“LINCOLN” (1974-76) Review

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“LINCOLN” (1974-76) Review

During the first half of the Twentieth Century, poet and historian Carl Sandburg wrote a six-volume biography on the life of the 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. Years passed before David Wolper (“ROOTS”, “THE THORN BIRDS”, and the “NORTH AND SOUTH” TRILOGY) produced a six-part miniseries on Lincoln’s life and career, based upon Sandburg’s work.

“LINCOLN” is not what I would your usual biography with a straight narrative. With the exception of one episode that centered on Lincoln acting as a defense attorney in the 1830s and another that focused on the period between his first election and inauguration, the majority of the episodes centered on his administration during the U.S. Civil War. And not in any particular order. Below is a list for those who prefer to watch the entire miniseries in chronological order:

(1.03) “Prairie Lawyer” – Lincoln goes against future political adversary Stephen A. Douglas when he defends physician Dr. Henry B. Truett against murder charges in 1838.

(2.02) “Crossing Fox River” – This episode covers Lincoln’s life between winning his first presidential election in November 1860 and attending his first inauguration in March 1861.

(1.01) “Mrs. Lincoln’s Husband” – In the wake of the death of the Lincolns’ second son William “Willie”, First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln‘s erratic behavior embarrasses and endangers her husband politically when a cabal of Republican senators question her loyalty to the Union.

(1.02) “Sad Figure, Laughing” – Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase and his daughter Kate attempt to undermine President Lincoln’s bid for re-election during the 1864 presidential campaign, when they become aware of how Lincoln’s jokes and stories seem to erode their fellow Republicans’ confidence in him.

(2.01) “The Unwilling Warrior” – Lincoln finds himself forced to learn the art of war, as he searches for the right general to lead the Union Army to victory between 1861 and 1865.

(2.03) “The Last Days” – Following the Army of Northern Virginia’s surrender at the Appomattox Court House, President Lincoln plans Reconstruction with his cabinet and discusses a post-presidential future with the First Lady.

“LINCOLN” managed to garner a great deal of critical acclaim back in the mid-1970s. Did it deserve it? Perhaps. I found myself somewhat impressed by the production. The miniseries, from a visual point-of-view, has managed to hold up rather well in the past forty years. Aside from the exterior shots, the photography struck me as somewhat sharp and colorful, thanks to cinematographer Howard Schwartz . More importantly, director George Schaefer managed to avoid that “filmed play” aspect that had tainted many British television productions and a few American productions. Somewhat. There were a few scenes that seemed to stretch a tad too long in “LINCOLN”, but not fortunately long enough to stretch my patience too thin.

A part of me wishes that “LINCOLN” had included more scenes of Lincoln’s life before the Civil War. The 1974-76 miniseries must be the first of three productions titled “LINCOLN” – the other two being the 1988 miniseries and the 2012 Steven Spielberg movie – that seemed to be about Lincoln’s years in the White House. Another aspect of this miniseries that I found a bit odd is that it did not feature any African-American characters, other than the occasional extra portraying a White House servant. I think. There is a chance that my memory might be playing tricks with me. I simply find it odd that a production about a U.S. president who had such a strong impact on the history of African-Americans . . . did not feature any black supporting characters. No Elizabeth Keckley, the Washington D.C. seamstress who became Mrs. Lincoln’s personal modiste and close companion, or Frederick Douglass, who had met Lincoln in 1863. Considering Lincoln’s overly cautious approach on the subjects of abolition and civil rights, there is a chance that producer David Wolper feared that Lincoln’s reputation as an emancipator would have slightly eroded. It was okay to discuss slavery, which the production did . . . but not with any real depth.

The miniseries certainly did not hesitate to display Lincoln’s ruthlessness and talent for political manipulation. Even when those traits were occasionally clouded by compassion, humor and verbosity, it was on display. This was especially apparent in two episodes – namely “Sad Figure, Laughing”, in which Lincoln had to deal with the political machinations of Salmon Chase for the Republican nomination for President in 1864; and in “The Unwilling Warrior”, in which he dealt with one general after another in his search for the one military leader who could deal with the Army of Northern Virginia and Robert E. Lee.

The best aspect of “LINCOLN” were the performances. Well . . . some of the performances. I hate to say this, but some of the minor performances struck me as a bit theatrical or amateurish. There were some performances that struck me as solid – including Norman Burton as General Ulysses S. Grant, Robert Foxworth as John T. Stuart, Lloyd Nolan as Secretary of State William H. Seward, Ed Flanders as General George B. McClellan, and Catherine Burns as Mary Owens. But there were those performances that I found impressive. This especially seemed to be the case for Roy Poole as Secretary of Treasury Salmon P. Chase, Elizabeth Ashley as the latter’s older daughter Kate Chase Sprague, Beulah Bondi as Lincoln’s stepmother Sarah Bush Lincoln, John Randolph as the first Secretary of War Simon Cameron and James Carroll Jordan as the Lincolns’ oldest son Robert Todd Lincoln.

But the two performances that outshone the others came from Hal Holbrook and Sada Thompson as the presidential couple, Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln. This is not really surprising. Of the three productions I have seen about Lincoln, the actors and actresses who have portrayed this couple have all given superb performances. This was the case for both Holbrook and Thompson. Holbrook seemed to have some special connection to the 16th president. The 1974-76 miniseries marked the first time he portrayed the role. He also portrayed Lincoln in the 1985 miniseries, “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II” and he appeared in the 2012 Steven Spielberg movie as an old political crony of the President’s, Francis P. Blair. Holbrook’s portrayal of Lincoln could have easily strayed into the realm of folksy idealism. The actor did not completely reveal the more negative aspects of Lincoln’s character, but he did a superb job in conveying not only the President’s style of humor, but also his political savvy and a temper that can be fearsome. In an odd way, Sada Thompson had the easier job portraying First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. Hollywood productions are more inclined to explore the more negative aspects of her personality than Lincoln’s. What I enjoyed about Thompson’s performance is that she still managed to make Mrs. Lincoln a likable person, despite the character flaws. It is not surprising that Holbrook won an Emmy for his performance and Thompson earned a nomination. Both of them deserved the accolades.

There are aspects of “LINCOLN” that I found questionable. Well . . . my main problem is that the production did not focus enough on the question of slavery, which I found rather odd, considering the subject matter. I also wish that the miniseries had included more scenes of Abraham Lincoln’s life before the Civil War. Now some television viewers might find the scattered narrative somewhat disconcerting. I simply figured out the chronological order of the episodes and watched them in that manner. But overall, “LINCOLN” is a first-rate miniseries about the 16th President that holds up rather well, thanks to George Schaefer’s direction and a skillful cast led by the talented Hal Holbrook and Sada Thompson.

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List of Favorite Movie and Television Productions About the HOLOCAUST

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Below is a list of my favorite movie and television productions about the Holocaust released in chronological order:

LIST OF FAVORITE MOVIE AND TELEVISION PRODUCTIONS ABOUT THE HOLOCAUST

1 - The Search

“The Search” (1948) – Fred Zinneman directed this Oscar winning movie about a young Auschwitz survivor and his mother who search for each other across post-World War II Europe. Oscar nominee Montgomery Clift and Oscar winner
Ivan Jandl starred.

2 - The Diary of Anne Frank

“The Diary of Anne Frank” (1959) – George Stevens directed this adaptation of the Broadway play about Holocaust victimAnne Frank, her family and their friends hiding in an attic in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam. The movie starred Millie Perkins, Joseph Schildkraut and Oscar winner Shelley Winters.

3 - Judgment at Nuremberg

“Judgment at Nuremberg” (1961) – Stanley Kramer directed this Oscar winner about an American military tribunal in post-war occupied Germany that tries four Nazi judges for war crimes. Oscar nominee Spencer Tracy, Marlene Dietrich and Oscar winner Maximilian Schell starred.

4 - Marathon Man

“Marathon Man” (1976) – Dustin Hoffman, Oscar nominee Laurence Olivier and Roy Schneider starred in this adaptation of William Goldman’s 1974 novel about a history graduate student caught up in a conspiracy regarding stolen diamonds, a Nazi war criminal and a rogue government agent. John Schlesinger directed.

5 - Voyage of the Damned

“Voyage of the Damned” (1976) – Faye Dunaway and Max von Sydow starred in this adaptation of Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts’ 1974 book about the fate of the MS St. Louis ocean liner carrying Jewish refugees from Germany to Cuba in 1939. Stuart Rosenberg directed.

6 - Holocaust

“Holocaust” (1978) – Gerald Green wrote and produced this Emmy winning miniseries about the experiences of a German Jewish family and a rising member of the SS during World War II. Fritz Weaver, Rosemary Harris and Emmy winners Meryl Streep and Michael Moriarty starred.

7 - Sophie Choice

“Sophie’s Choice” (1982) – Oscar winner Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline and Peter MacNicol starred in this adaptation of William Styron’s 1979 novel about an American writer’s acquaintance with a Polish immigrant and Holocaust survivor in post-World War II New York City. The movie was directed by Alan J. Pakula.

8 - Escape From Sobibor

“Escape From Sobibor” (1987) – Alan Arkin, Joanna Paula and Golden Globe winner Rutger Hauer starred in this television movie about the mass escape of Jewish prisoners from the Nazi extermination camp at Sobibor in 1943. Jack Gold directed.

9 - War and Remembrance

“War and Remembrance” (1988) – Dan Curtis produced, directed and co-wrote this Emmy winning television adaptation of Herman Wouk’s 1978 novel about the experiences of a naval family and their in-laws during World War II. Robert Mitchum, Jane Seymour, Hart Bochner and John Gielgud starred.

10 - Schindlers List

“Schindler’s List” (1993) – Steven Spielberg produced and directed this Oscar winning adaptation of Thomas Keneally’s 1982 novel, “Schindler’s Ark” about Nazi party member and businessman, Oscar Schindler, who helped saved many Polish-Jewish refugees during the Holocaust by employing them in his factories. The movie starred Oscar nominees Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes and Ben Kingsley.

11 - Life Is Beautiful

“Life Is Beautiful” (1997) – Oscar winner Roberto Benigni starred, directed and co-wrote this Academy Award winning film about a Jewish-Italian book shop owner, who uses his imagination to shield his son from the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp. The movie co-starred Nicoletta Braschi and Giorgio Cantarini.

“Conspiracy” (2001) – This highly acclaimed HBO television movie dramatized the 1942 Wannasee Conference, a meeting between high Nazi officials to discuss the implementation of the final solution to the Jewish population under German control. Directed by Frank Pierson, the movie starred Kenneth Branagh and Stanley Tucci.

12 - The Pianist

“The Pianist” (2002) – Roman Polanski directed this Oscar winning adaptation of Polish-Jewish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman‘s World War Ii memoirs. Oscar winner Adrien Brody and Thomas Kretschmann starred.

13 - Black Book

“Black Book” (2006) – Paul Verhoeven directed World War II tale about a Dutch-Jewish woman who becomes a spy for the Resistance after a tragic encounter with the Nazis. Carice van Houten and Sebastian Koch starred.

14 - The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

“The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” (2008) – Asa Butterfield, Jack Scanlon, Vera Fermiga and David Thewlis starred in this adaptation of John Boyne’s 2006 novel about a friendship between two eight year-olds – the son of an extermination camp commandant and a young Jewish inmate. Mark Herman directed.

“Inglourious Basterds” (2009) – Quentin Tarantino wrote and directed this Oscar winning alternate-history tale about two separate plots to assassinate Nazi Germany’s high political leadership at a film premiere in Nazi occupied Paris. The movie starred Brad Pitt, Mélanie Laurent and Oscar winner Christoph Waltz.