Life is short.  Although I am a devoted, if amateur, student of Hollywood’s treatment of the great American War of 1861-65, I intended to spare myself the ordeal of Spielberg’s Lincoln.  However, the honored editor of America’s bravest and best journal instructed me to go.  I have always found such instruction to be wise.  And so I bit the bitter pill, or swallowed the bullet, or whatever, and went.  You may regard me as having suffered in your behalf, Gentle Reader of Chronicles, and be relieved of the burden of attendance.

Daniel Day-Lewis portrays Lincoln, following in the footsteps of Walter Huston, Henry Fonda, Raymond Massey, Gregory Peck, and Sam Waterston—all better looking than the real thing.  One side of Lincoln’s face was deformed, he had moments of doddering unconsciousness from having been kicked in the head by a horse, and, as everyone noted, his arms were disproportionately long, which led his accomplices to call him “the Ape” behind his back.  But I suppose one should not complain about that: Actors and actresses are always better looking than the real-life people they mimic.

After all the praise lavished upon the Englishman Day-Lewis’s portrayal of Lincoln, including an Academy Award for best actor, I was surprised at how poor it was.  The appearance, as I have noted, is wrong.  The accent is very wrong for a 19th-century Midwesterner born and raised among people from the upper South.  Worst of all, Day-Lewis plays Lincoln with a strange diffidence such as no successful lawyer and politician ever had.  He seems like Jimmy Stewart with a beard and spectacles, the humble saint that many imagine Lincoln to have been.  Nearly all testimony of the time disputes the tender Lincoln family relations that are presented early on to establish the gentle benevolence of the man.

The film begins with a false portrayal of the battle of Jenkins’ Ferry, a victory by outnumbered (as usual) Confederates that put an end to a major Union cotton-stealing campaign.  There was no massacre of black troops at Poison Springs, nor any massacre of Confederate prisoners by blacks in retaliation at Jenkins’ Ferry, as is claimed.  Most Northern soldiers would have slaughtered their black “comrades” before allowing them to slaughter Confederate prisoners.  I suppose this invention makes a gratifying vicarious revenge fantasy for the leftist homosexual screenwriter.  The 1st and 2nd Kansas Regiments (Colored) are described inaccurately as cavalry.  There were no black cavalry units in active service in the war.  Northern soldiers would have balked at blacks riding while they walked.  During the war black soldiers were mostly labor and garrison troops, and occasionally, as at Ft. Wagner and the Crater, sacrificed in forlorn hopes of sparing the lives of white Northerners.  Ambrose Bierce, a frontline Union soldier for the entire war, said he never saw any black people except the servants and concubines of Union officers.

This reminds me of an Italian flick I once saw, in which a tall, handsome black American paratrooper drops in to liberate an Italian village.  There were no black paratroopers and very few black combat units in World War II.  The U.S. Army was as segregated as it was in the Civil War.  There is no question that affirmative action is aggressively alive and well in entertainment.  Black men are portrayed as proportionately more numerous than they were as combat troops in Vietnam and later wars.

The film shows Lincoln in friendly conversation with black soldiers who were veterans of Jenkins’ Ferry, though how they got to Washington from Arkansas is not explained.  Such a scene is unlikely.  Lincoln throughout his life had relatively little contact with black people.  They were by law excluded from settling in Illinois.  Some were run out of Springfield in Lincoln’s time, and at least one lynching occurred there after the war.  Lincoln did receive a delegation or two at the White House, to whom he hinted that the best thing their people could do was to emigrate to some friendlier clime.  Lincoln, an earthy man of his time and place, adept at amusing the yokels around the cracker barrel, probably, like most Northerners then and later, used the N-word routinely.  As Frederick Douglass observed, Lincoln was emphatically “the white man’s President.”

We are told that Lincoln had never accepted slavery, which is belied by both his legal and political careers.  And that he had fought the war to end slavery, something which he denied repeatedly.  The strangest thing about the film is that the producers chose to build it around the machinations leading to acquiring Congress’s two-thirds vote for the 13th Amendment emancipating the slaves.  If I wanted to make an attractive dramatization of Lincoln there are many other events that I would choose: his adoption of “free soil” and the Republican Party late in his career; the Cooper Union speech; his winning the nomination in 1860 over better-known men; the Ft. Sumter crisis; the Emancipation Proclamation; the Second Inaugural.

Obviously, these filmmakers wanted the film to be all about slavery, requiring a basic perversion of accuracy.  A number of authorities have pointed out that Lincoln did not play a very active role in the campaign to pass the 13th Amendment.  Nor at the time was it as important or decisive as portrayed.  The presentation of the political and constitutional issues is full of erroneous and presentistic assumptions and incoherent reasoning.  There seems disinterest in the fact that Congress simply proposed the amendment; the amendment still had to be ratified by three fourths of the states.  What did that mean when more than two fifths of the states were fighting the Union or kept “loyal” only by the army?  And when Lincoln relied on the silly theory that they were still states though temporarily controlled by mobs of lawbreakers, while many in his party contended that the “rebellious” states were no longer states?  Anyway, the question could not be settled until the war was over.

Besides, the amendment meant little.  Confederate opinion had already accepted that slavery had been altered by the war and was willing to give up slavery in exchange for freedom from the invading tyrant.  In the brief postwar period before harsh congressional Reconstruction descended, the Southern states ratified the 13th Amendment readily and breathed a sigh of relief at putting down the burden.  The real issue left untouched by the amendment was what the status would be in American society and law of the people thus freed.

But like so much of the treatment of the war, charity for black people actually takes second place to the whitewashing of Northern behavior, to safeguarding what Robert Penn Warren called “the treasury of virtue.”  Another Italian flick I saw (I waste a lot of time, even though life is short) purported to be a dramatization of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  In this film, a group of Catholic brethren are maintaining a fort deep in the South for the protection of runaway slaves.  No such thing ever existed, nor would antebellum Southerners have allowed it for a day.  Further, despite the Yankeeization of most American Catholics, the Roman Catholic Church never discountenanced slavery in the United States.  She generally disapproved of abolitionist agitation, and not only because most abolitionists were virulently anti-Catholic.  Not to mention that the Church lived comfortably for centuries with slavery in Latin America.  The poet laureate of the Confederacy was Father Abram J. Ryan.  Bishop Bartolomé de las Casas, the saintly prelate of the Spanish Indies, thought slavery was bad for Indians but good for black people.

Southerners and Confederates fared much better in Hollywood during the first half of the 20th century than they do now, although the picture is mixed, and an occasional sympathetic treatment sneaks through.  A recent film, The Conspirator, about the execution of Mary Surratt for the Lincoln assassination, was fairly even-handed and accurate.  Even so, it could not escape a certain amount of whitewash, almost as much as Tom Sawyer’s fence.

Mrs. Surratt’s treatment was more brutal and ruthless than portrayed.  That her Catholicism intensified her persecution is not hinted at.  Inevitably, the degree to which Lincoln was beloved by his own side is exaggerated.  Lincoln worship was a posthumous thing.  The Booth conspirators were not simply bad losers angry about how the war had turned out.  They were angry about the cruel treatment of Southern women and children.  Worst of all, the tall, handsome Kevin Kline is guilty of false impersonation for playing the nasty, scheming, authoritarian little man Edwin Stanton, who privately despised Lincoln.  An accurate Stanton would be more like Donald Pleasence as Heinrich Himmler in The Eagle Has Landed.  You get no hint of the Republicans’ paranoia.  They were never completely at ease about their support by the Northern public.  Throughout the war Stanton lived with the anxious fear that the North was full of secret “traitors,” and this added intensity to the hatred of Mrs. Surratt.  And the film implies that Mrs. Surratt would not have been executed if her son had not escaped, thus shifting the blame of her murder from her killers to John Surratt.  Think about it: It is suggested that these people were right to execute the mother since they could not lay hands on the son.

Indeed, the film entirely fails to convey the atmosphere of haste and secrecy that surrounded the whole of the proceedings after Lincoln’s assassination.  Here again is something that has been broached by an occasional maverick historian but which Americans have never faced.  You would think in a matter so important there would have been an exhaustive investigation.  Instead, the supposed guilty parties were bound, hooded, gagged, and swiftly executed, and Booth when cornered and badly injured was killed rather than captured.  Why the haste?  Cui bono?  In fact, Stanton’s secret and summary dealings guaranteed that the full truth would never be known.

The Conspirator may be criticized here and there, but it is a creditable dramatization of history.  Lincoln is a dramatization of what is imagined and wished for as history by people who neither know nor care to know what the America of that time was really like.

Spielberg’s cinema offering is balanced by the good news that Ron Maxwell, creator of Gettysburg and Gods and Generals, will soon release a film called Copperhead with a screenplay by sometime Chronicles contributor Bill Kauffman.  It is based on Harold Frederic’s 1893 novel The Copperhead, about a New York State family persecuted for its opposition to Lincoln’s war.  Such opposition was far more reasoned and prevalent than has ever been admitted.  And rampaging Republican mobs punishing dissent in parts of the North were common.  Indeed, Northern opposition to the war and its suppression is the biggest untold story in U.S. history.  The Copperhead has been filmed at least once before, a 1920 silent classic that launched Lionel Barrymore’s celluloid career.

Ron Maxwell’s films are stupendous achievements unmatched by anything in American cinema in the last half-century or more.  But even he falls for a little of the Treasury of Virtue.  In a Virginia family has a slave pretend to be the owner of their house on the idea that Union soldiers will not ransack and burn the property of black people.  Anyone who has studied the actual behavior of Union soldiers in that war knows that a black person’s property would be more likely, not less likely, to be stolen or destroyed, because in that case the victims were less able to complain or retaliate and less likely to evoke the sympathy of Northern soldiers.  In fact, some Northern soldiers pretended or had been told that black people, even free, could not own property, and thus their possessions were really those of white Southerners and therefore  fair game.  Instances of such oppression are countless.  Advance reports on Copperhead bill it as a story about opposition in wartime.  I hope the film does not miss that the story is about opposition to that war in particular, and why.

Meanwhile, as we are waiting for Copperhead, don’t reward Spielberg by buying a DVD of Lincoln.  Instead, rent Gore Vidal’s Lincoln, a 1988 TV miniseries with Sam Waterston and Mary Tyler Moore as the presidential couple.  Unlike Hollywood moguls and writers, I know a little something about 19th-century America, and I feel assured in telling you that Waterston and Moore are vastly more authentic Lincolns than the Englishman and the Flying Nun.  The portrayal of Lincoln is entirely sympathetic but honest.  You will learn some genuine American history rather than endure the fantasies of people who have remade that history in their own image.