The 16th President on Film: Some of the Best Screen Portrayals of Abraham Lincoln

Over the next two years, two high-profile film and television projects will be released featuring America’s 16th President, Abraham Lincoln. This December, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, a biopic on Lincoln set in the last three months of his Presidency, will feature Academy Award-winning actor Daniel Day-Lewis (Gangs of New York, There Will Be Blood, Last of the Mohicans) as Lincoln. This will be followed in 2013 by the highly-anticipated miniseries “To Appomattox,” which will feature acclaimed actor Stephen Lang (Avatar, Gods and Generals, Gettysburg, TV’s “Terra Nova”) as the President (There’s also Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which I flat out refuse to talk about on this blog). These two projects will add to the list of nearly 300 film and television portrayals of the man labeled our greatest President. But of all these different portrayals, which of these truly stand out as the best of the bunch? With this article, I shall look at my five favorite portrayals of Lincoln on film (so far). They are in sequential order, mostly going by year of release.

1. Henry Fonda, (Young Mr. Lincoln, 1939)

Henry Fonda in "Young Mr. Lincoln"

1939 is considered a banner year for Hollywood, with classic films such as Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz among the greatest films released that year. John Ford, considered by many to be the greatest of Western film directors, released two major films that year: Stagecoach (Which gave birth to the Western as we know it) and Young Mr. Lincoln. A fictionalized account of Lincoln’s days as a prairie lawyer, the film features a young Henry Fonda in one of his early screen roles. Fonda turns in a truly amazing performance as Lincoln, capturing the tenderness and humor that Lincoln is known for, while also showing how he would go on to be a shrewd lawyer and politician. Although not as well known as other films of its day, this truly captures the spirit of Lincoln in his formative years in Illinois.

2. Hal Holbrook (Sandburg’s Lincoln, 1974; North and South, 1985; North and South, Book II, 1986)

Hal Holbrook in "North and South"

Hal Holbrook is one of the few actors who has portrayed Lincoln on film more than once. He first donned the stovepipe hat and beard for what has been called the first televised miniseries, Sandburg’s Lincoln, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography by Carl Sandburg. Holbrook truly did a magnificent job in the role, showing mostly Lincoln’s penchant for humor, while also showing his softer and political sides when needed. For his performance, Holbrook would win an Emmy Award for Best Actor. Eleven years after Lincoln, he would reprise the role for the adaptation of John Jakes’ bestselling novels North and South and Love and War, where he delivers a more tender portrayal of Lincoln during his time in office. Holbrook is also the only previous actor to portray Lincoln who will star in Spielberg’s Lincoln film, as Francis Preston Blair.

3. Gregory Peck (The Blue and the Gray, 1982)

Gregory Peck in "The Blue and the Gray"

Gregory Peck, star of such classic films as Moby Dick, To Kill a Mockingbird and The Guns of Navarone, portrayed Lincoln for this 1982 miniseries. Although a relatively minor role in the series, Peck once again shines out above the rest of the cast, giving a truly memorable performance as Lincoln (His recitation of the Gettysburg Address is truly memorable). Peck felt himself too old to portray the character, but that did not stop him from turning in a fantastic performance.

4. Sam Waterston (Gore Vidal’s Lincoln, 1988; The Civil War, 1990)

Sam Waterston in "Gore Vidal's Lincoln"

Like Hal Holbrook, Sam Waterston (“Law and Order”) would portray Lincoln more than once. In 1988, he starred in the adaptation of Gore Vidal’s novel Lincoln, which looked at the more political side of our 16th President. In my opinion, Waterston’s portrayal in this miniseries is the definitive Lincoln we have on film. Although he does show his humorous side, he also shows that Lincoln was a shrewd and powerful politician, able to handle his cabinet and others with great effectiveness. Waterston earned an Emmy nomination for his portrayal. But he is best remembered for giving voice to Abraham Lincoln in Ken Burns’ classic documentary, The Civil War, which garnered tremendous critical acclaim, and high ratings for PBS. Waterston’s recitation of the Gettysburg Address is just one of the highlights in what is truly a remarkable document of our nation at war.

5. Fritz Klein (No Retreat from Destiny: The Battle that Rescued Washington, 2006)

Fritz Klein as Lincoln

A powerful but little-known film, No Retreat from Destiny depicts the events of July, 1864, when Jubal Early’s Confederate force nearly took Washington City, but a delaying action at Monocacy allowed time for Federal troops to defend the capital from invasion. The film features Fritz Klein, a well-known Lincoln actor, as the President, showing the resolve to win the war to the end, and refusing to leave the capital, despite the threat of Confederate invasion. Klein’s portrayal is subdued, but also shows the talent of a man who knows Lincoln inside and out, and gives the film’s best performance. If you have not seen the film, I encourage you to do so. Despite its miniscule $500,000 budget (Which shows at times), the performances and thrilling battle footage more than make up for it.

So, there are my picks for the five best portrayals of Abraham Lincoln on film as of right now. When Spielberg’s film and “To Appomattox” hit the airwaves, this list might change a bit. But, I welcome others to share their opinions on Lincoln portrayals.

13 responses to “The 16th President on Film: Some of the Best Screen Portrayals of Abraham Lincoln

  1. The best Lincoln I have ever seen that Hollywood doesn’t know about is Dennis Boggs. You can find him on his website “Meet Mr. Lincoln.”

  2. Why can’t you talk about Lincoln Vampire Hunter exactly? This is still a portrayal of Lincoln on film (which – if you’ve read enough about the movie – is a blend of fact and fiction) and so should not be immediately discounted because of one’s personal feelings on the film’s premise. I’m a huge history buff as you may know from my comments on other history-related blogs, but i’ll be going to see this movie on its opening weekend. And why not? There isn’t enough films made about him so why see 1 when i can see 2 in one year? Just because the makers of AL:VH are having a little bit of – dare i say it – FUN with the character doesn’t mean one can’t have fun watching a portrayal of our 16th President. A portrayal is a portrayal at the end of the day, we’re not all gonna like all portrayals but all of them should be given a chance whatever the medium. There could be an animated film coming out this year with Lincoln in it and i’d go and watch that too. It’s not as if this movie is making fun of Lincoln, far from it. If you’ve watched the trailers then you’ll see that Lincoln is respectfully portrayed and actually comes across as quite the superhero! People are too serious these days. This film will be accurate in the telling of what actually happened in reality, i can assure you that. All they’ve done is added some alternate history. Basically it is what actually happened in reality but featuring vampires. Lincoln will still be Lincoln to some extent – and that deserves attention and critique when the time comes. You cannot comment until you see it, he and/or it might be great. Don’t be so hasty, you know they’ll probably make a sequel. lol.

    • There are two reasons that I will not be talking about it on this blog:

      1) It is mostly fictional, and I will only be looking at those films that are more accurate to the history it presents.

      2) I’ve seen the trailer. The movie looks dumb! Enough said.

      • Obviously you’re fully entitled to your opinion. However:

        1) You cannot tell from a short trailer that it is MOSTLY fictional. That is an assumption that you have made. My father-in-law has read the book upon which it is based and it isn’t. And even if it is, so what? There’s nothing wrong with fiction. Or are you telling me you only watch factual films because they don’t get made very often (even the ones that are are never entirely factual and they usually get history wrong anyway – see “The Patriot”.) and so that would make your life pretty boring. I guess you didn’t like “Inglorious Basterds” either, because that wasn’t accurate. Oh well.

        2) Like i said, some people are too serious these days. Lighten up it’s a movie. It’s entertainment.

        Also, as there has been no trailer released for “Lincoln” or “To Appomattox” yet, you have also made assumptions that these are going to be amazingly accurate based on no knowledge of what they look like. You cannot do that, that’s totally biased due to your personal feelings. You should be impartial and just wait until you’ve seen a production before celebrating or berating its accuracy – or lack of. Therefore however DUMB vampire hunter looks, you need to see it before you pass judgement. That’s what any serious student would do.

  3. …at least promise me you’ll pay a measly dollar to rent the movie on dvd when it’s available and fast-forward to – for example – the Gettysburg Address part – which i can assure you will be entirely factual – and then that will give you an accurate portrayal of this particular version of Lincoln to judge upon…if you can give Gregory Peck a mention based on his portrayal whilst reading the Address, then you should be polite and extend Benjamin Walker the same respect too when the time comes. After all he is an actor too, and i’m sure he won’t do THAT bad.

    • Since this blog deals with the actual history of the American Civil War, I will only look at those films that do the same thing. It’s one thing to create fictional characters and set them within the context of an historical event. But it’s entirely different to create over-the-top visuals and action, and highly-fantastical elements, that did not take place, and yet have an historical figure portrayed in a way that is not truthful. I will probably see the film one day.

      I want to maintain this blog as a place for discussing history, and films that deal with that history in an accurate manner. I apologize if that doesn’t sit well with you.

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