Abe Lincoln in Illinois (a.k.a.: That really old Lincoln movie)

In case there’s a rival film snob reading this, I’d like to clarify something: This is NOT about “Abraham Lincoln“, the 1930 movie by D.W.Griffith. This is about the 1940 movie by RKO Pictures, well known for ‘Citizen Kane’, ‘King Kong’ and a bunch of stylish cheap movies (Isle of the Dead, Curse of the Cat People.)

In it’s time, ‘Abe Lincoln in Illinois’, directed by the now-unknown John Cromwell, was critically acclaimed and nominated for 2 acadamy awards. (note; there were only 18 award categories at the time, as opposed to 24 today.) Today it is almost unknown, and stands as a sad example of how easily the film industry forgets it’s past.

Let's see who's been naughty this year...

Let’s see who’s been naughty this year…

The film follows Lincoln from his humble log-cabinny beginnings to his first election as president. We do not get to see the civil war start. A generous third of the movie is spent on “off the map” sections of Lincoln’s life, before he entered politics. 40 minutes are given to historically unclear relationship with Ann Rutledge. Another half hour passes before he ties the knot with Mary Todd.

The eternally angry Ms. Todd

The eternally angry Ms. Todd

These unhistorical scenes are actually the most important: This is his origin story, and we can spot little signs of things to come: In one scene, Lincoln mentions that he’s afraid of crowds because of an irrepresible fear of being murdered. The movie ends before showing us that scene: We know ‘the Lincoln story’ already. It’s supposed to be about watching the storm build.

I just can't look at your face, Abe...

Homely Mr. Lincoln is rejected by Ms. Rutledge

Abe Lincoln in Illinois is, in many ways, the opposite of Spielberg’s Lincoln. Everything that the new film does well, the old film does badly. Everything the new film lacked, the old film has. The other politicians are cookie-cutter politicians. We don’t even get to know their names. The acting is very stiff in parts, and whole scenes are ruined by melodrama. The only good actor is Lincoln himself. True, his voice is like a baritone kermit-the-frog, but it’s perfect for playing the unlikely loser destined for greatness. (It is not, however, good for rousing political speeches: The debates and speeches are by far the weakest scenes. I was especially bored by the ‘house divided’ speech, which was meant to be inspirational).

"Someday we'll find it! The rainbow connection!!"

“It’s not easy being green, America!”

But for all it’s flaws, Abe Lincoln in Illinois does something very important that Spielberg’s Lincoln does not do: It shows us a side of Lincoln that we don’t expect. Cromwell’s Lincoln is a more flawed, more human character then in Spielberg’s Lincoln. We see more of his indecisive moments, his personal life, and of course more of his failure of a marriage. Spielberg’s Lincoln is a soft-spoken man with an iron will and vigilant sense of right and wrong. Cromwell’s Lincoln is a kind man who is pushed around.

The doofy smile of a president.

The doofy smile of a president.

He does not want to be a politician. He doesn’t even particularly want to free slaves. He’s pushed into politics by the expectations of his friends and his wife (and, as the movie makes clear, his ‘destiny’). He’s nominated because the older politicians think they can ‘control’ him. He’s not strong-willed at all, and makes it clear every step of the way that he doesn’t want to fight. When one man asks him how he feels about radicals like John Brown, he replies “I envy them; because they can believe their cause is worth dying for”. Cromwell’s Lincoln doesn’t sacrifice himself for his cause; the world sacrifices him. He’s not willingly crucified, and that’s what makes Cromwell’s ending starker then Spielberg’s.

John Brown makes a cameo appearance. When will they make a movie about that lunatic?!

John Brown and Robert Lee make a cameo appearance. Both men deserve their own screen adaptations, but have been largely marginalized in Lincoln movies.

Abe Lincoln in Illinois’s gaping flaw is that, like its main character,  it can’t make up its mind. One moment it’s a ‘Citizen Kane’-esque story of a man who comes unwillingly into fame and longs for his youth. The next moment it tries to be a socially aware, pro-democracy film about the the rise of a hero. The double-agenda makes for some glaring moral contradictions. Here’s an example: In the most devastating scene in the movie, Lincoln yells at his wife for the first time, on election day. The old man’s prophesy has come true: Politics has corrupted him. she says “You lost your temper, Abe… you’ve never done that before…” Abe tells her she should go home, and she replies;

“This is the night I dreamed about when I was a child… This is the night I’m waiting to hear that my husband is become President of the United States… and even if he does… it’s ruined for me.”

"Why do these women always face away from me??"

“Why must these women always face away from me??”

There is no last-minute, Hollywood fix-up. Their loveless marriage stays loveless. But after that, Lincoln gives a cliched inspirational speech about ‘Liberty’ and ‘Freedom’. It really doesn’t fit: One scene is about how the kind-hearted man has lost his tenderness, the next scene is celebrating Lincoln’s move to politics. One minute he’s feeling remorse for his wife; the next he’s just a mouthpiece for ramblings about Democracy. When Charles Foster Kane gave his campaign speech, it was deliberately made to sound false. This Lincoln is really a similar character, so why do they play the speech sincerely?

this one i call "Blue Steel"

Advice for future presidents: always keep a stiff upper lip.


Abe Lincoln in Illinois is definitely not for everyone. If you aren’t used to old Hollywood, there will be some frustrating parts. There are really great moments in it too, though. In the last moments of Abe Lincoln in Illinois, The train carrying Lincoln to Washington D.C. leaves the station, while crowds of onlookers sing ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’. Historians will call foul here, since ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’ did not exist with it’s modern lyrics until after the war had begun! However, I think it is worth the innacuracy and here’s why: Next to ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’, the slow chugging of the steam engine becomes like the sound of marching.

So the same two sounds are both a celebration Lincoln’s election and a grim reminder of the bloody war that will occur shortly after the end credits. So it provides closure while remaining stark and ambiguous. That, alone, makes it worth watching.


Youth is youthful, no matter when or where. Let’s see a movie about young people enjoying themselves… As well they should; Stalin is dead! Next time on the blog, bring your hammers and sickles, because in Soviet Russia…



2 Responses to “Abe Lincoln in Illinois (a.k.a.: That really old Lincoln movie)”

  1. —This 8th? –9th? –10th? Hollywood Lincoln
    with the –yet again– Sally Field, and, during the
    2013 Globalist unfold, featuring a foreigner in the

    Thus Spielberg reaffirms his title as supreme
    purveyor of cultural incest meets predictive programming
    meets PC moral alibi.

    LOOK at what’s being rolled out and uncloaked
    all around you.

    CONSIDER the FACT that Spielberg and Kushner
    and Godwin, one and all capstone promoted ‘innies’
    any treatment, any reference, any mention of Lincoln’s
    quite possibly —FATAL— diss of the Global baking
    monopoly over finance of the war.


    • Hello again, Mr. Ip. Nice use of copy-paste.
      Thank you again for the warning. I can see that you care a lot about this.

      you know, I’m still not sure what ‘cultural incest’ means. Are members of the same culture not allowed to sleep together?

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