‘Mr. Lincoln and The Civil War’ Offers Historical Lesson in the Presidency and the Documentary

From 1952 until 1961, Omnibus offered an hour of arts and education programming to viewers across America. The program was supported by The Ford Foundation in its first five years and was lauded as a suitable way to raise the artistic tastes and consciousness of the viewing public. In its first season, Omnibus ran a five-part series about Abraham Lincoln called Mr. Lincoln. The movies were written and directed by author, playwright and film critic James Agee. All five parts of the series were aired as one edited and condensed film in 1955. After that airing, Mr. Lincoln and The Civil War was stored in the CBS archive and remained there for almost 50 years.

EntertainmentOne and The Archive of American Television have now released the 1955 version of Mr. Lincoln as part of a two-disc set called James Agee’s Mr. Lincoln and The Civil War. The set also includes a short historical feature about the Confederacy, footage from a 1955 adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the play Lee at Gettysburg. While the disc offers no contemporary commentary on the accuracy of Agee’s work on Lincoln, a segment that aired on Omnibus as a direct response to the film is included on the feature disc.

Mr. Lincoln: A Triumph of Narrative

The true strength of James Agee’s film on Lincoln lies in its narrative power. Artful cinematography is combined with careful, poetic writing to create a compelling and deeply melancholy portrait of one of America’s most beloved presidents. Agee’s film focused on Lincoln’s childhood and his formative years. The opening shots of Lincoln introduce him as the president of the US and give a brief overview of his assassination. An elegant funeral train sequence represents some of the earliest work of Stanley Kubrick, who was a second unit director on the production.

Throughout the five parts of the film, Agee’s writing remains focused on the inner life and virtues of Lincoln. He consistently connects the challenges that young Abraham faced in his life to the development of his ethos and worldview. At times, the writing where it concerns Lincoln’s virtues can be heavy-handed. Agee’s admiration for Lincoln as a man apart from politics is evident in the passion with which he has portrayed the president as a young man. Two sequences in particular stand out in terms of Agee’s visionary ability to evoke emotion from his audience.

A scene in which one of Lincoln’s early trials is recreated shows Abe to be a man who was interested not so much in the strictly defined legal term ‘justice’, but in the concept of justice as a wider ethical principle. How much Agee drew from real accounts of the trial in crafting the dialogue has been debated. However, the way in which he has crafted Lincoln’s closing statement and his treatment of the guilty party are meant to show a just and honest president who was deeply affected by the troubles of others.

Perhaps the most powerful scene has nothing to do with politics or law whatsoever, but with love. Young Abraham is speaking with his supposed fiancé, Ann Rutledge. He makes a heart-wrenching appeal as to why he simply cannot marry her. Agee uses the scene to paint a portrait of both an emotionally sensitive man and of a man who rose to power from great humility. In the scene, Lincoln speaks about his debts and his inability to meet his obligations to Ann in a way that seems eerily foreboding. When Ms. Rutledge’s death is shown shortly thereafter, it comes as no surprise that Lincoln has an emotional breakdown resulting in long, somber hours in bed.

Historical Merit, Historical Problem

With its release of Mr. Lincoln on DVD, EntertainmentOne has helped to preserve a film that is undoubtedly of great historical importance to students of television. There’s little doubt that the title is worthwhile viewing for those who are interested in the unique way American discourse on history has developed. Students of screenwriting are also well served by carefully studying the artful and consistent writing Agee demonstrated throughout the series.

However, the merits of the film in terms of actual historical knowledge are somewhat debatable. Much of the dialogue Agee included in his script was fashioned from a general, but not historically stringent, knowledge of Lincoln. The moving scenes with Ann Rutledge caused a serious public controversy because no romantic engagement or friendship between the young woman and Lincoln has been supported by reputable documentation. One Chicago columnist pooh-poohed the films for “accepting as gospel what ought to have been gossip.”

Perhaps the must stunning indictment came from historian Allan Nevins, who said of Agee, “Our count against him is simply this: That he has tampered with the truth.” The inclusion of the discussion between Nevins and Agee has the effect of souring the viewer somewhat to the flowery love scenes between Lincoln and Rutledge, but is nonetheless an important inclusion on the disc. Alongside the bonus features revolving around the Civil War, this discussion allows the film to recover its historical credence and claim its place as an important contribution to mid-century documentary traditions.

RATING 6 / 10