Lincoln: Better Off Undead

Spielberg’s new Lincoln doesn’t hold a candle to Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

Louis Nayman

Lincoln knew that sometimes in order to unite the country you need to use an axe. (Photo via Twentieth Century Fox Film)

One comes away from Dis­ney Dream­Works’ Lin­coln won­der­ing what temp­ta­tions induced play­wright Tony Kush­n­er, the author of the heart­break­ing, hilar­i­ous and deeply intro­spec­tive Angels in Amer­i­ca, to write the screen­play for Steven Spielberg’s $50 mil­lion cin­e­mat­ic civics lesson.

Spielberg whitewashes Lincoln much as Martin Luther King Jr. has been whitewashed by our political culture, which emphasizes healing and unity at the expense of truth and justice.

A mélange of Ken Burns doc­u­men­tary, grifters’ caper, Mr. Smith Goes to Wash­ing­ton and Edward Albee psy­chodra­ma — with a redeem­ing dose of 1860s-style Mod­ern Fam­i­ly—Spielberg’s Lin­coln is not so much an explo­ration of his­to­ry and char­ac­ter as it is a high pro­duc­tion-val­ue social-stud­ies film illus­trat­ing how a bill becomes a law or, in this case, the 13th Amend­ment to the Unit­ed States Constitution.

Lin­coln takes place from Jan­u­ary to April of 1865. Except for a per­func­to­ry bat­tle­field scene and a graph­ic depic­tion of a gur­ney unload­ing a bloody pile of recent­ly ampu­tat­ed limbs, the action occurs inside var­i­ous gov­ern­men­tal offices, con­gres­sion­al cham­bers and the White House, giv­ing the film an odd­ly claus­tro­pho­bic feel. The ten­sion dri­ving the film is between Lincoln’s con­vic­tion that the Con­sti­tu­tion must be amend­ed to ban slav­ery before the Confederacy’s sur­ren­der, and the coun­ter­vail­ing polit­i­cal pres­sures to nego­ti­ate an imme­di­ate peace and sac­ri­fice all chance of a 13th Amend­ment. Lincoln’s argu­ment rests on the sta­tus of slaves not as peo­ple but as war con­tra­band belong­ing to the vic­to­ri­ous North. The amendment’s enact­ment, there­fore, is depict­ed not as a tri­umph of moral­i­ty but, as the result of clever lawyer­ing, pet­ty patron­age and per­son­al will.

The action cen­ters on the gov­ern­ing elites, depict­ing Lin­coln as the ulti­mate insid­er. Thus, if you are only going to see one Lin­coln biopic this year, I hearti­ly rec­om­mend instead Abra­ham Lin­coln: Vam­pire Hunter, which — after a brief the­atri­cal run this sum­mer—is now avail­able on DVD. Its fan­tas­ti­cal nar­ra­tive is actu­al­ly the more truth­ful in show­ing how rev­o­lu­tion­ary change gets accom­plished through the mil­i­tan­cy and mobi­liza­tion of out­siders and the oppressed.

In the film, 9‑year-old Abe wit­ness­es his mother’s mur­der at the hands of a vam­pire slave trad­er when his father can’t pay a debt. There­after obsessed with vengeance, Abe comes under the tute­lage of Hen­ry Sturges, an immor­tal who knows how to hold a grudge. Ini­ti­at­ed into vam­pirism against his will and repulsed by what he has become, Sturges seeks out human allies to per­form the nec­es­sary wet work of vam­pire-slay­ing that he, as a vam­pire, is unable to com­plete — an art he painstak­ing­ly teach­es the young rail split­ter from Illinois.

When Sturges informs Abe about one of God’s lit­tle tricks: Vam­pires can­not kill their own,” he is essen­tial­ly point­ing out the dif­fer­ence between reform and rev­o­lu­tion. Vam­pirism can only be over­thrown from the out­side, not from within.

The film traces the evo­lu­tion of Lincoln’s moral­i­ty, from a sin­gle-mind­ed fix­a­tion with per­son­al vengeance to a broad­er tran­scen­dent vision of social jus­tice. Of neces­si­ty this evo­lu­tion involves elim­i­nat­ing not just his mother’s mur­der­er, but the entire blood­suck­ing class of vam­pires, as well as the sys­tem of oppres­sion off which they feed. With Sturges’ guid­ance, Abe comes to rec­og­nize vam­pirism as the per­fect lit­er­al and metaphor­i­cal def­i­n­i­tion of slav­ery. In a piv­otal entry in his jour­nal, on May 4, 1831, a 22-year-old Lin­coln writes:

Not long after the first ships land­ed in this New World, I believe that vam­pires reached a tac­it under­stand­ing with slave own­ers. I believe that this nation holds some spe­cial attrac­tion for them because here, in Amer­i­ca, they can feed on human blood with­out fear of dis­cov­ery or reprisal.

The slave trade estab­lished an eco­nom­ic and moral sys­tem that rest­ed on suck­ing the life’s blood from an entire race of human beings in order to main­tain a hier­ar­chi­cal social order. That social order became devot­ed almost sin­gle-mind­ed­ly to pre­serv­ing its sor­did self. Fit­ting­ly, in a key scene, Adam, King of the Vam­pires, makes a deal with Jef­fer­son Davis to pre­serve the sup­ply chain of enslaved peo­ples’ blood by agree­ing to pro­vide the South as many of my kind as you will need” to replen­ish the ranks of the Con­fed­er­ate army, which accounts for the heavy casu­al­ties vis­it­ed on the Union troops dur­ing the first day at Gettysburg.

At one point, Lin­coln remarks, His­to­ry remem­bers the bat­tle, but for­gets the blood,” an over­sight the film’s direc­tor, Timur Bek­mam­be­tov, suc­ceeds in not repeat­ing. It is the mem­o­ry of the blood and the impli­ca­tions of that mem­o­ry that dif­fer­en­ti­ates Bekmambetov’s Lin­coln from Spielberg’s.

Spiel­berg white­wash­es Lin­coln much as Mar­tin Luther King Jr. has been white­washed by our polit­i­cal cul­ture, which empha­sizes heal­ing and uni­ty at the expense of truth and jus­tice. In that regard, Abra­ham Lin­coln: Vam­pire Hunter is a polit­i­cal­ly coura­geous film that spares audi­ences the bull­shit moral rel­a­tivism you often get when Amer­i­can his­to­ri­ans deal with slave­hold­ers like Robert E. Lee, and their sup­posed inner con­flicts over states’ rights ver­sus actu­al human beings’ rights.

Which is why I rec­om­mend Abra­ham Lin­coln: Vam­pire Hunter for your view­ing plea­sure and fac­tu­al enlight­en­ment. When decid­ing between these two films, choose the one that swings a bright sil­ver ax into our nation’s excul­pa­to­ry mytholo­gies, not the one that per­pet­u­ates them.

Louis Nay­man is a long­time union organizer.
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