History Channel // 2007 // 90 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Christopher Kulik (Retired) // May 22nd, 2008
Travel the escape route of one of America's earliest assassins as he eludes the biggest manhunt in history.
Let's start off with a little history quiz. This will be a short one...
1) Who killed President Abraham Lincoln?
2) Who were the assassin's co-conspirators?
3) What did the assassin say after shooting the President?
4) What was the assassin's biggest problem with making his escape?
5) How long was the manhunt for the assassin and how did he die?
Assuming you didn't sleep in history class, the majority of you should have answered the first question correctly. The other questions might have been difficult, unless you decided to zip to Wikipedia to find the answers. However, if you were able to answer all five without cheating, then well done! With that being said, you don't need to check out the History Channel's documentary The Hunt for John Wilkes Booth, although you might learn a few things you didn't already know. For the most part, this 90-minute history lesson is a solid, straightforward account of Booth's journey from being irresistible actor to maligned assassin to runaway fugitive to desperate coward.
The story might sound familiar to you. A 26-year-old actor named Booth, who was deeply committed to the Confederate cause, shot and killed President Lincoln in Ford's Theatre in Washington D.C. mere days after the Civil War ended. However, the conspiracy to murder Lincoln was more complex than you might remember. Booth had no less than three co-conspirators, all of whom had their agendas, which also included the murders of Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward. Booth was the only one who fully accomplished his mission, and he was convinced it would make him a hero in the eyes of his beloved South. Booth barely managed to escape Washington with his key partner, David Herold.
Thus begins a 12-day odyssey through southern Maryland and, eventually, into Virginia. After Booth had shot Lincoln, he broke his leg after jumping from the President's Box onto the stage, and needed to seek medical aid quickly. Enter Samuel A. Mudd, a physician who was acquainted with the assassin, though was completely unaware of his dastardly deed. As Booth was getting his leg set, the nation was in a state of horror and panic; a squad of soldiers had been sent out to capture Booth at all costs. Desperate to make it to Virginia, Booth and Herold made their way across the Potomac River, but were eventually caught hiding out at a tobacco barn at Garrett Farm.
I knew some of the assassin's history before watching The Hunt for John Wilkes Booth, though in an alternate way. The History Channel, as usual, presents us with the official historical account, even though strong evidence has been amassed by revisionist historians that Booth actually escaped Union soldiers and lived for another 38 years under a variety of aliases. You can check out that unpublished story in Unsolved Mysteries: Strange Legends; it's the last story on disc four.
I can't deny that The Hunt for John Wilkes Booth is a well-produced documentary. In typical History Channel-style, the hunt is presented through actual newspaper clippings, photographs, and virtual re-enactments. We also get to journey to locations in which all the events took place, including Dr. Mudd's house and the area where the Garrett farm used to stand. Narrator Michael C. Hall's compelling voice gives extra weight to the narrative, and the speakers on-hand provide adequate insight from all aspects of the assassination and manhunt.
Overall, I have very few complaints about the documentary and DVD. There is much to learn here, and high school students would benefit greatly from watching it. Some of the re-enactments get borderline bombastic and pretentious at times, though producer Tom Jennings did a fine job finding actors to fill the parts of the key figures. Commercial actor Jean-Pierre Parent (Bobby) looks remarkably similar to Booth; he also co-wrote the feature with Jennings. My only other real quibble is the fact that the filmmakers refuse to even acknowledge the possibility of Booth's escape, with a dramatized final line for Booth after being shot (when most accounts say he was already dead by that time) coming off as hokey. Still, the bottom line is that The Hunt for John Wilkes Booth keeps your interest from beginning to end.
The documentary is presented in its original full-frame History Channel presentation, and the results are excellent. Some of the re-enactments get a bit too dark, but otherwise everything meshes together well. The Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo serves its purpose, and there is closed captioning. As expected, there are no extras.
Overall, this is a fine documentary on one of the most notorious men in
American history. The court finds the filmmakers and The Hunt For John Wilkes
Booth not guilty. Booth himself is found guilty and is barred from entering
purgatory or limbo at any time during the afterlife.
Review content copyright © 2008 Christopher Kulik; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: History Channel
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Not Rated