FROM THE ARCHIVES: The Day Lincoln Was Shot
Reviewed by Gary Crowdus
A Robert Greenwald production; directed by John Gray; teleplay by Tim Metcalfe and John Gray, based on the book by Jim Bishop; cinematography by Ron Garcia; edited by Scott Vickrey; music by Mark Snow; starring Rob Morrow, Lance Henriksen, Donna Murphy, John Ashton, Jean Louisa Kelly and O’Mara Leary. DVD, color, 94 min., a Warner Bros. Archive release.
For a ninety-four minute made-for-TV movie, The Day Lincoln Was Shot is a surprisingly authentic if occasionally extravagant dramatization of the events and personalities of that fateful day in American history. It is also one of the very few films, out of the many made about Lincoln, which focuses on the assassination. A TNT Original Movie produced in 1998 for Turner Network Television by veteran TV filmmaker Robert Greenwald (who just a few years later would reinvent himself as one of America’s leading producers of topical social-issue documentaries), The Day Lincoln Was Shot is now available on DVD as a Warner Bros. Archive release.
For its historical template, the teleplay writers Tim Metcalfe and John Gray (who also directed) relied on the detailed account in Jim Bishop’s book of the same name. The Day Lincoln Was Shot was a best-selling Book of the Month Club selection in 1954 and I was one of probably millions of American school kids who read it in the Scholastic Book Services paperback edition the following year. As a schoolboy himself, Bishop (1907–87) became fascinated with the Lincoln assassination, and, for nearly twenty-five years, beginning in 1930, developed a series of notebooks, accumulating historical facts (or widely varying accounts of same) for each hour in the twenty-four-hour period, from the beginning of Lincoln’s day at 7:00 a.m. on Friday, April 14, 1865, to his death at 7:22 a.m. the following morning. Bishop wrote his book in novelistic fashion, complete with quotation marks around dialog, descriptions of the facial expressions, physical characteristics, and tones of voice of the historical personages, an approach that no doubt accounted for its success as a compelling read, despite—or perhaps because of—the fact that every reader knew the way the “story” would end. Bishop was not a trained historian, and acknowledged the liberties he took, characterizing his book as “pretty much a journalistic job.” The film thus does not take advantage of later works by professional historians, which accounts for some of its historical lapses (such as its portrayal of Booth’s unfettered access to the outer door of the presidential box at Ford’s Theatre).
The film’s casting of its few well-known and many lesser-known historical figures is quite good. Lance Henriksen doesn’t have the towering height (6’ 4”) of the real-life Lincoln, and his baritone voice is too deep for the president’s oft-reported high-pitched intonation, but the actor’s elongated head and craggy facial contours approximate the presidential visage familiar from official portraits. Donna Murphy succeeds in conveying the complex character of Mary Todd Lincoln, the faithful wife and mother who was fiercely protective of her husband’s image and lovingly devoted to him and her two sons, but whose personality also had darker, more unpleasant aspects, including a paranoid jealousy of other women and an often abrasive and pretentious manner, traits her husband had learned to humor or suffer. The film’s standout performance, not surprisingly—isn’t the villain always the most fascinating character?—is Rob Morrow as John Wilkes Booth. The former Northern Exposure star brings to the role the matinee-idol good looks, self-confident swagger, and charm generally attributed to the popular young stage actor from a famous theatrical family.
Just as the film offers credible depictions of its leading historical personages, it provides, despite its brief running time, an informative gloss on some of the most important issues of the day, including Lincoln’s insistence on conciliatory postwar treatment of the South and its leaders, as opposed to the attitudes of his more radical cabinet members who wanted to see Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and other Confederate leaders hung as traitors. The film dramatizes Lincoln’s famous premonitory dream of his assassination as well as the debates between the president and his cabinet members and bodyguards over the need for precautions regarding public appearances vs. the obvious inability to stop a determined assassin. There is also a helpful bit of backstory on how Booth’s original plot to kidnap Lincoln and exchange him for the release of Confederate Army prisoners in the North changed, after the surrender of Lee, into a plot to assassinate the president, the vice president, and secretary of state, which would throw the Northern government into chaos and allow the Confederacy time to regroup its forces.
Morrow’s Booth is clearly revealed in several scenes as a Southern ideologue, a staunch defender of slavery, a racist opposed to the Emancipation Proclamation and any notions of “nigger citizenship,” and, in a fleeting reference to more recent historical scholarship, a Southern agent who remarks that he has consulted with Confederate leaders in Richmond about his efforts. On a more personal, psychological level, Booth is also shown to be someone dissatisfied with his professional accomplishments, which are overshadowed by those of his more talented father and older brother, and who has thus determined to make his claim to fame with his assassination plot, a daring and patriotic deed for which he assures his accomplices “they will build statues of us in every Southern town.”
There is, however, far too much emphasis in the film on Booth’s affair with Lucy Hale, daughter of a senator, including a lengthy ballroom flirtation scene, a weepy political speech in which he decries to his sweetheart the loss of his Southern heritage, some torrid (by TV standards) lovemaking in his hotel room, and the jilting, on the night of the assassination, of his supposed fiancée. Why waste limited time on aspects largely irrelevant to the larger historical drama? Did Turner Network executives demand a stronger theme of romantic interest? Hopefully any viewers who hadn’t already been repelled by Booth’s despicable political views or dastardly assassination plot will at last be convinced of his thoroughly disreputable nature by having him exposed as a womanizing cad and a bounder.
Likewise, presumably in an effort to add a little cinematic pizzazz to what might otherwise be too somber a historical chronicle, Booth is shown, after hearing Lincoln deliver a speech in which he suggests voting rights for some freed slaves, venting his racist outrage at such notions by thoroughly trashing his hotel room. But the film’s most memorable embellishment shows Booth in front of a full-length mirror, alternately brandishing a dagger or derringer, rehearsing variant dramatic readings of his soon-to-be-shouted “Sic semper tyrannis” exclamation, à la Travis Bickle’s “You talking to me?” routine in Taxi Driver.
Another indication of how the film lends Booth greater, almost coequal, status to Lincoln in the proceedings is that, unlike Bishop’s book, which essentially ends with the death of Lincoln on Saturday morning, the film begins and concludes with the capture and shooting of Booth at a Virginia farm twelve days later. Lying on a porch, paralyzed by a bullet that severed his spinal cord, Booth asks one of the Union officers to raise his arms so he can see his hands, at the sight of which he utters his famous but ambiguous dying words: “Useless, useless.”
Despite its occasional melodramatic flourishes, The Day Lincoln Was Shot, as a popularized treatment of the nation’s first presidential assassination—one that remains an ongoing subject of controversy among historians a century and a half later—may play a valuable role if, like its source book, it inspires viewers to do further reading and investigation.
Gary Crowdus is the Editor-in-Chief of Cineaste.
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Copyright © 2011 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.