CRUISIN’ THE MUSES: Looking at 2 films: ‘Lincoln’ and ‘The Shootist’
December 13, 2012
Abraham Lincoln was a great storyteller and a crafty politician if you believe the portrayal given us in Steven Spielberg’s film “Lincoln.”
Believe it, but pay no heed to the poetic license represented by dialogue conforming to known facts without being factual.
No one can know precisely what Rep. Thaddeus Stevens said to a cowering colleague during a two-man meeting in which he secured a vote on the issue at hand, exactly what Stevens said to his bed partner after success, or for sure what Lincoln said to aides and family members.
The movie captures, as well as possible with made-up dialogue, the brief period in which Lincoln led slaves to freedom by craft, near-graft or any means possible after having previously proclaimed them free.
What it also captures is that “Honest Abe” was just as much an end-justifies-the-means president as any predecessor or man who followed him into the White House.
And it includes Lincoln’s obsession, but only in the background. Lincoln’s obsession was preserving the union, not freeing the slaves.
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So Lincoln did whatever he could, including chicanery, to work his will. His chicanery early on included what made Nevada the “Battle Born” state as well as the Silver state.
Lincoln saw riches emanating from the Comstock Lode, and the federal government bought a lot of Nevada’s silver and gold to support its currency. Nevada’s creation as a territory in 1861 ensured that its riches would help the Union and not the Confederate cause.
State status followed in 1864 despite questions over Nevada meeting all statehood requirements – but Lincoln wanted support for the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery.
Historical novels and movies capture events that, in reality, were much more complex and yet much simpler.
The simple part in this case was the protagonist’s obsession, which wasn’t front and center in “Lincoln” as another obsession was in a great film that is fully fictional and steeped in blood.
There was more and actual blood in the Civil War, but ample blood and guts in John Wayne’s last, best western, “The Shootist.” Set in Carson City, it has prompted laudatory comments in these precincts before.
In Wayne’s role as J.B. Books, the dying gunfighter reveals through fictional yet rivetingly real dialogue a bedrock obsession:
“I won’t be wronged. I won’t be insulted, and I won’t be laid a hand on. I don’t do these things to other people, and I require the same from them.”
There is one point in “Lincoln” that has the president pounding his fist on a table to drive home his point. But the script’s dialogue didn’t fully capture the true nature of Lincoln’s obsession, as did Books’ fictional insight into his own violence.
With such hyperbole at crucial points in cinematic art, films either capture the essence of great myth or fall short. “Lincoln,” while good, wasn’t great.