“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.