Shattered Politics #91: Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies (dir by Richard Schenkman)


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Well, here we are!  Last month, I started the process of watching and reviewing 94 movies about politics and politicians.  I started Shattered Politics with D.W. Griffith’s 1930 film Abraham Lincoln and now, three weeks later, we’ve reached the final day of Shattered Politics.  We have four more films to review and what better way to start things off than by taking a look at yet another films about Abraham Lincoln.

Now, I’ve previously reviewed three films about Abraham Lincoln.  I’ve reviewed D.W. Griffith’s creaky 1930 version.  I’ve reviewed Henry Fonda as Young Mr. Lincoln.  And, of course, I’ve reviewed Daniel Day-Lewis in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.  And, on the very site, reviews of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter have been posted by both Arleigh and Ryan The Trash Film Guru.  (For the record, I’ve also reviewed The Lincoln Lawyer and The Conspirator. So there.)  That’s a lot of films about Abraham Lincoln and why not?  He’s our greatest President.  He freed the slaves, he won the Civil War, and, ultimately, he was the first President to be martyred by assassination.

However, when one considers all of those films about Abraham Lincoln, it’s hard not to notice that none of them featured zombies.  And, considering how much we love zombies here at the Shattered Lens, that has always struck me as being a major oversight.

So, thank God that, in 2012, the Asylum released a film called Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies.

For that matter, thank God for the Asylum.  Mainstream critics and snarky blogger types love to criticize Asylum-produced films but you know what?  Nobody makes films quite like the Asylum.  Quite frankly, people who attack an Asylum film for having a low-budget or for being over the top are missing the point.  Asylum films are supposed to be fun.  They’re the type of films that are meant to be watched with a group of your closest and funniest friends.  At their best, Asylum films are movies that you laugh with as opposed to laughing at.

As far Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies is concerned, everything you need to know about the film is right there in the title.  The film opens with young Abe Lincoln decapitating his zombified mother and then jumps forward several decades.  Abe Lincoln (played, with a lot of gravity and melancholy by the excellent Bill Oberst, Jr.) is now President.  When he discovers that a zombie outbreak has occurred at Fort Pulaski, Lincoln takes a break from writing the Gettysburg Address and leads a group of secret service men down to the fort.  With the help of Gen. Stonewall Jackson (Don McGraw), young Teddy Roosevelt (Canon Kuipers), future lawman Pat Garrett (Christopher Marrone), and a handsome, alcoholic Southern actor who is using the name John Wilkinson (Jason Vail), Lincoln kills a lot of zombies and even reunites with a former lover (Rhianna Van Helton).

And, seriously, you have to love a film that features Abraham Lincoln using a scythe to chop off the heads of the undead.  If you’re watching a film like this and you’re worrying about narrative logic or historical accuracy, then you may be taking life a little bit too seriously.  The title promises Abraham Lincoln and zombies.  And the film totally delivers.

And how can you not appreciate that?

Shattered Politics #1: Abraham Lincoln (dir by D.W. Griffith)


Unlike just about everyone else that I know, I am about as apolitical as you can get.

Oh, don’t get me wrong.  I always vote.  I believe in …. stuff.  Occasionally, I get angry about the state of the world. Why I’ll have you know that when I first registered to vote, I was really, really excited and I even sat down and researched every single person who was running for President.  (And, of course, I decided I would support John Edwards because he had good hair.  But then I changed my mind and ended up voting for Charles Jay, the candidate of the Personal Choice Party.)  But, for whatever reason, current events have never become the obsession for me that they are for some people.  You’ll never catch me posting a political meme or sagely agreeing with an activist on Facebook.  It’s just not for me.

(On the plus side, this has allowed me to have friends with many diverse viewpoints and generally lead a happy life.)

At the same time, I’m also fascinated by history and history is often the story of politics and politicians.  As a result, I’m far more interested in past affairs than I am in current affairs.  I can spend hours talking about the election of 1876 but I could hardly care less who is elected in 2016.  I know my political history well enough not to worry about the political present.

Perhaps that explains why, despite my indifference to politics, I tend to enjoy political movies.  And that leads us to my latest review series here at the Shattered Lens.  Over the next two weeks, I will be reviewing, in chronological order, 94 films about politics and politicians.  It’s a little something I call Shattered Politics.

(For some previous examples of what I mean by review series, check out Lisa’s Homestate Reviews, Lisa Goes Back To College, Netflix Noir, 44 Days of Paranoia, Embracing the MelodramaBack To School, and, of course, Lisa’s Marie’s Favorite Grindhouse and Exploitation Film Trailers!)

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We start things off with a film from 1930.  One of only two sounds films to be directed by cinematic pioneer D.W. Griffith, Abraham Lincoln is — as you might guess from the title — a 90 minute biopic about the 16th President of the United States.  It tells the same basic story as Lincoln, just in a lot less time and with Walter Huston playing the title role.  The film opens in 1809 with his birth then speeds forward to detail his tragic love affair with Ann Rutledge (played by Una Merkel) and his subsequent marriage to Mary Todd (Kay Hammond).  We get a snippet of the Lincoln-Douglas debates and then, just as quickly, Abe is President, the country plunges into civil war, and an alcoholic actor named John Wilkes Booth (Ian Keith) is meeting with disreputable looking men in a shadowy bar and making shadowy plans.

Any honest review of this version of Lincoln’s life needs to deal with the obvious.  Abraham Lincoln was released 84 years ago, at a time when the film industry was still struggling to make the transition from silent to sound film.  In other words, the film is stiff, stagey, and full of actors who alternate between shouting their dialogue and delivering their lines through nervously clinched teeth.  This is essentially a silent film — complete with overdramatic title cards and heavy-handed symbolism — that just happens to feature some very awkwardly delivered dialogue.  Walter Huston is occasionally effective as Lincoln but, just as often, he’s not.

However, Abraham Lincoln is fascinating to watch from a historical point of view.  It helps if you know a little something about director D.W. Griffith.  Almost all of the narrative techniques that we now take for granted were originally introduced to cinema by D.W. Griffith and many of them were introduced in his controversial 1915 epic, The Birth of a Nation.  

Of course, Griffith’s legacy is problematic precisely because of The Birth of a Nation.  An epic look at the Civil War, Birth not only featured white actors in black face menacing Lillian Gish but also ended with the Ku Klux Klan heroically riding to the rescue.  That even viewers in 1915 were critical of the film’s racism and overly pro-Confederate sentiments should tell you something about just how extreme the film truly was.

(That said, one huge fan of the film was U.S. President and aspiring dictator Woodrow Wilson.)

By most accounts, Griffith was stunned by the negative reaction to The Birth of a Nation and several of his subsequent films (most famously, Intolerance) were meant to answer his critics.

That’s what makes the opening scenes of Abraham Lincoln all the more interesting.  The film opens in 1809 with a shot of a ship on the ocean.  We catch a glimpse of the Africans chained in the lower decks.  Two white slave traders are seen carrying a dead body to the side of the ship and tossing it overboard.

We cut to Virginia, where we see a group of slave owners complaining about how the North is harming them financially by trying to end the slave trade.  One of the men says that the only man who could have kept the north and south united is dead.  The camera pans up to a picture of George Washington.

Then, the scene cuts to Boston.  A group of northerners sit around a table and talk about how slavery is harming the north economically and therefore, it has to end.  One of the northerners says that the only man who could have kept north and south united is dead.  Again, the camera pans up to a picture of George Washington.

And, it’s a wonderfully effective sequence, one that not only reveals the economic reasons behind most wars but one which also reveals the cruelty, inhumanity, and pure evil of slavery.  (That said, when the film later shows us a glimpse of life in the Confederacy, Griffith does include a couple of slaves cheerfully dancing in the background.)

And, as awkward as the scenes involving dialogue are (the less said about the scenes between Walter Huston and Una Merkel, the better), Griffith does occasionally show the visual flair that was his trademark.  One excellent sequence involves soldier after soldier lining up, one after the other and each of them staring straight into the camera as they prepare to go to war.  When the film concentrates on scenes of men marching across the countryside, it actually works.

Then again, you may just want to see the film for the chance to hear one extra, when asked the identity of a man giving a fiery speech, awkwardly explain, “That’s the actor, John Wilkes Booth.  Not much of an actor but he’s got a way with the ladies!”

It’s really up to you.

Walter Huston as Abraham Lincoln

Walter Huston as Abraham Lincoln

Lisa Marie Conspires Against The Conspirator (dir. by Robert Redford)


Robert Redford’s new historical drama The Conspirator is the first prestige picture of 2011 and it’s also (arguably) the worst film of the year so far. 

Oh, I hear you out there: “Really?  Worse than even Season of the Witch and Your Highness?”

Yes.  Way worse.  Season of the Witch and Your Highness might have been bad films but they knew they were bad.  They never truly aspired to be anything other than bad.  The problem with The Conspirator is that it’s obviously meant to be a great and important film.  It’s meant to shape public debate.  We’re supposed to feel like better people for having sat through it and the filmmakers are supposed to be better people just for having made it.  There’s a smugness to these type of self-styled “prestige pictures” that elevates their badness beyond anything to be found in Your Highness.  Indeed, if the makers of Your Highness appeared to be getting high off of herb than the people behind The Conspirator are high off of their own good intentions and that makes them for more annoying.

The Conspirator is based on the trial of Mary Surratt, the only woman to be arrested, tried, and subsequently executed as a result of the conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln.  The execution of Mary Surratt was controversial because 1) she was a civilian tried by a military tribunal, 2) the evidence against her was largely circumstantial (she owned the boarding house where the conspirators — including her son John Surratt — supposedly met), and 3) she was a woman.

Now, I have to confess that I’m secretly kind of a big history nerd and — unlike most of this film’s audience — I was already familiar with the story of Mary Surratt before I sat down in the theater.  The story of the Lincoln Conspiracy and the aftermath of the assassination is a really interesting one that is full of all sorts of weird twists and turns and odd characters all conspiring together and being mysterious.  It has all the makings of a great grindhouse film. 

However, director Robert Redford is too good to make a grindhouse movie.  No, he has something important to say and, as a result, The Conspirator becomes yet another one of those tedious films where every line of dialogue and every image is supposed to make us go, “Hey, they might be talking about post-Civil War America but, by golly, this is relevent to our post-911 lives!  OH MY GOD!”  So, we get Tom Wilkinson showing up randomly to give speeches about why military tribunals are the work of the devil.  Wilkinson is playing a historical figure Reverdy Johnson but they might as well have just renamed him “Prestige Actor Cast As Mouthpiece.”  And then Kevin Kline (as Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, though they should have just called him Dick Cheney) is there to go, “The whole world has changed.”  Meanwhile, the camera lingers over the conspirators being held in their dirty cells with bags over their heads (“OH MY GOD, HONEY!” we’re supposed to shout at our loved ones, “THAT’S JUST LIKE GUANTANAMO BAY!  WOW!”) and then we’re constantly reminded that Mary Surratt was a devout Catholic and that America in 1865 viewed Catholicism in much the same way that America views Islam in 2011. 

And, yeah, we get it and I’m not saying that director Redford is incorrect in his message or his beliefs.  However, a boring, heavy-handed film is just as boring and heavy-handed regardless of where its heart may lie.  The Conspirator is so busy being good for us that it forgets that it needs to entertain as well.  It preaches at us but it never bothers to engage us.

Mary Surratt is played by Robin Wright and she gives a good performance but because of the way the film is structured, Mary is never allowed to become anything more than a convenient symbol.  Instead, most of the film’s screen time is given to James McAvoy who plays the young lawyer who reluctantly defends her at trial.  Now, I love James McAvoy.  I’ve loved him ever since Atonement and that’s why it’s kinda heart breaking to see what a bad performance he gives here.  He’s good for the first ten minutes or so of the film but then he’s assigned to defend Ms. Surratt and I swear to God, he doesn’t stop yelling for the rest of the movie.  It’s not totally McAvoy’s fault.  As written, his character doesn’t really have much to do other than get mad.  As an actor, McAvoy can do anger quite well (again, check out Atonement) but here his anger just seems to spring out of nowhere.  At first, he is unconcerned about Mary Surratt and resentful that he has to defend her.  Then suddenly, he’s going all late style Al Pacino on everyone. 

Justin Long shows up as McAvoy’s best friend and seriously, if you’re making a historical drama, you don’t cast a guy who automatically makes you think, “He’s a PC and I’m a Mac.”  It’s not Long’s fault.  He’s a likable actor and he’s likable here even if his character doesn’t have any reason for being in the movie.  It’s just that typecasting is a bitch.  Alexis Bedel gets the thankless role of “rich snob who loses faith in her boyfriend” while Evan Rachel Wood, playing Mary Surratt’s daughter, is the only member of the cast who actually seems to truly connect with the material.

Regardless of the film’s historical accuracy, everything about The Conspirator feels false.   I don’t know if it was just the copy that I happened to see but the entire movie just looks like crap, a combination of soft-focus blurriness and respectfully muted colors.  This is another one of those films where the interior scenes are lit so that it appears that sunlight is just flooding in through the windows, making any white article of clothing just appear to throb with radiation.  Seriously, I had a headache after watching 30 minutes of this film.

As I said previously, there’s a great grindhouse movie waiting to be made out of this material.  For instance, did you know that Boston Corbett — the man who shot John Wilkes Booth — was also a religious fanatic who years earlier, in order to resist being tempted by a prostitute, castrated himself with scissors?  Also, did you know that Henry Rathbone — the army major who was sitting with Lincoln at the time of the assassination — was years later named Ambassador to Germany and, while in Germany, suffered a sudden nervous breakdown that led to him chopping off his wife’s head?  Also, one of the men who was arrested (though eventually released and never charged) for taking part in the conspiracy was Frances Tumblety who later moved to England where he would later become one of the many men suspected of being Jack the Ripper? 

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

However, The Conspirator is too busy being important to bother with being interesting.  While a grindhouse version of the story would have been both interesting and thought-provoking, The Conspirator is just a smug film that is never manages to live up to its own rather high opinion of itself.