Abraham Lincoln in the Hollywood cinema


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Abraham Lincoln is a towering figure in American popular consciousness, one who acts as a rich and complex motif and metaphor across its cinema history. This essay is broad-ranging in considering Hollywood’s Lincoln but places particular emphasis on ‘classical’ representations. Its primary aim is to consider the cinematic uses of Lincoln (Lincoln as embedded in the style and rhetoric of a range of films) but a minor thread running through is why Lincoln and which Lincoln is called upon at different points of US movie history. The essay distinguishes itself from previous accounts by combining the analysis of the flesh and blood incarnation of the president’s peculiar physicality with a consideration of the literal and metaphoric solidity of the Lincoln memorial. A final section conveys the sixteenth president’s symbolic power by, paradoxically, revealing it in films that are not even about Lincoln. Lincoln is one of the Greatest Men of Vision™ in US history. In It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946) and Bigger than Life (Nicholas Ray, 1956), a portrait and a verbal invocation, respectively, connect to themes of hubris and the tensions that ensue when the visions of frustrated ordinary men go too far.


Lincoln, Hollywood cinema, physicality, metaphor, vision, close analysis



Tom Brown (King's College London)


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