Obviously, there’s only one movie about Abraham Lincoln on the minds of most people these days, but before Steven Spielberg took a crack at him and even a decade before John Ford’s seminal Young Mr. Lincoln, silent film master D.W. Griffith helmed Abraham Lincoln, one of his final films and one of just a few forays into sound filmmaking. The seams often show on this film, as Griffith’s transition into talking pictures isn’t always the smoothest, and his lofty ambitions overstuff a 90-minute film with a decades-spanning tale.
Nonetheless, Abraham Lincoln is not without its charms, chief of which is Walter Huston’s performance as the 16th president, and Griffith’s attempts to contextualize Lincoln’s life result in some striking long-shot, single-take scenes (Griffith’s filmmaking seems to come alive when the screen is packed with people) in which hustling Union soldiers or slave-ship passengers go about their business, personifying in a very immediate way what Lincoln’s decisions were all about.
The film’s narrative traces Lincoln’s life from a log cabin birth to a number of forays in local politics to losing the first love of his life, Ann Rutledge (Una Merkel), to typhoid. Following is an unlikely love affair with social climber Mary Todd (Kay Hammond) that results in Lincoln leaving her at the altar before reconciliation two years later. Lincoln’s failed senate bid against Stephen A. Douglas (E. Alyn Warren) is fairly breezed over, but it gets more screen time than his actual presidential election, signified only by Mary writing “President” before his name on a luggage tag.
The film’s unusual pacing in the first half gives way to a steadier narrative in the second as Lincoln is plunged into the Civil War, a torturous decision he believes necessary for the good of the country. Even here, the massively complex events of war and the abolitionist movement are given short shrift, but Huston’s believably conflicted performance helps tamp down the sometimes glib storytelling. Griffith’s strengths are more evident in individual scenes than the film as a whole. He ends on a visual high note with his staging of Lincoln’s assassination — a scene he’d shot before in The Birth of a Nation — and it’s those kind of dynamic moments which make the film feel not so much like a historical relic.