An Icon Divided: Abraham Lincoln's Dual Pop-Culture Legacy

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The 16th president has appeared in movies and TV more frequently than pretty much anyone, but as Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter shows, the depictions have ranged from reverent to bizarre.

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Right: Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln (Disney). Left: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (Fox)

In a promotional featurette for Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter—the gleefully ridiculous alternate history of America's 16th president, which hits theaters today—director Timur Bekmambetov explains his take on Honest Abe: "He was the Batman of the 19th century. Because he was ordinary and extraordinary at the same time."

If "ordinary and extraordinary" sums up Lincoln as a man, it certainly sums up the astonishing scope of his appearances on film and television, which portray the president as everything from a guiding angel to a crazed axe-murderer. According to IMDB, "Abraham Lincoln" has appeared in 297 different films and TV shows since 1911, which makes him a more prolific "character" than James Bond, Sherlock Holmes, or, well, Batman.

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Though Lincoln's first cinematic appearances date back to 1911, in a series of performances by Ralph Ince and Francis Ford, the first truly noteworthy portrayal of his life was in D.W. Griffith's 1915 film The Birth of a Nation. The Birth of a Nation is most notorious today for its unapologetic racism, but it also features an unsettling depiction of Lincoln's assassination, which occurs at the midpoint of the three-hour film. Fifteen years later, Griffith tried to explore the full scope of Abraham Lincoln's life in a legendarily awful biographical film of the same name—a goal he shared with many other filmmakers, whose attempts to capture Lincoln on the silver screen have been largely (and justly) forgotten. If there's one thing that Lincoln's earliest cinematic appearances have in common, it's their earnestness; Each tends to paint the 16th president as noble enough to qualify for sainthood.

While visiting the Lincoln Memorial last year, I heard an excited young tourist shout, "that's the man from 'Night at the Museum!'"

But those depictions capture only a part of Abraham Lincoln, both a man and an icon who's far too complex and contradictory to be summed up by a single performance. In his time, Lincoln was nearly as renowned for his bawdy, vulgar sense of humor as he was for his brilliant oration; in 1866, Lincoln's friend Joshua Speed (played by Jimmi Simpson in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) wrote that Lincoln's "worldwide reputation for telling anecdotes—and telling them so well, was in my judgment necessary to his very existence." Lincoln may have loved Shakespeare's dramas, but he also loved ribald farces like "Our American Cousin"—the play he was seeing on the night of his assassination.

It's the wry, off-color side of Lincoln that would have appreciated the oddities of his more recent pop-cultural legacy, which have earned laughs by riffing on his iconic statesmanship. The short-lived animated series Clone High featured a pimply, teenage Abe Lincoln who pals around with Gandhi and Joan of Arc. Animated comedy Futurama has invoked Lincoln three times: once as an insane robot, once as an evil hologram, and once as a head in a jar. Fight Club features a conversation in which Brad Pitt's Tyler Durden remarks that if he could fight any historical figure, he'd choose Lincoln: "Big guy, big reach. And skinny guys fight 'til they're burger." (The throwaway line eventually led to the appearance of Lincoln as an unlockable fighter in 2004's Fight Club video game). The very best of Lincoln's best pop-cultural appearances manage to convey his nobility and wit simultaneously; the climactic speech in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure features Lincoln advising the crowd to "be excellent to each other"—a sentiment the actual Lincoln would likely have endorsed.

But even in the most straightforward of tellings, pop culture informs our ideas of who Lincoln was and keeps his legacy alive. As a Smithsonian scholar recently noted, Lincoln died 12 years before Edison invented the phonograph, so we have no actual recordings of his speeches. Records of the time suggest that his voice was both "higher" and "shriller" than the popular conception, which was solidified by the sonorous baritone Royal Dano used as the Lincoln voice actor for Disneyland's "Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln"—a voice selected by Walt Disney himself. Like any great icon, Lincoln is remembered as much for his actual deeds as for the vast scope of the legacy he's earned in the years that have elapsed since his death; tellingly (and somewhat disturbingly), while visiting the Lincoln Memorial last year, I heard an excited young tourist shout, "that's the man from Night at the Museum!"

Lincoln once remarked that "man was made for immortality" (if this week's Lincoln film is any indication, the same is not true for vampires). But if any American is immortal, it's Lincoln himself. Viewers who are turned off by the idea of Abraham Lincoln battling the undead will get their chance to see the president in a more traditional light later this year, when Daniel Day-Lewis dons the legendary stovepipe hat in Steven Spielberg's Lincoln. But to understand the full scope of Lincoln's pop-cultural legacy, for all its complexities and contradictions, you'd need to see both Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and Lincoln. And Lincoln himself would likely have been first in line for both.

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Scott Meslow is entertainment editor at TheWeek.com.

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