Would the real Abraham Lincoln please stand up?
With all that has been written and all the photographs we have of Abraham Lincoln, moviemakers keep trying to convey their own visions of the one and true 16th U.S. president. Americans have such a revered image of Lincoln that Hollywood has rarely portrayed him. Famed director John Ford’s brother Francis played Lincoln in a 1913 production called When Lincoln Paid. In 1930 Walter Huston, father of famed director John Huston, portrayed Lincoln in D.W. Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln. But the two best-known and best-loved performances were by Henry Fonda in John Ford’s 1939 production of Young Mr. Lincoln, and Raymond Massey in 1940’s Abe Lincoln in Illinois. In 2012 we saw two major movies with Lincoln as the lead character, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln starring Oscar nominee Daniel Day-Lewis, and Benjamin Walker as a younger Lincoln in Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. The latter was dismissed by critics as fluff for the most part, instead heaping praise on the big Spielberg film. This is unfortunate, because in any other year Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter might have received a better reception.
Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter poses the purely fantasy idea that Abe Lincoln was not only a politician and patriot but an apprentice hunter cleaning up the countryside to avoid the spread of vampires throughout the U.S. before and during the Civil War. Gettysburg wasn’t just about conquering the Southern rebellion, it was about defeating the vampire-laden confederacy.
Where Daniel Day-Lewis opted to play Lincoln as craggy and gruff, more so than Raymond Massey portrayed him in Abe Lincoln in Illinois, Benjamin Walker’s take is much closer to Henry Fonda’s pleasant and forthright everyman from Young Mr. Lincoln. Despite Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter offering up an admittedly male, historical version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, director Timur Bekmambetov went well beyond what you’d normally find in a film so blatantly tied to a gimmick, that of screenwriter/novelist Seth Grahame-Smith following up his earlier well-received mash-up Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. In fact, pushing aside for a moment the vampire hunting, the film offers an admirable view of the president, and in particular his relationship with Mary Todd. And that is saying a lot for a film that is part axe-waving and vampire killing.
Sure, we get to see the side of Lincoln as railsplitter like never before. And that part is as exciting and fun as you’d find rivetting sequences in any action movie. In fact there are scenes in Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter that you have never seen before in a movie, such as man-to-man fight in the middle of stampeding horses. And the climax has a battle aboard a racing steam engine that is as well-choreographed as any similar classic movie train ride.
The supernatural elements are folded in nicely. The vampire world has a code of rules that is both familiar but but also has its own new twists, all sensible for the context of the movie, like the fact that a vampire cannot kill another vampire. In fact, as mash-up of the real world and the supernatural, Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter is handled exactly right. For those with low or high expectations, it’s surprisingly good. For those who think it might take itself too seriously, yes, it has no unnecessary comic silliness. But for the premise to work, Walker & Co. had to be believable playing Lincoln and his friends and foes.
The casting is also surprisingly refreshing. The tall handsome Benjamin Walker has the general appearance of a young Liam Neeson and similar soft-spoken but authoritative mannerisms. Mary Todd is portrayed by the always interesting Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Tru Calling, Sky High, Final Destination 3, Death Proof, Live Free or Die Hard, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, The Thing). Winstead and Walker have real chemistry in their blossoming romance, and you could see how someone like Lincoln could link up with someone like Mary Todd–maybe the first time we get to see the couple as real people in real situations instead of all the hallowed icon treatment.
The awesome Rufus Sewell (A Knight’s Tale, Zen, Dark City, Eleventh Hour) is maybe under-utilized a bit as the ultimate villain in the film. Look for good supporting performances by Dominic Cooper (Captain America: The First Avenger, Sense & Sensibility) as Lincoln’s Jedi Master-esque mentor Sturges, Anthony Mackie (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Adjustment Bureau, The Manchurian Candidate) as Lincoln’s friend Will Johnson, and Jimmi Simpson (Psych, Rose Red, Zodiac, Eleventh Hour, House, M.D.) as Lincoln’s landlord and shopkeeper Speed. Keep an eye open for genre favorite Alan Tudyk (Firefly, A Knight’s Tale) as a strangely uncredited Stephen A. Douglas.
Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter is not really horror, not a typical gore fest. It is violent like the film adaptation of Frank Miller’s 300, but far less gratuitous and tons more fun.
By the way, if you’re interested in seeing all the photographic images that exist of the real Abraham Lincoln, check out this YouTube video.