americans . . . did not feature any black supporting characters. No Elizabeth Keckley, the Washington D.C. seamstress who became Mrs. Lincoln’s personal modiste and close companion, or Frederick Douglass, who had met Lincoln in 1863. Considering Lincoln’s overly cautious approach on the subjects of abolition and civil rights, there is a chance that producer David Wolper feared that Lincoln’s reputation as an emancipator would have slightly eroded. It was okay to discuss slavery, which the production did . . . but not with any real depth.

The miniseries certainly did not hesitate to display Lincoln’s ruthlessness and talent for political manipulation. Even when those traits were occasionally clouded by compassion, humor and verbosity, it was on display. This was especially apparent in two episodes – namely “Sad Figure, Laughing”, in which Lincoln had to deal with the political machinations of Salmon Chase for the Republican nomination for President in 1864; and in “The Unwilling Warrior”, in which he dealt with one general after another in his search for the one military leader who could deal with the Army of Northern Virginia and Robert E. Lee.

The best aspect of “LINCOLN” were the performances. Well . . . some of the performances. I hate to say this, but some of the minor performances struck me as a bit theatrical or amateurish. There were some performances that struck me as solid – including Norman Burton as General Ulysses S. Grant, Robert Foxworth as John T. Stuart, Lloyd Nolan asSecretary of State William H. Seward, Ed Flanders as General George B. McClellan, and Catherine Burns as Mary Owens. But there were those performances that I found impressive. This especially seemed to be the case for Roy Poole as Secretary of Treasury Salmon P. Chase, Elizabeth Ashley as the latter’s older daughter Kate Chase Sprague, Beulah Bondi as Lincoln’s stepmother Sarah Bush Lincoln, John Randolph as the first Secretary of War Simon Cameron and James Carroll Jordan as the Lincolns’ oldest son Robert Todd Lincoln.

But the two performances that outshone the others came from Hal Holbrook and Sada Thompson as the presidential couple, Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln. This is not really surprising. Of the three productions I have seen about Lincoln, the actors and actresses who have portrayed this couple have all given superb performances. This was the case for both Holbrook and Thompson. Holbrook seemed to have some special connection to the 16th president. The 1974-76 miniseries marked the first time he portrayed the role. He also portrayed Lincoln in the 1985 miniseries, “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II” and he appeared in the 2012 Steven Spielberg movie as an old political crony of the President’s,Francis P. Blair. Holbrook’s portrayal of Lincoln could have easily strayed into the realm of folksy idealism. The actor did not completely reveal the more negative aspects of Lincoln’s character, but he did a superb job in conveying not only the President’s style of humor, but also his political savvy and a temper that can be fearsome. In an odd way, Sada Thompson had the easier job portraying First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. Hollywood productions are more inclined to explore the more negative aspects of her personality than Lincoln’s. What I enjoyed about Thompson’s performance is that she still managed to make Mrs. Lincoln a likable person, despite the character flaws. It is not surprising that Holbrook won an Emmy for his performance and Thompson earned a nomination. Both of them deserved the accolades.

There are aspects of “LINCOLN” that I found questionable. Well . . . my main problem is that the production did not focus enough on the question of slavery, which I found rather odd, considering the subject matter. I also wish that the miniseries had included more scenes of Abraham Lincoln’s life before the Civil War. Now some television viewers might find the scattered narrative somewhat disconcerting. I simply figured out the chronological order of the episodes and watched them in that manner. But overall, “LINCOLN” is a first-rate miniseries about the 16th President that holds up rather well, thanks to George Schaefer’s direction and a skillful cast led by the talented Hal Holbrook and Sada Thompson.

TIME MACHINE: Battle of the Wilderness

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TIME MACHINE: BATTLE OF THE WILDERNESS

May 5 marked the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the U.S. Civil War conflict called the Battle of the Wilderness. Fought between May 5-7, 1864; the Battle of the Wilderness marked the first conflict of Lieutenant-General Ulysses S. Grant’s Virginia Overland Campaign during the spring of 1864.

Two months earlier, President Abraham Lincoln summoned Ulysses S. Grant from the Civil War’s Western Theater to Washington D.C. and promoted him to Lieutenant-General and given command of all the Union armies. While Major-General William Tecumseh Sherman was left in command of all Union forces in the Western Theater, Grant made his headquarters with the Army of the Potomoc. However, Major-General George G. Meade remained in command of that particular army. Grant, President Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton devised a strategy for coordinated attacks against General Robert E. Lee and the Confederacy’s Army of Northern Virginia, and other Confederate forces in the Shenandoah Valley, Georgia and Mobile, Alabama. Grant’s objective was not simply the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia; but the destruction of Lee’s army.

Grant had hoped to quickly move the Union forces through the dense underbrush of the Wilderness Forest, located in both Spotsylvania and Orange Counties in Virginia, and toward Richmond. But Lee dispatched Lieutenant-General Richard S. Ewell‘s Second Corps and Lieutenant-General A.P. Hill‘s Third Corps to intercept Grant. On the morning of May 5, 1864; Major-General Gouverneur K. Warren and his V Corps attacked Ewell’s corps on the Orange Turnpike. And later that afternoon, Major-General Winfield S. Hancock‘s II Corps and Brigadier-General George W. Getty‘s division within the Union’s VI Corps encountered Hill’s corps on the Orange Plank Road. The fighting proved to be fierce, confusing and eventually inconclusive, due to the combatants’ difficulties in maneuvering through the dense forest.

When May 6 dawned the following morning, Hancock and his corps attacked all along the Plank Road, leaving Hill’s men reeling back in confusion. Fortunately for Hill, the timely arrival of Lieutenant-General James Longstreet and his First Corps prevented the collapse of the Confederates’ right flank. Longstreet ordered a surprise flanking attack from an unfinished railroad bed, which drove Hancock’s men back to the Brock Road. Unfortunately, Longstreet lost the momentum, when his own men accidentally shot him. Brigadier-General John B. Gordon and his Second Corps launched an attack against the Union’s right flank caused some chaos at the Union Army headquarters.

During Gordon’s attack, rumors began to spread among Grant’s generals that the Federal lines had actually attacked. One nervous officer exclaimed to Grant that Lee might throw the Confederate Army between the Union and the Rapidan River and cut Grant’s headquarters off from its communications. General Grant lost his temper and made his famous response: “Oh, I am heartily tired of hearing about what Lee is going to do. Some of you always seem to think he is suddenly going to turn a double somersault, and land in our rear and on both of our flanks at the same time. Go back to your command, and try to think what we are going to do ourselves, instead of what Lee is going to do.” The Union lines eventually stabilized and the fighting between the two armies ceased.

On the morning of May 7, 1864; General Grant and the Union Army found themselves faced with a strong Confederate presence behind some earthworks. Instead of ordering a frontal attack, Grant decided to maneuver his Army on a night march south on the Brock Road and around the Confederate Army. He had hoped to reach the crossroads at Spotsylvania Court House, place his army between the Confederates and Richmond, and force Lee to fight on ground more advantageous to him. Unfortunately for Grant, inadequate cavalry screening and bad luck allowed the Confederate Army to reach the crossroads before sufficient Union troops could arrive to contest it. Grant was forced to fight the bloody Spotsylvania Court House and ten more conflicts before he and the Union Army reached the outskirts of Richmond.

For more information on the Battle of the Wilderness, you can read the following books:

*“The Battle Of The Wilderness, May 5-6, 1864” by Gordon C. Rhea

*“Dark Close Wood The Wilderness, Ellwood and the Battle That Defined Both” by Chris Mackowski

*“The Greatest Civil War Battles: The Battle of the Wilderness” by Charles Rivers Editors

TIME MACHINE: The Battle of Gettysburg

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TIME MACHINE: THE BATTLE OF GETTYSBURG

July 1-3, 2013 marked the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, which was fought over three days in Gettysburg, from the entire war. Fought between the Army of the Potomoc, under the command of Major General George G. Meade; and the Army of Northern Virgina under General Robert E. Lee, the Battle of Gettysburg marked the latter’s second attempt to invade the North and is regarded as the turning point of the Civil War. 

Following the Army of Northern Virgina’s major victory at the Battle of Chancellorsville, General Lee hoped to follow up his success with a invasion of the North. As he led his forces through the Shenandoah Valley, Lee hoped to center the summer campaign away from war-ravaged Virginia. He also hoped that a victorious campaign on Northern soil – preferably around Harrisburg or Philadelphia, Pennsylvania – would convince President Abraham Lincoln and other Union politicians to end their prosecution of the war. Lee had harbored similar hopes when he led his forces into Maryland in September 1862. But his failure to achieve victory at the Battle of Antietam dashed his hopes. Aware of the Army of the Potomoc’s northbound march, President Lincoln ordered Major General Joseph Hooker to lead the Army of the Potomoc in pursuit. However, three days before the two armies clashed at Gettysburg, Meade assumed command of the Union forces.

One of the first Union forces to reach Gettysburg was its Calvary Corp’s First Division under the command of Major General John Buford Jr. Realizing that a superior force of Confederates faced him, Buford created a defense against the enemy advance on low ridges northwest of town. On July 1, 1863, he and his dismounted calvary defended the ridges long enough for Major General John F. Reynolds’ I Corps to reinforce him. However, assaults from the northwest and the north by two large Confederate corps and the death of General Reynolds collapsed the hastily developed Union lines, sending the defenders through the streets of Gettysburg and to the hills south of town. assaulted them from the northwest and north, collapsing the hastily developed Union lines, sending the defenders retreating through the streets of town to the hills just to the south.

By July 2, 1863; most of the Union forces had arrived in the Gettysburg area. The Army of the Potomoc had formed a defensive formation shaped like a fishhook that stretched from Culp’s Hill southeast of the town, to northwest to Cemetery Hill just south of town, then south for nearly two miles along Cemetery Ridge, which terminated just north of Little Round Top. General Lee initiated battle plans for Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s First Corps to steadily attack the Union’s left flank. This attack upon the Wheatfield, Devil’s Den, the Peach Orchard and Little Round Top. Unfortunately, Lee’s plans depended upon faulty intelligence, exacerbated by the absence of Major General J.E.B. Stuart’s Calvary Corps from the battlefield. Stuart’s calvary had been missing from the rest of the Army of Northern Virginia, thanks to a difficult confrontation with Union calvary at the Battle of Brandy Station and vague orders from General Lee. Lee also launched assaults on the Union’s right flank at Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill. Union troops managed to hold their own against the Confederate assault upon the Union’s right flank, despite heavy losses.

The Union suffered even more losses during the assault on the left flank and found itself in danger of being overran. However, General Meade’s chief engineer, Brigadier General Gouvernur K. Warren realized that Little Round Top at the Union’s extreme left was in danger of being overran. He dispatched Colonel Strong Vincent’s brigade, an artillery battery and the 140th New York Regiment to hold Little Round Top just minutes before Brigadier General Evander M. Law’s of Hood’s division had arrived. The Union troops managed to hold their own against the Confederate troops, but found themselves in a precarious position – especially after Colonel Vincent was badly wounded. A last minute miracle for the Union materialized when Lieutenant-Colonel Joshua Chamberlain (or one his company commanders First Lieutenant Holman S. Melcher) came up with the idea to charge against the attacking 15th Alabama Regiment under Lieutenant-Colonel William C. Oates with fixed bayonets. The downhill charge swept away the Alabamians and saved Little Round Top and the rest of the left flank for the Union Army.

July 3 saw the final day of the Battle of Gettysburg. Once again, General Lee ordered an attack upon the Union’s right flank at Culp’s Hill. The third day also featured action between Union and Confederate calvary in the former’s rear. Unfortunately for General Stuart, his Confederate calvary was repulsed by Union horse troopers under the command of Brigadier General David Gregg and Brigadier General George A. Custer on the East Calvary Field. While the calvary of both armies engaged in combat, General Lee decided to launch an assault upon the Union’s center at Cementery Ridge. Lee ordered General Longstreet to command the divisions under Major General George Pickett, Major General Isaac R. Trimble, and Brigadier General J. Johnston Pettigrew for the assault. Genaral Longstreet considered the assault futile, but carried it out. First, Longstreet ordered his artillery chief Colonel Edward Porter Alexander to bombard the Union center. But General Lee’s artillery chief, Major General William N. Pendleton, played a small role by obstructing the effective placement of artillery from the other two corps. Despite Colonel Alexander’s efforts, there was insufficient concentration of Confederate fire on the objective. The three infantry divisions finally charged (or marched) toward the Union’s center. Their efforts were marred by by the sloping ground between Seminary Ridge and Cemetery Ridge, fences that were never cleared and the Union artillery that rained devastating cannonade upon the assaulting troops. The Union line wavered and temporarily broke when troops under Brigadier General Lewis A. Armistead reached at a spot called the “Angle” in a low stone fence. But Union reinforcements repulsed the breach and the Confederate attack finally broke. General Pickett lost a great deal of his division and blamed Lee for the rest of his life.

Following its defeat at Gettysburg, the Army of Northern Virginia evacuated from the town. And on July 4, General Lee led his army on a torturous retreat back to Virginia. General Meade made the cautious decision to refrain from pursuing the Confederates, until it reached Virginia. His decision led to criticism from the Lincoln Administration and the public, but Meade would maintain his position as head of the Army of the Potomoc for the rest of the war. The three-day battle resulted in 46,000 to 51,000 soldiers from both armies. And on November 19, 1863; President Lincoln used the dedication ceremony for the Gettysburg National Cemetery to honor the fallen Union soldiers and redefine the purpose of the war in his historic Gettysburg Address.

For more detailed information on the Battle of Gettysburg, I recommend the following books and novel:

“Gettysburg” (2004) by StephenW. Sears

“The Illustrated Gettysburg Reader: An Eyewitness History of the Civil War’s Greatest Battle” (2013) by Rod Gragg

“Gettysburg: The Last Invasion” (2013) by Allen C. Guelzo

“The Killer Angels: A Novel of the Civil War” (1974) by Michael Shaara

“LINCOLN” (2012) Review

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“LINCOLN” (2012) Review

When I first heard of Steven Spielberg’s decision to make a biographical film about the 16th president of the United States, I ended up harboring a good deal of assumptions about the movie. I heard Spielberg had planned to focus on Abraham Lincoln’s last year in office and assumed the movie would be set between the spring of 1864 and April 1865. I had assumed the movie would be about Lincoln’s various problems with his military generals and other politicians. I thought it would be a more focused similarity to the 1998 miniseries of the same name.

In the end, “LINCOLN” proved to be something quite different. Partly based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2005 biography of Lincoln and his Cabinet members, “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln”, the movie mainly focused on Lincoln’s efforts in January 1865 to have slavery abolished in the country, by getting theThirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution passed by the House of Representatives. According to Tony Kutchner’s screenplay, Lincoln expected the Civil War to end within a month. He felt concerned that his 1863 Emancipation Proclamation may be discarded by the courts at the war’s conclusion and the 13th Amendment defeated by the returning slave states. To ensure that the 13th Amendment is added to the Constitution, Lincoln wanted it passed by the end of January in order to remove any possibility of those slaves who had already been freed, being re-enslaved. To reach his goal, Lincoln needed Republican party founder Francis Blair to garner support from the more conservative Republicans and support from Democratic congressmen, who would ordinarily vote against such an amendment. In order to acquire Blair’s support, Lincoln was forced to consider a peace conference with three political representatives from the Confederacy. And his Secretary of State, William Seward, recruits three lobbyists – William N. Bilbo, Colonel Robert Latham and Richard Schell – to convince lame duck Democratic congressmen to support the amendment.

I am surprised that the movie went through a great deal in crediting Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book as a major source for the movie. Very surprised. I own a copy of the book and know for a fact that only four-and-a-half pages are devoted to the Thirteenth Amendment and five-and-half pages are devoted to the Peace Conference with Confederate political leaders. If so little came from Goodwin’s book, where did Tony Kutchner receive most of his historical information for the movie? And if he did use other historical sources, why did Spielberg failed to credit other historical sources for the movie?

I recall watching the trailer for “LINCOLN” and found myself slightly repelled by it. As someone who had to endure a great deal of pompous and self-righteous dialogue in a good number of historical dramas, I noticed that the trailer seemed to be full it. Fortunately, the movie was only tainted by a few scenes featuring pompous dialogue. One of those scenes turned out to be Lincoln’s meeting with four Union soldiers – two blacks and two whites. Of the four soldiers, only the first black soldier – portrayed by Colman Domingo – managed to engage in a relaxed conversation with the President. The two white soldiers behaved like ardent fanboys in Lincoln’s presence and one of them – portrayed by actor Luke Haas – ended up reciting the Gettysburg Address. The scene ended with the other black soldier – portrayed by British actor David Oyelowo – also reciting the speech. Not only did I find this slightly pompous, but also choked with Spielberg’s brand of sentimentality, something I have never really cared for. Following Lincoln’s death, Spielberg and Kutchner ended the movie with a flashback of the President reciting his second inaugural address. I cannot say how the pair should have ended the movie. But I wish they had not done with a speech. All it did was urge me to leave the movie theater as soon as possible. Janusz Kamiński is a first-rate cinematographer, but I can honestly say that I found his photography in “LINCOLN” not particularly impressive. In fact, I found it rather drab. Drab colors in a costume picture is not something I usually look forward to.

The movie also featured a few historical inaccuracies. Usually, I have nothing against this if it works for the story. The problem is that the inaccuracies in “LINCOLN” did not serve the story. I found them unnecessary. Lincoln’s meeting with the four Union soldiers allowed Oyelowo’s character to expressed his displeasure at the U.S. Army’s lack of black officers and the indignity of pay lower than white soldiers. The problem with this rant is that before January 1865, the U.S. Army had at least 100 to 200 black officers. And Congress had granted equal pay and benefits to black troops by June 1864. Thirty-three year-old actor Lee Pace portrayed Democratic New York Congressman Fernando Wood, an ardent opponent of abolition. In reality, Wood was at least 52 years old in January 1865. Another scene featured a White House reception that featured a meeting between First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln and some of the Radical Republicans like Pennsylvania Congressman Thaddeus Stevens and Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner. Kutchner had Mary face Senator Sumner with a warm greeting, before she deliberately cut him off to face Congressman Stevens. The movie made it clear that the First Lady disliked the Radical Republicans, whom she viewed as personal enemies of her husband. Yet, the manner in which she disregarded Senator Sumner was completely misleading . . . especially since the senator and the First Lady had been close friends since the early months of Lincoln’s presidency. In reality, Mary Lincoln’s political views were more radical than her husband’s. But due to her background as the daughter of a Kentucky slaveowner, most of the Radical Republicans viewed her as soft on abolition and a possible Confederate sympathizer.

Thankfully, the good in “LINCOLN” outweighed the bad. More than outweighed the bad. Recalling my original assumption that “LINCOLN” would turn out to be some pretentious film weighed down by boring dialogue and speeches, I can happily say that the movie’s look at American politics during the Civil War proved to be a great deal more lively. Yes, the movie did feature a few pretentious scenes. However, “LINCOLN” turned out to be a tightly woven tale about the 16th President’s efforts to get the Thirteenth Amendment passed by the end of January 1865. In many ways, the movie’s plot reminded me of the 2007 film, “AMAZING GRACE”, which featured William Wilberforce’s effort to abolish Britain’s slave trade during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Unlike the 2007, “LINCOLN” proved to be more tightly focused and featured a more earthy and sometimes humorous look at American politics at play. One of the movie’s successes proved to be its focus on the efforts of the three lobbyists, whom I ended up dubbing the “Three Musketeers”, to recruit lame duck Democrats to vote for passage of the amendment. In fact these scenes featuring James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson proved to be among the funniest in the film. The movie also featured the tribulations Lincoln experienced with his immediate family – namely the volatile behavior of First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln and his oldest son Robert Lincoln’s determination to join the Army – during this difficult period in which his attention toward the amendment’s passage. More importantly, the movie on a political situation rarely mentioned in movies about Lincoln – namely the political conflicts that nearly divided the Republican Party during the Civil War. Not only did Lincoln find himself at odds with leading Democrats such as Fernando Wood of New York and George Pendleton of Ohio; but also with Radical Republicans such as Thaddeus Stevens who distrusted Lincoln’s moderate stance on abolition and even his fellow conservative Republicans like Frances and Montgomery Blair, whose push for reconciliation with the Confederates threatened the amendment.

Now one might say that is a lot for a 150 minutes film about the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. And they would be right. But for some reason, it worked, thanks to Spielberg’s direction and Kutchner’s screenplay. One, for a movie with a running time between two to three hours, I found it well paced. Not once did the pacing dragged to a halt or put me to sleep. “LINCOLN” also attracted a good number of criticism from certain circles. Some have pointed out that the film seemed to claim that Lincoln kick started the campaign for the amendment. The movie never really made this claim. Historians know that the Republican controlled U.S. Senate had already passed the amendment back in April 1864. But the Republicans did not control the House of Representatives and it took another nine-and-a-half months to get the House to pass it. For reasons that still baffle many historians, Lincoln suddenly became interested in getting the amendment passed before his second inauguration – something that would have been unnecessary if he had waited for a Republican controlled Congress two months later.

Many had complained about the film’s oversimplification of African-Americans’ roles in the abolition of slavery. I would have agreed if the film’s focus on abolition had been a little more broad and had began during the war’s first year; or if it had been about the role of blacks in the abolition of slavery during the war. Actually, I am still looking forward to a Hollywood production on Frederick Douglass, but something tells me I will be holding my breath. But with the movie mainly focused on the final passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, I suspect this would not have been possible. Some claimed that the African-American merely hung around and waited for the amendment’s passage. I would have agreed if it were not for Lincoln’s encounter with the Union soldiers at the beginning of the film; Lincoln valet William Slade’s day-to-day dealings with the First Family, and the film’s focus on Elizabeth Keckley’s attention to the political wrangling surrounding the amendment. One scene focused on Mrs. Keckley’s conversation with Lincoln on the consequences of the amendment and another featured a tense moment in which she walked out on the proceedings after Thaddeus Stevens was forced to refute his earlier claims about equality between the races in order to win further Democratic support.

Aside from my complaints about the movie’s drab photography, I can honestly say that from a visual point of view, “LINCOLN” did an excellent job in re-creating Washington D.C. during the last year of the Civil War. Production designer Rick Carter really had his work cut out and as far as I am concerned, he did a superb job. He was ably assisted by the art direction team of Curt Beech, David Crank and Leslie McDonald, who still helped to make 1865 Washington D.C. rather colorful, despite the drab photography; along with Jim Erickson and Peter T. Frank’s set decorations. And I found Joanna Johnston’s costumes absolutely exquisite. The scene featuring the Lincolns’ reception at the White House was a perfect opportunity to admire Johnston’s re-creation of mid 19th century fashion. I can honestly say that I did not find John Williams’ score for the movie particularly memorable. But I cannot deny that it blended very well with the story and not a note seemed out of place.

“LINCOLN” not only featured a very large cast, but also a great number of first-rate performances. It would take me forever to point out the good performances one-by one, so I will focus on those that really caught my attention. The man of the hour is Daniel Day-Lewis, who has deservedly won accolades for his portrayal of the 16th President. I could go into rapture over his performance, but what is the point? It is easy to see that Abraham Lincoln could be viewed as one of his best roles and that he is a shoe-in for an Oscar nod. If Day-Lewis is the man of the hour, then I can honestly say that Sally Field came out of this film as “the woman of the hour. She did a beautiful job in recapturing not only Mary Todd Lincoln’s volatile nature, but political shrewdness. Like Day-Lewis, she seemed to be a shoe-in for an Oscar nod. Congressman Thaddeus Stevens has been featured as a character in at least three Hollywood productions. In pro-conservative movies like 1915’s “BIRTH OF A NATION” (upon which the Austin Stoneman character is based) and the 1942 movie on Andrew Johnson called“TENNESSEE JOHNSON”, he has been portrayed as a villain. But in “LINCOLN”, he is portrayed as a fierce and courageous abolitionist by the always wonderful Tommy Lee Jones. The actor did a superb job in capturing the Pennsylvania congressman’s well-known sarcastic wit and determination to end slavery in the U.S. for all time. I would be very surprised if he does not early an Oscar nod for Best Supporting Actor.

But there were other first-rate performances that also caught my attention. David Strathairn did an excellent and subtle job in capturing the politically savy Secretary of State William H. Seward. Joseph Gordon-Levitt managed to impress me for the third time this year, in his tense and emotional portrayal of the oldest Lincoln sibling, Robert Lincoln, who resented his father’s cool behavior toward him and his mother’s determination to keep him out of the Army. Hal Holbrook, who portrayed Lincoln in two television productions) gave a colorful performance as Lincoln crony, Francis Blair. Gloria Reuben gave a subtle performance as Mrs. Lincoln’s dressmaker and companion, Elizabeth Keckley, who displayed an intense interest in the amendment’s passage. James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson gave hilarious performances as the three lobbyists hired by Lincoln and Seward to recruit support of the amendment from lame duck Democrats. Stephen Henderson was deliciously sarcastic as Lincoln’s long suffering valet, William Slade. Lee Pace gave a surprisingly effective performance as long-time abolition opponent, Fernando Wood. And I was also impressed by Jackie Earle Haley’s cool portrayal of Alexander Stephens, Vice-President of the Confederacy.

As I had stated earlier, I was not really prepared to enjoy “LINCOLN”, despite its Civil War setting. To be honest, the last Spielberg movie I had really enjoyed was 2005’s “MUNICH”. And after the 2011 movie, “WAR HORSE”, I wondered if he had lost his touch. I am happy to say that with “LINCOLN”, he has not. Spielberg could have easily laden this film with over-the-top sentimentality and pretentious rhetoric. Thankfully, his portrayal of pre-20th century American politics proved to be not only exciting, but also colorful. And he had great support from a first-rate production team, Tony Kutchner’s superb screenplay, and excellent performances from a cast led by Daniel Day-Lewis. The Civil War had not been this interesting in quite a while.

List of Favorite Movies and Television Miniseries About SLAVERY

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With the recent release of Steven Spielberg’s new movie, “LINCOLN” and Quentin Tarrantino’s latest film, “DJANGO UNCHAINED”, I found myself thinking about movies I have seen about slavery – especially slavery practiced in the United States. Below is a list of my favorite movies on the subject in chronological order:

 

LIST OF FAVORITE MOVIES AND TELEVISION MINISERIES ABOUT SLAVERY

13-Skin Game

“Skin Game” (1971) – James Garner and Lou Gossett Jr. co-starred in this unusual comedy about two antebellum drifter who pull the “skin game” – a con that involves one of them selling the other as a slave for money before the pair can escape and pull the same con in another town. Paul Bogart directed.

 

 

9-Mandingo

“Mandingo” (1975) – Reviled by many critics as melodramatic sleaze, this 1975 adaptation of Kyle Onstott’s 1957 novel revealed one of the most uncompromising peeks into slave breeding in the American South, two decades before the Civil War. Directed by Richard Fleischer, the movie starred James Mason, Perry King, Brenda Sykes, Susan George and Ken Norton.

 

 

2-Roots

“Roots” (1977) – David Wolper produced this television miniseries adaptation of Alex Haley’s 1976 about his mother’s family history as American slaves during a century long period between the mid-18th century and the end of the Civil War. LeVar Burton, Leslie Uggams, Ben Vereen, Georg Sanford Brown and Lou Gossett Jr. starred.

 

 

3-Half Slave Half Free Solomon Northup Odyssey

“Half-Slave, Half-Free: Solomon Northup’s Odyssey” (1984) – Avery Brooks starred in this television adaptation of free born Solomon Northup’s 1853 autobiography about his twelve years as a slave in antebellum Louisiana. Gordon Parks directed.

 

 

4-North and South

“North and South” (1985) – David Wolper produced this television adaptation of John Jakes’ 1982 novel about the experiences of two American families and the growing discord over slavery during the twenty years before the American Civil War. Patrick Swayze and James Read starred.

 

 

6-Race to Freedom - The Underground Railroad

“Race to Freedom: The Story of the Underground Railroad” (1994) – This made-for-television movie told the story about four North Carolina slaves’ escape to Canada, following the passage of the Compromise of 1850.  Janet Bailey and Courtney B. Vance starred.

 

 

10-The Journey of August King

“The Journey of August King” (1996) – Jason Patric and Thandie Newton starred in this adaptation of John Ehle’s 1971 novel about an early 19th century North Carolina farmer who finds himself helping a female slave escape from her master and slave catchers. John Duigan directed.

 

 

8-A Respectable Trade

“A Respectable Trade” (1998) – Emma Fielding, Ariyon Bakare and Warren Clarke starred in this television adaptation of Philippa Gregory’s 1992 novel about the forbidden love affair between an African born slave and the wife of his English master in 18th century Bristol. Suri Krishnamma directed.

 

 

11-Mansfield Park 1999

“Mansfield Park” (1999) – Slavery is heavily emphasized in Patricia Rozema’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1814 novel about a young English woman’s stay with her rich relatives during the first decade of the 19th century. Frances O’Connor and Jonny Lee Miller starred.

 

 

7-Human Trafficking

“Human Trafficking” (2005) – Mira Sorvino starred in this miniseries about the experiences of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent investigating the modern day sex slave trafficking business. Donald Sutherland and Robert Caryle co-starred.

 

 

5-Amazing Grace

“Amazing Grace” (2007) – Michael Apted directed this account of William Wilberforce’s campaign against the slave trade throughout the British Empire in Parliament. Ioan Gruffudd, Benedict Cumberbatch, Romola Garai Rufus Sewell and Albert Finney starred.

 

 

12-Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter

“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” (2012) – History and the supernatural merged in this interesting adaptation of Seth Grahame-Smith’s 2010 novel about the 16th president’s activities as a vampire hunter. Benjamin Walker, Dominic Cooper, Anthony Mackie and Mary Elizabeth Winstead starred.

 

 

1-Lincoln

“Lincoln” (2012) – Daniel Day-Lewis portrayed the 16th president in Steven Spielberg’s fascinating account of Lincoln’s efforts to end U.S. slavery, by having Congress pass the 13th Amendment of the Constitution. Sally Field, David Strathairn and Tommy Lee Jones co-starred.

 

 

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“Django Unchained” (2012) – Quentin Tarantino directed this take on Spaghetti Westerns about a slave-turned-bounty hunter and his mentor, who sets out to rescue his wife from a brutal Mississippi plantation owner. Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo Di Caprio, Kerry Washington and Samuel L. Jackson starred.

“ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER” (2012) Review

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“ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER” (2012) Review

If someone had told me about three to four years ago about a fictional story featuring a historical leader and his encounters with the supernatural . . . I would have laughed in that person’s face. Hell, I would have done that about a year later. Then Seth Grahame-Smith wrote a novel about Abraham Lincoln battling vampires. And you know what? I did not laugh. But I sure as hell did not take it seriously. 

Last spring, I saw the trailer for the movie adaptation of Grahame-Smith’s novel and found myself surprisingly intrigued by it. Well . . . I was intrigued by the movie’s visual style. And the fact that movie featured actors that I have become a fan of did not hurt. But the idea of Abraham Lincoln being a vampire hunter remained a block in my mind. In fact, I struggled over whether or not to see “ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER”, until the day before the movie’s wide release. And to my surprise, I am glad that I finally saw it.

“ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE SLAYER” begins on April 14, 1865 . . . with President Abraham Lincoln recounting his experiences with vampires in a journal. The movie flashbacks to the year 1818 in Southern Indiana, where the young Abraham and his parents – Thomas and Nancy – work out the family’s debt to a local landowner and slave owner named Jack Barts. Abraham befriends an African-American young slave named William Johnson. When the latter is attacked by one of Barts’ employees with a whip, Abraham intervenes before his father comes to his rescue. Barts demands that the Lincoln family compensate for the interaction over William in cash. Thomas cannot afford to pay back the landowner and refuses to work out his debt even further. Barts later attacks Nancy at the Lincolns’ cabin and poisons her. She later dies the following morning.

Nine years later in 1827, an eighteen year-old Abraham seeks revenge against Barts by attacking him. But the latter, who proves to be a vampire, overpowers Abraham. Abraham is rescued by a mysterious man named Henry Sturgess, who informs the young man of Barts’ true state. Henry offers to teach Abraham to be a vampire hunter. During training, Sturgess informs Abraham that Jack Barts and other vampires in America are descended from a vampire named Adam, who owns and lives on a plantation outside of New Orleans, with his sister Vadoma. Sturgess also tells Abraham of the vampires’ weakness – namely silver – and presents the latter with a silver pocket watch. After several years of training, Abraham travels to Springfield, Illinois. There, he makes plans to read for the law, befriends a shopkeeper named Joshua Speed, renews his friendship with William; and falls in love with Mary Todd, a socialite from a wealthy Kentucky family. Abraham also begins his activities as a vampire hunter.

“ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER” is not perfect. It is a flawed movie. There were one or two aspects of the plot that I found questionable. After Abraham’s reunion with William, the pair was arrested for fighting off slave catchers that were after the latter. Following their arrest, there was a scene that featured the incarcerated pair being visited by Mary Todd. The next scene featured a freed William being kidnapped by Adam’s thugs off the streets of Springfield, in order to lure Abraham into a trap set in Louisiana. How on earth did William avoid being sent back down South as a fugitive slave? When he first reunited with Abraham inside Joshua’s store, he told the latter that he was an escaped slave. So, how did William end up freely walking the streets of Springfield . . . without being sent back South as a fugitive slave?

My second problem with “ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER” deals with a brief scene during the Civil War. This scene features Confederate president Jefferson Davis convincing Adam to deploy his vampires on the front lines. Look . . . I am the last person who could be accused of being a neo-Confederate. Trust me . . . I am. But I found this scene between Davis and Adam to be very unbelievable, even for fiction. I simply cannot see Jefferson Davis allying himself with a vampire in order to win the Civil War. One, like Abraham, Davis would have been leery of the idea of associating with a vampire. And two, chances are he probably would have become aware of Adam’s plan of transforming the United States in a land of the undead . . . and automatically oppose it. The only way this scene would have worked is if Davis had been unaware of Adam’s state as a vampire.

My last problem with “ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER” turned out to be a costume worn by actor Benjamin Walker, who portrayed Abraham Lincoln. I am, of course, referring to the outfit he wore in the Abraham/Mary wedding scene. Take a look:

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Dear God! What were Varvara Avdyushko and Carlo Poggioli thinking? Abe’s wedding outfit looks like a nineteenth-century version of a high school prom suit, circa 1975. In other words, two periods in time clash in the creation of this God awful suit. It is a good thing that I found their other costumes very impressive.

Despite the above flaws, I still managed to enjoy “ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER” very much. After watching the movie, I now regret my reluctance over its premise. The idea of historical figure being utilized as an action character in a supernatural story turned out to be very . . . very original. More conservative minds would probably find such an idea sacrilegious. I recall a co-worker expressing disgust at the idea of someone using Abraham Lincoln as an action figure in a movie. But think about it. In some ways, he was a good choice on Seth Grahame-Smith’s part. Lincoln was a physically impressive man, being tall and strong as a bull. He knew how to wield an ax with the same level as a Musketeer with a sword. More importantly, he was an intelligent man who could be ruthless when the occasion called for it.

I found Grahame-Smith’s use of Nancy Hanks Lincoln’s death and the issue of slavery to create his story of Lincoln and vampires very effective. The screenwriter used the death of Lincoln’s mother to jump start the future president’s alternate profession as a vampire hunter. And I was very impressed by his use of the slavery issue to intensify Lincoln’s interest in the destruction of vampires. In “ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER”, the institution of slavery and especially the slave trade is used to provide vampires with easily available humans (namely slaves) to feed upon. The Jack Barts character apparently gathered slaves around the Ohio River (which bordered the upper South) and shipped them to the vampire-owned plantations in the Deep South. This strikes me as a fictional reflection of the large-scale shipments of many upper South slaves to the cotton plantations of the Deep South during the first half of the 19th century in real life. According to Abraham’s mentor, Henry Sturgess, the U.S. slave trade not only gave vampires easy access to “food”, but kept their penchant of seeking victims all over the country under control. This use of slaves as easy victims for vampires led to their support of the Confederate cause during the Civil War.

The transportation of slaves from the Upper South to the Deep South proved to be one of the movie’s historically accurate contributions to the plot. I have to be frank. “ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER” is not exactly historically accurate. In reality, William Johnson was a free-born African-American who became Lincoln’s personal valet. The movie overlooked the fact that Lincoln had a much beloved stepmother, and four sons – not one. Also, Harriet Tubman never operated in the Deep South, let alone in Louisiana. And African slave traders did not sell “their own kind” to Europeans, as the vampire Adam claimed in the movie. They sold people they considered to be strangers and especially, foreigners. But . . . this is a movie about a former U.S. president that became a vampire hunter. Would anyone really expect a tale of this sort to be historically accurate? I certainly would not.

But one of the major highlights of “ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER” proved to be the mind-boggling visuals created by the special effects team led by Matt Kutcher. These visuals were especially effective in exciting actions sequences that featured Abraham’s final confrontation with Jack Barts on the Illinois prairie, the rescue of William Johnson in Louisiana, the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg and especially the fiery confrontation aboard the train heading for Gettysburg. William Hoy’s editing, Caleb Deschanel’s photography and especially Timur Bekmambetov’s direction really made it happened. Aside from the stomach churning wedding suit, I must admit that I really enjoyed Varvara Avdyushko and Carlo Poggioli’s costume designs – especially for the costumes worn by Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Their costumes, along with François Audouy’s production designs, Beat Frutiger’s art direction and Cheryl Carasik’s set decorations really contributed to the film’s overall look of early to mid-19th century America.

And what about the cast? Benjamin Walker, in my opinion, was a find. A genuine find. I do not know how to put this. The man was perfectly cast as Abraham Lincoln. He possessed the height, the looks (thanks to the make-up department). He had great screen chemistry with his co-stars – especially Dominic Cooper, Anthony Mackie, Jimmi Simpson and Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Walker did not simply walk or stand around, looking like Lincoln. Thanks to a superb performance, he made Lincoln a human being, instead of a walking historical figure. Dominic Cooper added another fascinating performance to his résumé as the enigmatic Henry Sturgess, the individual that taught Abraham Lincoln to be a first-rate vampire hunter. His performance reeked with mystery, wit and wisdom. Cooper’s Sturgess was also a curious mixture ambiguity and moral fortitude that I found very fascinating.

From what I can gathered, the William Johnson character was not featured in Grahame-Smith’s novel. I could be wrong. I never read the book. But I am glad that the author included the character in the movie, giving me a chance to see Anthony Mackie on the screen again. But this is the first time I truly saw him as a character in an action figure and he was superb. I could also say the same for Jimmi Simpson, whom I have grown used to seeing in comedies. He was great as Abraham’s Springfield crony, Joshua Speed, whose interest in Abraham and William’s old friendship led him to become involved in their vampire hunting activities. Mary Elizabeth Winstead was given the opportunity to portray a different Mary Todd Lincoln from the usual portrayals marred by either insanity or cold-blooded ambition. And in the end, she gave a great performance that conveyed the famous First Lady’s intelligence, vivacity and wit. And Rufus Sewell was first-rate as the movie’s main villain, a long-living vampire named Adam, who harbored plans to make the United States a country fit to be dominated by vampires. Sewell also used a Southern accent that I found surprisingly impressive.

As I had stated earlier, “ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER” was not a perfect movie. It had a plot hole or two that screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith had failed to address. The movie’s story also featured an implausible scene featuring a historical figure. But the movie boasted some excellent performances from a cast led by Benjamin Walker and some superb visuals that not only transported moviegoers back to the world of early and mid 19th century America, but also to the supernatural world of vampires. And thanks to Grahame-Smith’s story and Timur Bekmambetov’s stylish direction, the movie began with what many would consider an implausible plot – a historical icon battling supernatural beings – and transformed it into a fascinating tale filled with both fantasy and history. To my surprise, I ended up enjoying “ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER” very much.