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Abraham Lincoln, the American Rosetta Stone

Henry Fonda in
Henry Fonda in "Young Mr. Lincoln."

If the real Abraham Lincoln had had some kind of trademark protection on himself, even post-mortem, he’d be rich.

Lincoln is a character irresistible to novelists and filmmakers. In fact, the first Lincoln was put on film not long after there was film in 1908. Therereafter came legions of Lincolns — on the stage, on television, in patriotic pageants across the nation, and now this new one, starring a non-American, the British-Irish actor Daniel Day-Lewis, and directed by Steven Spielberg.

The telling thing about all these Lincoln iterations is that they prove that Lincoln is the indispensable American, personally and politically. He is the Rosetta Stone to the nation’s character, its strengths and paradoxes. He is the man who saved the union and who, like a classic tragedy, is struck down at his moment of triumph. He is the unlikely president, risen from the raw frontier, the man who, to this day, people point to when they say “what a great country — anyone could grow up to be president.” It isn’t true, of course, since Lincoln was a man among millions. But that’s why all these films are made, trying to suss out the secret of his genius and his ordinariness.

Now, George Washington is another matter. “The Father of His Country” comes across a distance of a couple of centuries as a kind of plaster saint, and he was even in his own time [never mind that bogus cherry-tree story or, for that matter, the whole of the Parson Weems mytho-biography].

Washington was immensely tall for the time, and evidently carried himself with the dignity that came from the knowledge that he would set the tone and precedent for the new presidency. There are variants of this story but someone once bet a friend of his, Gouverneur Morris, would give his old buddy George a hearty backslap greeting. Depending on the version, Morris either did and was either mortified by Washington’s cold response, or just couldn’t bring himself to violate the man’s gravitas.

Maybe this is why there are so many fewer George Washington film portrayals. The only one I can recall is Barry Bostwick’s TV mini-series, and I can’t recall it very well.

It’s curious how the character of Lincoln tends to defeat filmmakers to make him into a another plaster saint. But if Washington was politically sly, we don’t know it. Lincoln was – adroit and self-deprecating and dogged, and more enticing to actors.

Henry Fonda played him in ‘’Young Mr. Lincoln,’’ a much-embroidered story of the proto-president. It was made in 1939, when Europe was going to war but the U.S. had yet. Fonda’s Lincoln was an addle-footed but nimbly spoken fellow full of homespun maxims about justice. Our Lincoln historians told me that Fonda’s is the one Lincoln who got his gait and his body language right — at least insofar as we can know it, more than 150 years after those who saw it wrote about it.

1940 was Raymond Massey’s “Abe Lincoln in Illinois,” a year later and a year closer to Pearl Harbor. The film was based on the play by Robert Sherwood, a member of the Algonquin Round Table and a four-time Pulitzer Prize-winner. Sherwood stood a few inches taller than Abe Lincoln, so his physical vantage point must have been sympathetic. 

Fonda’s Lincoln has a more naturalistic sensibility than Massey’s, but playing Lincoln, this real man both unknown and so familiar, must be enticing but intimidating for any actor. You’re not creating a character from scratch, and you’re working with, or against, the Lincoln who takes up residence in every schoolchild’s imagination, and the Lincoln whose Gettysburg Address was “the ultimate expression of the majesty of Shakespeare’s language,” according to Winston Churchill, who was no oratorical slouch himself.

Lincoln is so familiar and so significant that we can even parody him: the Lincoln of “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure’’ and of "Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter.’’

Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure

Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter

Most of all, he was – lest we forget, in our partisan epoch – a candidate of compromise, and a president who used compromise in order that his principle would win the day – triumph in war and then “bind up the nation’s wounds.”

 That line is from Lincoln’s second inaugural address, which figures large in the new film. I’ll be there when it opens, popcorn in hand. Lest you think that’s anachronistic, popcorn’s been cooked up in North America for centuries, and it is the official state food of Illinois, “Land of Lincoln.”