Why Spielberg’s Lincoln Matters to Civil War Buffs

Boyd Harris of the University of Mississippi left this comment today in response to my posting of the official trailer for Steven Spielberg’s upcoming movie, Lincoln.

I’ve been saying for a month that this is going to be the Passion of the Christ for historians. Blocks of seats bought by academics and us browbeating our non-historian friends into seeing it again with us.

Boyd hit the nail on the head.  The trailer has been posted and re-posted by friends on Facebook and Twitter.  To say that we are all excited would be an understatement, but I suspect there is a reason for this that all of us can relate to on some level.  Let’s face it, despite a few exceptions that fell short of being major box office draws, most Civil War era movies (for lack of a better way of putting it) suck.

By the looks of it, Spielberg’s Lincoln has the potential to make it easier for all of us who self-identify as Civil War buffs or enthusiasts.  We all know these moments where we are pressed to explain our interest in this period and why we find it so compelling.  This movie has the potential to supplant Ron Maxwell’s melodramatic and juvenile movies, which are commonly tossed about as the best in Civil War era movies.

I will bring the same kind of critical stance that I bring to any Hollywood movie that attempts to interpret the past, but I will not be counting buttons, judging the accuracy of uniforms or even counting moments that deviate from what I acknowledge as mainstream Civil War historiography.  I want to see an entertaining movie that drives home what was at stake in the war and presents an intelligent and absorbing portrayal of our sixteenth president.

26 comments… add one
  • joe Sep 19, 2012 @ 3:19

    Maybe the movie will be great, maybe not.
    We can only hope but its out of our hands. What we can and must do, if we are teachers, is help our students understand the magnitude of the issues before Lincoln and also the depths of his soul. That can be done without a movie, by reading his speeches with our students. I might add that are some very good lessons plans out there, by the outfit I work for, EDSITEment that do that.
    Teaching Lincoln
    A Word Fitly Spoken Abraham Lincoln on Union

    • Kevin Levin Sep 19, 2012 @ 3:49

      Hi Joe,

      Thanks for the comment as well as for the links. I agree with you, but at the same time it is indisputable that a good Hollywood movie with a historical subject or theme can serve as an effective jumping off point for further study.

      • joe Sep 19, 2012 @ 5:54


        I should point out that on Monday NEH held a special program on the Emancipation Proclamation. Historian Eric Foner was one of the scholars involved in the event. At lunch, I asked him about his views of teaching Abraham Lincoln. His answer was that teachers ought to devote more time to teaching today’s students why Lincoln is considered great.


        • Kevin Levin Sep 19, 2012 @ 5:58

          I watched it in its entirety; in fact, Ed Ayers read my question via twitter toward the very end of the session.

          A couple of years ago I taught a high school history class on Lincoln that included a week on how Lincoln has been remembered and memorialized. That, in and of itself is an interesting and important story, but I do not believe it is my job as a teacher to try to convince them that Lincoln was great. I leave those evaluations to my students.

  • Dawn @ Finding the Happy Sep 17, 2012 @ 0:16

    I am the “yankee” mother of 3, transplanted to West Virginia. We are a homeschooling family, although my oldest son decided he wanted to go to public high school. He has been a Civil War buff ever since our first studies of it when he was 8 or 9. Now nearly 16, he plays Civil War video games, creates reenactments with toy soldiers and can recite it’s history better than I can. His favorite teacher in his first year of public school, last year, was his history teacher, and easily excelled in the class. Although he fancies himself an 80’s rock star, I’ve been gently pointing him in the direction of college as a history major.

    He & I went to Antietam this weekend. We viewed some demonstrations, we explored various tents and activities. We didn’t do the guided tours for a few reasons, but the fact that he could tell me things about the war, and this battle, was just amazing to me. The student becomes the teacher, perfectly.

    It’s kind of interesting, too, that his dad is from Tennessee, and is to his core, a southern rebel, and who supports, still, the ideals of the South. Meanwhile, my son (who was born in RI, as was I), has naturally tended to side with the North. When I taught him about the Civil War, I was very careful to do so without bias, because I wanted him to form his own opinions, and I found it quite remarkable that he’d take the same view as perhaps his DNA spoke to him from some 150 year old grave.

    Although I know of none of our ancestors who served in any military fashion, just being on the site where so many men on both sides of the war, suffered and died, is so very emotional and moving. I’m sad that he’s got school today because I’m going up there in about 90 minutes to witness the sunrise, on this ultimate day of remembrance.

    I wanted to thank you very much for your blog posts – I’ve enjoyed reading them as I sit here and reflect on what the day means.

    Best Wishes,

    • Kevin Levin Sep 17, 2012 @ 1:52

      Hi Dawn,

      Thanks for stopping by and for taking the time to comment. It’s nice to hear that your son is so interested in American history. The only thing that I would add is to teach your children to side with the United States. 🙂

      • Dawn @ Finding the Happy Sep 17, 2012 @ 9:35

        Hi Kevin,

        I teach my children to make informed choices. 🙂

        • Kevin Levin Sep 17, 2012 @ 9:50

          I have no doubt that you do. Thanks again for taking the time to comment.

  • London John Sep 16, 2012 @ 5:33

    I know this site isn’t for. listmaniacs, but can we have a few more examples/ counterexamples on ” most Civil War era movies suck”? I think I’ve been fascinated by the ACW ever since seeing The Red Badge of Courage as a child, and I still think it’s the best. As well as Glory, I think definite none-suckers are Cold Mountain and Ride with the Devil. If you grant these 4, how many that suck are there?
    Day-Lewis also starred in what I consider the most pernicious civil-war-era film of the last 30 years, Gangs of New York, which glorifies and justifies the draft rioters.

  • Edward H. Sebesta Sep 15, 2012 @ 8:32

    Are there any vampires, werewolves, zombies?

    All kidding aside, I think your comment on not counting buttons is dead on.

    I am think Spielberg should do a credible job. It will be amusing to watch neo-Confederates rant and rage over it also.

    I don’t know if it will reignite interest in the Civil War though. I am thinking it won’t, but hopefully I am wrong.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 15, 2012 @ 10:04

      We need to stop worrying about reigniting the nation’s interest in the war. To the extent the Civil War centennial did it was the result of a unique set of circumstances.

  • Rick Garland Sep 15, 2012 @ 7:32

    What? Was I supposed to write a whole book for you? I think most people will get the idea.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 15, 2012 @ 7:35

      Yes, I think they will as well.

  • Rick Garland Sep 15, 2012 @ 7:12

    It will be interesting to see if we can the stereotypical “Lionized” Lincoln which has made him the most written about man in history (other than JC) or if Spielburg will be the first to challenge the myth with some real world facts like Lincoln being one of the most successfull laywyers of all time, not a country bumpkin. A big money railroad lobbyist who you wouldn’t even want to have on a ballot today, the man who gave out so many political favors that he had to say, “There are not enough tits on the pig,” The man who said if he could save the Union without freeing a single slave, he would. The man who wanted to send the freed slaves to Africa, South America, or Texas. The man who said he’d sign a Constitutional Amendment that would never allow the US Govt. to touch slavery. The man who imprisoned over 10,000 loyal union men who simply questioned whether the war was simply about money and taxes that Lincoln would lose from the South if succession were succesful (Mussolini only imprisoned 2,000 in his day). The man who threw out the 1st Amendment and shut down over 300 newspapers which again, simply questioned whether Lincoln was persecuting a war simply over money and taxes, etc. etc. etc., or the hero that loved the black man and wanted to free him and preserve freedom and liberty. By the way, that’s all the South wanted, Freedom and Liberty to be left alone and Lincoln sent a thank you note to the head of the Navy thanking him for goading the south into firing the 1st shot at Sumpter. If it’s the former portrayal, it will be the first Spielburg movie that I will walk out on!

    • Kevin Levin Sep 15, 2012 @ 7:24

      Thanks for the oversimplified sketch of Lincoln.

    • Michael Lynch Sep 15, 2012 @ 14:04

      “Yo Gerry Spence, I’m really happy for you, and Imma let you finish, but Abraham Lincoln was one of the most successful lawyers of all time, not a country bumpkin!”

  • Boyd Harris Sep 14, 2012 @ 13:12

    It will take a lot for this to surpass my favorite Civil War movie of all time, The Outlaw Josey Wales. That being said here are a few things that I am really excited about, after only seeing a two and half minute trailer:

    1. More than half of the trailer depicted various discussions referring to Lincoln’s main problem during his administration: The Preservation of the Union and Abolition of Slavery. They did not both go hand in hand during the conflict and were only grudgingly accepted by many northerners during the war. Only victory and time forced the conflation of these two ideas into what Penn Warren called the “Treasury of Virtue.” If this movie can portray a tenth of how these two issues became one under the Lincoln administration, then I shall be a very happy man.

    2. Several quick scenes showed Lincoln with his children and laughing. I am hoping that Spielberg humanized Lincoln in this film. Anything that can knock the mythological Lincoln off his pedestal is a great achievement. Henry Fonda said that playing Lincoln was like playing Jesus Christ. I am hopeful of this because I know of Daniel Day Lewis’ work as an actor. I am looking forward to seeing a “real” portrayal of Lincoln, well at least as real as Hollywood can be. My adviser made a comment last year that the mark of this movie will be if Lincoln is portrayed telling a dirty joke. Such a scene would cause me to be thrown out of the theater because of my outburst of appreciation.

    • Michael Lynch Sep 14, 2012 @ 14:43

      A dirty joke and pronouncing “chairman” as “cheerman” would totally sell me on it.

      • Kevin Levin Sep 15, 2012 @ 5:16

        Yes, or a scene in which Lincoln shares a bed with a soldier at the Soldiers’ Home. 🙂

      • Rob Wick Sep 15, 2012 @ 5:18

        The one thing which seems to concern (but not really bother) people I talk to who are very stoked about the movie is the question of how Day-Lewis interprets Lincoln’s speech pattern. Obviously, no one can say for sure exactly how Lincoln sounded, but there’s an issue with the previous actors who have tried to interpret his voice. No one now thinks he sounds anything like Walter Huston or Henry Fonda, but Hal Holbrook and Sam Waterston gave him more of a Kentucky accent that seems, at least to me, much closer to what he sounded like based on contemporary accounts.

        From what I’ve heard in the trailer, I’m not quite sure how much of an issue it will be. Of course, it won’t be an issue with 98 percent of the viewing public, and that’s fine. But as silly as it may sound, for someone really interested in a historical period, those are the little things that can make the experience less than satisfying. It’s like building a new house and realizing the carpenters didn’t put the stair treads down correctly, and every time you step on the third step it squeaks. It’s not enough to tear the house down, but it sure can make the experience unpleasant.

        Seems silly, I know, but it’s obviously been on my mind.


        • Kevin Levin Sep 15, 2012 @ 5:20

          I hear you, but it’s a no-win situation for DDL and the movie for the very reasons you referenced.

  • GBrasher Sep 14, 2012 @ 11:46

    Amen, brother. Amen.
    (But I assume that one of the exceptions you allude to it Glory.)

    Among many things that excited me about the trailer, I was glad to see that there is at least one battle scene. I have always said that someone needs to do for the Civil War what Saving Private Ryan’s brutal scenes did for helping us understand WWII.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 14, 2012 @ 11:52

      Glory is one of the very few exceptions.

      I thought about making that point about Private Ryan, but the difference is that we have plenty of first-rate Hollywood movies about WWII. That’s not to say that this specific movie was not important. That said, I do hope Lincoln brings the Civil War to life and no one is more likely to do just that than Spielberg.

      • GBrasher Sep 14, 2012 @ 12:06

        True, but Saving Private Ryan broke the mold and established a new one. When it first came out, its combat scenes were revolutionary in their realism. Since then others have tried to recreate their power with varying degrees of success. (HBO’s two WWII miniserieses in some ways have gone much beyond Ryan). I hope the Lincoln movie breaks the sanitized Ron Maxwell mold and creates a new standard the way Ryan did. I am guessing it will.

        • Kevin Levin Sep 14, 2012 @ 12:12

          Absolutely no disagreement there. I still remember that feeling of walking out of the theater after seeing Private Ryan. I was numb all over.

  • Pat Young Sep 14, 2012 @ 10:30

    Let’s face it, to most of our friends and lovers, we’re no different than RenFest geeks and War of 1812 enthusiasts. Yet, many of the posters on this site would agree that the war and its aftermath has a relevance to modernity that needs to be understood.

    While some “buffs” will obsess over minute details of historical accuracy, I really hope that the movie gets across the Civil War’s revolutionary break with America’s exclusionary past.

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