Friday, December 07, 2012
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Local historians critique Spielberg movie

Part 2: How it compares with others

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[December 07, 2012]  At last week's panel discussion on the Steven Spielberg movie "Lincoln," Paul Beaver, Ron Keller and Anne Moseley offered their opinions on the movie. All agreed that this version of history put in motion was perhaps the best they had seen in terms of accurate portrayals of Lincoln and the people in his life. They also felt it was as close to historical accuracy as any movie that has been produced to date.

During her commentary Moseley summed it up nicely, saying: "Lincoln is becoming more and more popular, and Hollywood is grasping on to it."

Keller noted that Lincoln is the most used historic figure in movie history and has been used in over 200 movies. But in all that time, no one has come close to getting everything right until today. He recalled the first Lincoln movie, "Birth of a Nation," saying that it was very misleading in historical fact. He also noted, in that movie the Ku Klux Klan was made out to be the saviors of the nation, and the true-life president, Woodrow Wilson, endorsing it as true.

He also commented on the "Young Mr. Lincoln" movie and the portrayal given by Henry Fonda. Keller said Fonda looked like Fonda, not Lincoln. Keller did believe that in simply portraying the person Lincoln, Sam Waterson in the miniseries did do a good job.

Beaver noted the Disney film of the thinking Lincoln. He said the research for the role of Lincoln had been done in southern Indiana, and consequently the role included mannerisms and speech that were not necessarily correct for Lincoln.

Beaver noted the voice was always a stumbling block for role-players, as was the walk, but he thought Daniel Day-Lewis did get it right on both counts. He noted, however, that most people today feel that Lincoln probably sounded like the Raymond Massey portrayal, but Day-Lewis was more correct.

Beaver said he, too, wondered what they would do with Mary Lincoln -- Would they go one direction or the other? -- but he said he felt like they did get it right. He noted a scene where Mary was trying to talk with Lincoln after the death of their son. Lincoln walked out on her in mid-conversation after an aide came and told him what was going on in the battle of Chancellorsville. Beaver felt that was probably pretty accurate to how Lincoln responded to Mary and the war.

He also noted in the movie the scene where Lincoln paced and said, "Oh my God, oh my God, what will the country say?" Beaver said he felt that was accurate. The president did what he had to do, but not without remorse over what he was doing. The battle of Fredericksburg was a horrific battle with a massive number of deaths. Beaver said with that battle in particular, Lincoln was truly overwhelmed by what he was doing.

Keller agreed. Lincoln ruthlessly sent young men to die day by day, and at night paced and worried. Keller said Lincoln also spent his nights going through lists, trying to find someone to save.

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Keller also spoke about how the death toll would measure up with today's population. He said the equivalent figure today would be 7 million to 8 million lives lost. Keller concluded how hard that must have been, questioning: "How could you stomach that?"

Beaver also commented on this, saying that had today's media and ability to convey news been in existence back then, the country would have revolted over this.

On the subject of newspapers, the panel was asked about the accuracy of newspaper accounts during the war. Speaking more about actual history than the movie, Keller said that it was a difficult thing for historians. He noted that in the days of the Civil War, the newspapers were oftentimes biased in their reports.

He said what a historian truly hopes for is more personal accounts of what happened, such as letters written home by soldiers, or notes or letters written by the president or his staff. He said these were sources of collaboration for what was published in the papers, and historians looked for that material as a means of determining the real facts.

Talking about the movie, Moseley commented on Lincoln's sense of humor, calling it "interesting" She noted that sometimes the humor was out of place, but that was the way he was.

Tim Becke in the audience commented on this, wondering if Lincoln used the humor as a psychological release for the stress of the situation. Beaver said he felt that was an accurate conclusion. Keller also noted that in a meeting in September of 1862, Lincoln commented: "If I don't laugh, I will cry."

Another subject that came up through public participation was the role of Robert Latham in the movie. It was noted that the role somewhat didn't seem to fit Logan County history. Keller said that was one portion of the movie that was a little off. He explained there were actually two Robert Lathams. Keller said Robert W. Latham was the colonel in the movie, and Robert D. Latham is the local Latham who helped found Lincoln College.


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