Kino Lorber // 1930 // 93 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // December 22nd, 2012
The wonder film of the century, about the most romantic figure who ever lived!
If you read the Emancipation Proclamation carefully, you'll see that Lincoln didn't really free the slaves. Instead, he ordered the military to treat as free all those who were slaves in the rebelling states. He very carefully did not free the slaves of contentious border states like Maryland, where slavery was legal but the majority of soldiers fought for the Union. I don't mention this to rag on Lincoln, but rather to point out that the case of his biography and true stance towards the issues of the day is not always as clear-cut as various biographical sketches have made it seem. Similarly, D.W. Griffith is a bit difficult to pin down. A notorious racist responsible for Birth of a Nation, he supposedly directed (and financed himself) Intolerance: Or Love's Struggle Through the Ages as a response to his harshest critics. It's not surprising, then, that Griffith would tackle a biography of Lincoln as one of his final cinematic efforts. It's also not surprising that the film be released on Blu-ray to coincide with Spielberg's more lavish Lincoln, though D.W. Griffith's Abraham Lincoln (Blu-ray) will no doubt suffer by comparison.
Taking a "greatest hits" approach to the life of Lincoln, Griffith's film follows the young lawyer (played by a surprisingly young Walter Huston, Treasure of the Sierra Madre) through some of the highlights of his biography, from his log-cabin origins to his eventual Civil War triumph.
It's totally appropriate that D.W. Griffith's Abraham Lincoln (Blu-ray) is made from the print restored by the Museum of Modern Art because this film is itself pretty much a museum piece. Everything about it feels like it was made in 1930. While that's not a horrible thing, it does mean that the film is very unlikely to engage contemporary audiences.
This isn't one of those cases where attention deficit robbed our ability to appreciate a cinematic masterpiece. No, it's just that D.W. Griiffith's Abraham Lincoln is slow and boring. The film's "greatest hits" approach does little to involve viewers in an ongoing narrative, instead promoting a host of myths about the sixteenth president and relying on viewer recognition of the famous moments in Lincoln's biography.
The film is also hurt by Griffith's nascent grasp of sound technology and the shift in acting it necessitated. Star Walter Huston is a firecracker of an actor, famous for his roles in a host of later films. Here, however, he might as well be asleep. I think the problem is the fact that Griffith had not yet adapted to sound. Ten years earlier, Huston's stoic, almost-wooden performance would have made him the center of a wonderful silent biography. His Lincoln would have been a bastion of gravity and poise in the midst of a tumultuous life. Though Abraham Lincoln's screenplay was penned by a poet, the lines are wooden and Huston's performance makes Lincoln look as though he's always in danger of a nap.
In the film's defense, there are moments when it seems to rise above the biographical format and give Griffith a chance to work his cinematic magic. Though he's known now more for his racism than anything else, Griffith was a pioneer in filmmaking (even if recent evidence shows he might not have been the only pioneer) and when he had a budget and the will to use it, he could stage some formidable scenes for the camera. Abraham Lincoln seems to wake up for some of these scenes, many of them related to the Civil War (an unsurprising return for Griffith). These moments drive home Griffith's considerable talent, showing that even at his least he was a director to be reckoned with.
This Kino edition of the film is exactly the kind of release that a titan of cinema like Griffith deserves. The 1.20:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer is based off the MoMa restoration, which returns the film to something like its original glory. The print is not in perfect shape, but it the damage is less than I expected from a long-neglected film like this one. The black-and-white transfer does a fine job handling the film's contrast, and grain looks natural and appropriate. The film's mono audio is presented in a LPCM 2.0 mix that is faithful to the elements. This isn't a particularly dynamic or engaging mix, but dialogue is clear and music is appropriately balanced.
The first "extra" on this disc is the fact that this cut includes an extra 5 minutes of footage exclusive to this restoration. The audio elements have been lost, but using subtitles we get a sense of the dialogue. The other extra is a short introduction to The Birth of a Nation that was filmed on the set of Abraham Lincoln. In this brief exchange, Huston question Griffith about his film and his views on Reconstruction (which sound pretty darn racist today). It was intended as a promotional piece for a 1930 re-release of The Birth of a Nation and is a bit disconcerting today.
Abraham Lincoln will be of interest to those charting the history of Honest Abe on the silver screen in the wake of Spielberg's 2012 feature as well as diehard devotees of D.W. Griffith or Walter Huston. For everyone else, though, Abraham Lincoln is a slow, pointless presentation of a largely mythic view of the sixteenth president that feels terribly outdated. Kino is commended for release this restored version of the film, but it's an historical curiosity at best.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Kino Lorber
* 1.19:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* PCM 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 93 Minutes
Release Year: 1930
MPAA Rating: Not Rated