Book Review: Lincoln before Lincoln: Early Cinematic Adaptations of the Life of America's Greatest President


by Brian J. Snee

Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2016. Pp. x, 158. Illus., notes, index. $40.00. ISBN: 0813167477

The Cinematic Lincoln

Prof. Snee (Manhattanville) opens by reminding us that Lincoln was certainly the most well loved President and noting that he has also been the subject of more cinematic treatments than any other president (indeed, one suspects he may have appeared on screen more than all other presidents). He then proceeds to offer an analysis of the ways in which portrayals of “Honest Abe” have evolved from his earliest appearance on film over a century ago through Spielberg’s Lincoln in 2012.

The many films, television mini-series, and what not, are organized into six chapters. The first offers an overview of Lincoln films, through Spielberg masterpiece. The five chapters that follow, each center on a particular film that illustrates one of the different ways in which Lincoln has been portrayed. D.W. Griffith’s racist 1915 Birth of a Nation, in which Lincoln plays a marginal role, portrays him as “The Great Heart”, the national healer. In contrast, Griffith’s 1930 effort, Abraham Lincoln, show him as “Savior of the Union”, Darryl Zanuck’s 1939 Young Mr. Lincoln offers Abe the “Great Commoner”, the 1974-1976 television mini-series Carl Sandburg’s Mr. Lincoln gives us “Honest Abe”, and the 1988 Gore Vidal’s Lincoln, offers us what Snee characterizes as “Anti-Lincoln.”

Snee makes an excellent case for the argument that not until Spielberg, Lincoln’s role as the “Great Emancipator” clearly not the main theme of any of the films, which usually treated yone interested in Lincoln, film or popular culture will find this of great interest.him as “ The Great Heart”, “The Great Commoner”, “Savior of the Union,” or “Honest Abe”, all of which are certainly legitimate images, but all avoided the central issue of slavery; he might have added that earlier films tended to avoid “Lincoln the Wily Politician”, which Spielberg also shows us.

Anyone interested in Lincoln, historical memory, film, or popular culture will find this of great interest.

Note: Lincoln before Lincoln is also available as an epub, ISBN 978-0-8131-6748-0, and in pdf, ISBN 978-0-8131-6749-7.

Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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