Lincoln and the end of slavery

I don’t often write about movies here, but this one has caught my spirit in such a way that I must write about it.

My son  was called after Abraham Lincoln; my husband and I went to see “Mister Lincoln” a one man stage show, played by the great British actor, Roy Dotrice, when I was very pregnant. (It was a brilliant piece of theatre). We hadn’t decided on a name then. But I turned to my boy’s father during the performance, and said “Abraham’s a good name”, and he agreed.

If you haven’t seen Lincoln, it’s well worth it. It is a challenging film to watch, as it’s very dense with dialogue, and much of the politics and history is unfamiliar to one who is not American and has not studied American history. It focuses on Lincoln’s push to get the 13th amendment to the constitution passed. stating:

Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.


He wanted it passed before peace was declared with the Confederate Southern States, because he knew that once they returned to the house of government, they would throw it out. So he got his supporters wheeling and dealing, basically buying support (not with cash, but with promises of promotion, work, etc.) and after much opposition and argument, and a great deal of conflict, including domestic, he won the day. Then  the Confederate States surrendered, peace was declared (without retribution) and two months later, after Lincoln was inaugurated to his second term as president, he was assassinated at the theatre.

Daniel Day Lewis gives an immensely endearing, modest and moving performance, enough to make you fall in love with Lincolnm’s greatness and vulnerability, and to weep for his death.

So if you don’t mind being a bit bamboozled by all the shenanigans (as I was) it’s well worth sitting it out. The acting is marvellous, the screen is crowded by lively, motley and colourful characters, and the interiors are dark, claustrophobic and rich in shadowed detail. One of the most moving and disturbing scenes is Lincoln’s ride through the battlefield, after the amendment has been passed; he is on his way to see General Ulysses Grant, and to discuss the terms of the vanquished side’s surrender (he insists  on  mercy, not punishment) and he chooses to ride through fileds of slain and mutilated bodies, many of them only boys.

I left the theatre feeling immensely sad,  but inspired that this great man, who only had one year of schooling when he was a child, and whose parents were illiterate, was able to hold the hearts of the nation and push through one of the greatest reforms in the world’s history.

Makes me want to read a good biography of him. Do you know of any?



Filed under Lincoln the movie

10 responses to “Lincoln and the end of slavery

  1. I’m a Lincoln fan too Christina. I do have a biography of him written by, of all people, Thomas Keneally, but it is languishing on my TBR pile still, so I can’t comment on its quality. It’s not very old. I loved the film, but my husband didn’t because of the length and wordiness. I thought the filmmakers were clever to start the film at the point that they did because I don’t think Lincoln was always so strongly anti-slavery as he was by that point (though my memory may be wrong). Those last few months make for a real “do the ends justify the means” story don’t they. Daniel Day Lewis was fantastic, and I did enjoy Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones and others.

  2. I wondered how many would stay the distance with that film; in the first half, particularly, I couldn’t understand a lot of the dialogue. It was very dense. But the visual effects and body language, and the theme, carried me through, and the threads began to come together. I think you’re right about him shifting ground. It was interesting to see how Stevens, the most radical about slavery, insisting that negroes are racially equal, and not just before the law, compromised in the end, to put his much-needed support behind the amendment. I loved the scene with his “housekeeper”.

    • Oh yes, the Stevens role was great and given that he was apparently easily riled, I loved the way he stuck to his guns against really his heart’s belief to get the bill through. I liked the housekeeper scene too … and is apparently based on what was understood at the time to be his relationship with her though I think it was never acknowledged? (Must check that out further). Three of the four of us who went to the movie really liked it. My husband was the only naysayer. He enjoyed it well enough but did doze off in the middle!

      I didn’t have so much trouble with the dialogue but I have lived in the US a couple of times – 2 years in Virginia and, a little later, 3 years in southern California – and have always been interested, since high school days, in the Civil War.

  3. I understood why it couldn’t be acknowledged, and I liked the fact that it was kept as a surprise. Perhaps he was able to acknowledge it after the amendment was passed and change began to happen. Interesting, too, that Lincoln’s wife was the daughter of a wealthy southern slave owner. The film portrayed her as wanting the amendment passed, despite her anguish over other family matters. It was sad that they were so unhappy in their personal life, and that when it seemed they had reached some sort of rapprochement, he was killed soon after. Such is the price of greatness — few great men and women die happy; or if they do, we are not told those stories.

  4. The film is based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, which I’ve heard is a great read. Loved the film! As an American, I was very moved by his assassination at the end. I wasn’t sure how far they would take the story, but to witness it was to imagine how Americans (Northerners) felt about his death. I am writing a biography of a woman who was close friends with one of his secretaries (John Hay–he is always hovering around Lincoln in the film but never speaks in the film) later in life. To her, the war was the heart and soul of her life. Seeing that movie helped me to understand why.

    • Interesting! Thank you. I was very moved, as a non-American! I’m not sure who John Hay was in the film; interesting he doesn’t have a speaking part. There were a lot of voices in the film! It was a terrible war. The hand to hand, body to body combat, the brutality, was shown early in a graphic scene.

  5. Steve capelin

    I loved it. I found myself reflecting on contemporary politics both in the USA and here in Oz. The irony of Lincoln being a republican with such a strong social commitment is in such contrast with the current Democrat Republican divide. From a local perspective, it was exciting to see an example of ‘conviction’ politics even though the age old horse trading of favours for votes was a critical element in the success of the amendment – I guess it only reinforces that, while democracy is flawed, it still has, at its core, an ambition to be representative and progressive. I was trnsfixed from woe to go.

    • Hello, Steve. I found myself comparing too! And yes, I was very aware of the contrast between Lincoln republicanism then and the current brand; it was remarkable. And yes, ‘conviction’ politics! Oh for that. A wonderful experience, one to be repeated on DVD.

  6. Reblogged this on Writing Lives and commented:

    Returning to this review, prompted by Facebook, I want to see Lincoln again!

  7. Thank you for reblogging this thoughtful review of a film which moved me deeply about a man and events which fascinated me. Now I want to watch it again more thoughtfully.

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