Abraham Lincoln (1930 film)

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Abraham Lincoln
Directed by D. W. Griffith
Produced by D. W. Griffith
Joseph M. Schenck
Written by Stephen Vincent Benet
John W. Considine Jr.
Gerrit J. Lloyd
Starring Walter Huston
Una Merkel
William L. Thorne
Music by Hugo Riesenfeld
Cinematography Karl Struss
Edited by John W. Considine Jr.
James Smith
Distributed by United Artists
Release dates
August 25, 1930[1]
Running time
97 minutes
Country United States
Language English

Abraham Lincoln, also released under the title D. W. Griffith's 'Abraham Lincoln', is a 1930 biographical film about American president Abraham Lincoln directed by D. W. Griffith. It stars Walter Huston as Lincoln and Una Merkel, in her second speaking role, as Ann Rutledge. Her first speaking role was in a short film, Love's Old Sweet Song (1923) filmed in the Phonofilm sound-on-film process.

The script was co-written by Stephen Vincent Benét, author of the Civil War prose poem John Brown's Body. This was the first of only two sound films made by Griffith.


The first act of the film covers Lincoln's early life as a storekeeper and rail-splitter in New Salem and his early romance with Ann Rutledge, and his early years as a lawyer and his courtship and marriage to Mary Todd in Springfield. The majority of the film deals with Lincoln's presidency during the Civil War and culminates with Lee's surrender and Lincoln's assassination at Ford's Theatre.

The film covers some little-known aspects of Lincoln's early life, such as his romance with Ann Rutledge, his depression and feared suicidal tendencies after her death, and his unexplained breaking off of his engagement with Mary Todd (although the film surmises that this was due to unresolved feelings over Ann Rutledge and adds a dramatic scene where Lincoln stands Mary up on their scheduled wedding day, which never happened).

While the early scenes of Lincoln's life are remarkably accurate, much of the later scenes contain historical inaccuracies. The famous Lincoln-Douglas debates, in addition to the historically accurate topic of the extension of slavery, have been turned into an argument about secession. Lincoln was famously an underdog for the Republican Presidential nomination in 1860; in the film it is suggested he is the sole nominee as a result of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. The outbreak of the War seems to be the North firing on Charleston from Fort Sumter, rather than the other way around. Also, early in hostilities, General Winfield Scott is depicted as being overconfident of a quick victory (and something of a buffoon), when in reality he was one of the voices in the minority claiming the war would be long, costly, and bloody. Finally, in the climax of the film, Lincoln delivers a conflation of famous words from the Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural Address at Ford's Theatre on April 14, 1865 - just moments before being assassinated. This was Griffith's second portrayal of Lincoln's assassination, the first being in The Birth of a Nation.



The film received positive reviews from contemporary critics. Mordaunt Hall of The New York Times called it "quite a worthy pictorial offering with a genuinely fine and inspiring performance by Walter Huston in the role of the martyred President"[2] and later put it on his year-end list of the ten best films of 1930.[3] "More than an outstanding classic of sound pictures, Abraham Lincoln eclipses the most conservative illusion of a modernized Birth of a Nation," wrote Variety in a rave review. "It is a startlingly superlative accomplishment; one rejuvenating a greatest Griffith. In characterization and detail perfection it is such as to be almost unbelievable."[4] Film Daily called it a "distinguished and human narrative" and wrote that Huston's performance "may be listed as one of the 10 best of the year - or any talker year."[5] John Mosher of The New Yorker wrote that it was "by and large.....a pretty high-grade picture."[6] Despite these accolades, however, the film's box office performance was uneven.[7]

More recent assessments of Abraham Lincoln have less effusive in their praise, finding that it has not aged well. In 1978, the film was included as one of the choices in the book The Fifty Worst Films of All Time, criticizing the film's historical inaccuracies, instances of clumsy dialogue and Merkel's melodramatic acting style.[8] Glenn Erickson, reviewing the DVD in 2012, wrote that it "comes off as an interesting curio. Its earnest simplicity seems more dated than ever, despite the fine performance of Walter Huston in the lead role."[9] Film historian Melvyn Stokes found that Abraham Lincoln's episodic structure "came at the cost of dramatic tension" and suggested that the film's disappointing box office performance was due to its having "nothing of major importance and relevance to say about its subject to moviegoers of Depression-era America."[10]


  1. ^ Simmon, Scott (1993). The Films of D. W. Griffith. New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 170. ISBN 9780521388207. 
  2. ^ Hall, Mordaunt (August 26, 1930). "The Screen; Mr. Griffith's First Talker". The New York Times. The New York Times Company. Retrieved March 27, 2015. 
  3. ^ The New York Times Film Reviews, Volume 1 (1913-1931). The New York Times & Arno Press. 1970. p. 684. 
  4. ^ "Abraham Lincoln". Variety (New York: Variety, Inc.): p. 21. August 27, 1930. 
  5. ^ "Abraham Lincoln". Film Daily (New York: Wid's Films and Film Folk, Inc.): p. 10. August 31, 1930. 
  6. ^ Mosher, John (September 6, 1930). "The Current Cinema". The New Yorker (New York: F-R Publishing Corp.): p. 62. 
  7. ^ Stokes, Melvyn (2007). D.W. Griffith's the Birth of a Nation : A History of the Most Controversial Motion Picture of All Time. Oxford University Press. p. 267-268. ISBN 9780198044369. 
  8. ^ "Abraham Lincoln (1930)". FilmFanatic. Retrieved March 27, 2015. 
  9. ^ Erickson, Glenn (November 21, 2012). "Abraham Lincoln". DVD Savant. Retrieved March 27, 2015. 
  10. ^ Strokes, Melvyn. "D.W. Griffith's Abraham Lincoln." Presidents in the Movies: American History and Politics on Screen. Ed. Iwan W. Morgan. Palgrave MacMillan, 2011. p. 58-61. ISBN 9780230117112.

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