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The Two Lincolns

“Lincoln, as we say, is no Napoleon. He wants no splendor about him; that is scarcely his way. He defends not his own power, except as needed to defend the power entrusted to him. Unostentatiously and steadily he does his duty as he sees it, making mistakes and apologizing for them as he recognizes them, eating his defeats, meditating his victories, laying waste.”

—William T. Vollman, Rising Up and Rising Down

“And the other character catches the horse, he protects it. It was a whole conversation with the studio about this horse, and throwing horses. It’s the only time when the studio was trying to knock on the door and say, ‘Mmmmm, let’s think about it.’ And I said, ‘You see what’s happening, the bad guy is mean to the animal. But the good guy, Lincoln, he protects the horse.’”

—Timur Bekmambetov, director of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

“A final resting place”

Abraham Lincoln in the cinema finds himself defined by the same durable iconography: he’s always a humble rail-splitter who wields the most workmanlike of tools and cuts a striking silhouette in his stovepipe hat. He shepherded his country away from the abyss, a feat that got him enshrined in a throne of marble. And we are meant to gaze upon tales of his youth—of his formative years in which his strength of character was forged—with the supposed hope that, like that monument, they might communicate some fraction of what it means to be a part of this nation we call America. The Founding Fathers may serve as our national pantheon, substitute gods and legends for a youngish country yearning for the weight of time immemorial. If so, their successor, Lincoln, is singular where they are plural; if they are creators, Lincoln is a redeemer figure who (save for that dwindled strain of sub-Mason-Dixon reactionaries who take his name as imperious anathema) carries at least some symbolic significance as the figure of who preserved the Republic in its darkest days and thus also preserved the concept of “American” as being a thing worth a damn. And yet this mythic Lincoln—the Lincoln that was born when the man died and which inhabits both the shadows of our political rhetoric and those of the cinema screen—is not immutable.

In 1939, in another set of dark days, Lincoln spoke with one kind of voice. In Young Mr. Lincoln (directed by John Ford and written by Lamar Trotti), Henry Fonda plays Lincoln as a kind of trickster figure whose moral compass allows for a good deal of subterfuge and manipulation, wherein slick oratory and folksy, aw-shucks charm masks an inquisitive mind that manages to find a workable solution to an intractable dilemma. The film, which focuses on Lincoln’s early career as a Springfield lawyer, highlights his role as a mediator and peacemaker; his words stay the hands of a violent mob and prevent an unjust execution. The rule of law and salvation in learned inquiry: these are Lincoln’s values, and they are America’s values, too, the film tells us. In 1970 the editors of Cahiers du Cinéma, an influential French film journal, wrote an essay on the film which pointed out that the character of Lincoln is allied to the grand concept of Law, presented by Ford as a beautiful and transcendent thing. “It is in nature,” they wrote, “that Lincoln communes with Law.” (This essay is inspired by and indebted to their analysis, though they would likely find my work insufficient in its Marxist-semiotic rigor.)

What, then, of the Lincoln of 2012, who speaks to us in yet another set of dark days? What kind of voice does he speak with? One possibility is presented in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (directed by Timur Bekmambetov and written by Seth Grahame-Smith, based on his novel), which was released on home video last month. This film’s Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) is driven by a different set of values. He desires not a communion with natural law but instead the destruction of those who live outside it. The plot is what it says on the label: Lincoln hunts vampires. He sees his country infiltrated by invisible invaders that only he is empowered to stop, and he accomplishes his goals through a vengeance-fueled secret war of targeted assassinations. Instead of Law, his focus is on the Truth, immanent and unmistakable, which he initially carries as a solitary burden and that, by the end, nearly destroys him. The film asks us: is that psychological stance, troubling as it may be, not a more accurate summation of our national values in this historical moment? Which Lincoln’s America do we see when we look at the still-smoldering battlegrounds of this most recent presidential election?

Of course 2012’s other Lincoln movie, the Spielberg picture with the self-assured swagger of a single-word title, is likely to be the “definitive” cinematic portrait of the man, for whatever that is worth. But the kind of official hagiography it seems to be performing, with its A-List everything based on authoritative history, is less interesting to me than what Bekmambetov and company are mucking around with. Yes, their film is absurd and over-the-top, a genre picture clothed in the trappings of national mythology in an attempt to claim a strange kind of ironic gravitas. But that means that it only differs in degree, rather than kind, from Young Mr. Lincoln, which is at its heart a courtroom drama that takes a moment out of its way to present as an unresolved dilemma Lincoln’s judgment over a pie-baking contest. Both Lincolns are ahistorical fabrications. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is merely more upfront about it. It understands the game being played when its cackling villain announces that “I’m going to destroy the myth of Abraham Lincoln, so that history will forever know you not as a man but as a monster!”

Well then, let’s talk about monsters and men.

 …

“These honored dead”

And the truth is that men die. Lincoln, in history and in film, is inextricably bound up with death: the deaths of his mother and sister and first love and sons; his presiding over the country’s worst internal bloodletting; and finally there is, of course, the obvious terminus. It’s fitting, therefore, that both Young Mr. Lincoln and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter take mere minutes before putting Lincoln in front of a gravestone—a woman’s gravestone, at that. In these films, women define Abraham Lincoln. No, not Mary Todd, who is alternatively presented as the equivalent of the snotty cheerleader in a high school comedy or as a dupe-turned-comrade-in-arms; marriage in the cinematic code is both the end of a journey and the entrance into another stage of life, so these films leave such things to third acts and postscripts. Instead, in these films Lincoln takes as his guiding lights women sent to an early grave, women whose words echo in his psyche. They instill in him their ethos, and it’s their words, the films argue, that spur Lincoln towards his destiny.

Two early scenes from Young Mr. Lincoln: In the first, Lincoln meets Ann Rutledge (Pauline Moore), his first love who encourages him to head to the city and to practice law. In the next, he’s at her grave debating whether to follow her advice, a decision which he makes by using a falling twig as one would flip a coin—though he admits that he “could have tipped it your way just a little.” In the space between those scenes, Ann lived and she died, but there is no time for that; what matters is the advice she bequeathed to Lincoln. These films, presenting a portrait of the president as a young man, have a tension between the need for the dilemmas-and-suspense demanded of a Hollywood film and the fact that they are working with a story whose ending has already been written. Lincoln’s choice is not really a choice; the Cahiers editors argued that in this scene, the abrupt transition—one moment Ann is alive, the next she is dead—only reinforce the fact that Lincoln’s choice is not a product of rational reflection but “submits the hero to predestination.”

One moment she’s alive, the next she’s dead. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter follows a similar tack, though here the woman in question is Lincoln’s mother Nancy (Robin McLeavy). After the film’s framing device of Lincoln’s secret journal is dispensed with, we witness the incident that drives Lincoln to the path of vengeance. It is located, as the mythopoetic hero’s journey usually places it, in the scars of childhood trauma. The nine-year-old Lincoln finds himself literally under the lash as he attempts to feebly protect a free black family from being wrongfully taken away by the slave trader Jack Barts (Marton Csokas). The moment is a visceral one, with a white boy and black boy cowering together under the lash as its tip hurtles toward the camera at supersonic speed. Lincoln’s father Thomas (Joseph Mawle) gets into a scuffle with the overseer, saving his son but unwittingly making himself a target for Barts’s wrath. As Barts deals with the situation, Nancy announces that “Until every man is free, we are all slaves,” a seemingly non sequitur declaration of principles in the context of the heated scene.

But those words linger. The young Lincoln stands up to authority because of his personal stake: the boy William is his friend. Lincoln’s father initially turns a blind eye until his own family is put in danger, and even then he couches his opposition within the letter of the law, a strict legalism in which he does not challenge the institution of slavery: this specific family is being wronged, but he does not venture any further. That stance is replicated in Lincoln’s adult rival, Stephen A. Douglas (Alan Tudyk), and it’s one that Lincoln comes to reject entirely. He turns away from the impotent appeasement of his father towards the defiant universal morality of his mother, even using her words in a debate with Douglas. Of course, those words are etched into his memory along with their results: Barts (who is a vampire, of course) creeps into the Lincoln family’s log cabin and attacks Nancy, Nosferatu-style, in the middle of the night.

With this turn of events, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter establishes Lincoln’s relationship to slavery as the core of the character. This distinguishes it from Young Mr. Lincoln, which musters a response to slavery that is oblique and circumscribed, confined to the purely economic: Lincoln only mentions it in relation to his own family’s financial hardship, that “with all the slaves coming in, white folks just had a hard time making a living.” The line frames slavery as more a set of adverse economic circumstances (which would have been read against the Great Depression-era in which the film was released) than a brutality against the soul of the nation—which is exactly how Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter defines it. Slavery here is literally inhuman, dominated by vampires who view slaves as a readily accessible food supply. It is also literally un-American, as Lincoln discovers that slavery has lured a multitude of vampires from Old Europe across the Atlantic.

It might be tempting to read one film’s hesitance (and the other’s insistence) to discuss slavery as either a symptom of kowtowing to a benighted racist past, vaguely veiled on the screen, or the reverse—that to condemn a seeming relic of centuries past like slavery is so ideologically harmless as to have virtually no meaning at all. But it’s important to consider not just what’s being said in the film, but how it says it. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter insists on a clear Manichean separation between the righteous and the corrupt in order to justify Lincoln’s plan: a series of targeted assassinations—though he refers to himself as a “hunter,” as if he were putting down wild animals. This stab at moral clarity is emphasized even further with Lincoln’s mother, who dies from the vampire’s bite because she is, simply, pure of heart. This does not appear to be a metaphor in the world of the film; in its metaphysics of vampirism, only those who are morally corrupt become vampires. Innocents die when they are bitten. (Vampirism in fiction tends to be a gendered concept, and this film is no exception; almost all of the vampires are men, the women who are bitten all die, and the main female vampire is overtly a sexual dominant and child murderer.) To be a vampire is to be evil, for if they were not evil they would not exist, and therefore because they exist, they are evil. This is the moral tautology the film puts into play, a formulation that looks familiar to anyone conversant with political history.

 …

“To add or detract”

But let’s take a short step back. The Lincoln mythos is not only channeled through the two films’ plots, it’s encapsulated in the president’s image as well. We are confronted with his portrait, and knowing the horror and death that permeate the whole of his life, we might be inclined to search for evidence there, some insight into the man behind the myth. In his 3,300-page meditation on violence Rising Up and Rising Down, the writer William T. Vollmann takes a moment to reflect on Lincoln’s image:

Sallow in his portraits, after the necessary fashion of early photography with its high-contrast glass plates and long exposures, Lincoln stares out at us from the past not without grimness, his jaw clenched in a manner which affords his cheekbones prominence… one needs but to compare a contemporary thirty-five-millimeter portrait with one created by the large-format camera to detect the latter’s relative “seriousness”—in this case, the gravity of an authority whose defender believes it to be sacred.

That stare. There’s something there, something in the object of his gaze in which we might be able to locate what drove the man before he belonged to the ages, to history. Something lingers in his image. And from photograph to film: we get Henry Fonda in Young Mr. Lincoln. Fonda’s Lincoln is fundamentally divided. While both films convey the dualities of Lincoln—the countryside and the city, North and South, the public and private, the lies and the truth—there is a very clear split to Fonda’s Lincoln. When he is on public display, when he has the people’s attention, he takes on a jovial aspect. He’s a charming trickster, quick-witted, able to read the crowd as easily as one of his law books. He is able to suss out the truth with a single glance. Of course Lincoln’s legal clients are innocents, because if they weren’t, he wouldn’t be defending them, would he? (It’s the Vampire Hunter tautology, only in the other direction.)

And yet throughout the film, sometimes right in the middle of a scene, we see that look in his eyes—a thousand-yard-stare that’s just this side of a catatonic stupor, where the whole world seems to have evaporated. He most often enters this trance-like, meditative state when he is alone: after the crowd has dispersed, or before he takes a step into the public eye, or when he is immersed in the natural world. But sometimes it slips through when other people can see it, as he does with Mary Todd (Marjorie Weaver). The “Lincoln stare” reaches its apex after he dances with her and they share a quiet moment on a moonlit balcony. If this were a movie about an ordinary man, this would be a time for romance and emotion and for hearts to flutter open. But this is a movie about a myth, and so instead he stares out at the water—he’s no longer there. It leads to one of the most drawn-out transitions in the film: Mary falls silent, seemingly at a loss to respond, and she takes a seat in the background. The beats of this scene have an odd cadence; the pair are out of step. She looks at Lincoln looking out at nothing. But he’s not looking at nothing, of course. He’s looking out at Destiny, something that proves rather difficult to film so we can only glance at its reflection off Henry Fonda’s eyes.

In Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, destiny has been forced upon the man. Where Fonda seems to march toward it, Benjamin Walker waits for it to creep up on him. Fonda’s glances often point upward, as if directed to Heaven. Walker’s eyes shift from side to side, trying to stretch his vision past the peripheral. He’s hypervigilant. After all, he knows that threats (like vampires) can be invisible, and death can visit from unexpected angles. These aren’t the only dimensions of Lincoln’s glance, though. For all its fantasy, the film is interested in demystifying the man. (The opening shot is a deconstruction of DC, after all, with the cityscape fading into swampland and monuments regressing into their scaffolds.) When Lincoln looks at Mary Todd (here played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead), there’s love there. Unlike Fonda’s Lincoln, who uses humor as a way to disarm, this Lincoln has other ways of disarming, saving his humor for his close friends and confidantes. Here lies another distinction: this Lincoln actually has confidantes. If both Lincolns are afflicted by loss, in Young Mr. Lincoln he has come to accept that condition of loss as definitive. He knows that even the surrogate family he’s found in his legal clients is a transient condition; they, too, shall pass. The Cahiers editors noted that the one person the Lincoln of Ford’s film lets close is “a sort of Sancho Panza,” a grotesque buffoon who is in the end left behind as Lincoln marches towards his destiny. The Lincoln of Vampire Hunter does not accept; he defies. He reaches for a mentor, for allies, and for love. He yearns for connection even as he knows that, as with any superhero (the superhero mold perhaps one of the few ways we might feel comfortable interpreting myth these days), that these connections make him vulnerable. Above all, this incarnation of Lincoln is defined by that vulnerability. If we return to that photograph of Lincoln, if we return to that stare and all its facets, we might find that each film focuses on a different piece of the same puzzle. Both labor under the weight of predestination, as if their protagonists have already lived the entirety of their lives and are remembering things that haven’t happened to them yet.

This is because the films are speaking to their present even as they are set in the past. In these stories of youth, much is made of Lincoln’s physical strength, of the rail-splitter with a rustic sensibility to match his book learning, a muscular authority to match his moral one. Both films linger on the way Lincoln handles an ax, and though only one features him performing decapitations, both recognize the sheer physical simplicity of that tool is inadequate for the problems of an entire nation.

These Lincolns are embedded in their specific historical moments. Nineteen-thirty-nine Lincoln recognizes his office as a sacred trust, and at the risk of pushing the Cahiers conception of predestination to its limit, this Lincoln is one of the elect in all the senses of the word. It’s a film about how a man comes to inhabit the role of myth. In its way, it attempts to be a comfort, to reinforce a stable notion of leadership in a troubled world. The Lincoln of 2012 punctures that concept all too readily. He is merely a man forced into a situation he does not want to be in, but he bears it because it is his duty. He is defined by his guilt. The facet of Lincoln’s stare the film amplifies is the sense that he believes he has failed so many people—and thus, death enters the world—but there is no way around it. In fact, Lincoln only can unlock his superhuman powers once he acknowledges the truth of his own guilt. His mentor Henry offers him this comic book platitude: “Real power comes not from hate, but from truth.”

And that is the kind of comfort that Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter offers, a comfort as illusory as the Lincoln of 1939, but perhaps more legible in 2012—a comfort that those who inflict unspeakable wrath in our names, that those who wade through death and carnage, actually understand what they are doing, and that they might even feel guilt because of it. It’s one of the few things that we can hope for. To borrow the words of another story grappling with the same themes: we are given not the Lincoln we need, but the one we deserve.

The vampires are metaphors. They always were.

Oscar Moralde is a writer and critic whose work has been published by Slant Magazine and the Criterion Collection. He studies film at UCLA.