The other day, I concluded the first of a four-part lecture series on the American Civil War for Brookdale. We started with the causes of the war and ended right at the start of the Peninsula Campaign. When it was over, a few participants came up to me to chat. Mainly a greeting, maybe saying they enjoyed it, or shared a trip they took to a battlefield. But the last person waited until everyone was gone. She said she had a question. “I didn’t want to ask this earlier because you know how people get, but do you see any similarities between now and right before the Civil War began?” My short answer was yes. She was no doubt referring to a few slides I had covering the antebellum years of our history, regarding differences in society. We seem to forget that the lines were not just drawn between pro and anti slavery, but the differences in lifestyles and views aside from that were just too great. Part of me wanted to relate it to now, but it was the first class and, well, you know how people get.
Made during the turn-Lincoln-into-anything-you-want phase that was popular for about fifteen minutes back in 2012, Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies is a typical Asylum film destined for endless showings on the Scy-Fy Channel, meaning yes, it is a bad movie—a very bad movie. With a title as such, let’s not even pretend this film ever had a chance of being good, or be pretentious enough to actually sit down and take it seriously. Even with me being highly defensive of how the Civil War is portrayed on film, all I can do here is laugh and grunt “Oh my God” every other scene or two. Putting aside the fact that Bill Oberst Jr., who plays Abraham Lincoln, is an acquaintance of mine, he actually does a great job here, considering what he has to work with. He takes his role seriously amidst the chaos of a zombie apocalypse set in 1863, where both Union and Confederate soldiers are coming back to life.
I bet you missed it, didn’t you? How lucky you are. As I sit down to write this, I am indeed still wondering if fortune smiled down upon me whilst I was looking through the channels for programs to DVR and saw an Ancient Aliens episode flip across the scene, and somewhere, my brain caught the words “Civil War”. Ha! I thought. It must have just been something else. That is how my eyes saw it. As I continued to scan, I decided to go back, and sure enough there was the episode from this latest season titled, “Aliens and the Civil War”. I gasped. I laughed. Then, I cried. I decided to save it for a later date so I could sit there, laptop in hand, and devote my entire attention to a minute-by-minute blog of what was going on during the show. It was in 2011 when I took this same approach, after stumbling on “Aliens and the Old West”. It was this episode which tried to argue that Harrison Ford’s newly released Cowboys and Aliens might be more fact than fiction. If you think that previous post and this one coming up now are all part of some gigantic, three-weeks-late, history-nut April Fool’s Day joke, you are wrong. These episodes really did air. You can catch them on re-runs.
Nearly 150 years after his death, Abraham Lincoln remains a polarizing figure. To some, he is the greatest president the United States of America ever had, a man who freed the slaves and saved the Union. To others, he was a power-hungry tyrant, who invaded his own country and used back-room, sometimes scandalous politics to get what he wanted. No matter what one’s personal view of him, however, all can agree on two things: he was a master politician, and a deeply conflicted man, both internally and his public persona. No person of such high standing in American history has had his views gradually change to the point of nearly a complete reversal. No president has ever been in office in the midst of such terrible and chaotic internal strife.
It is difficult today to look back upon Abraham Lincoln and give him a singular label for what he should be remembered for, but almost always, it boils down to the slavery issue, and how he had the Emancipation Proclamation drafted and then his fight to get the 13th Amendment passed to free the slaves prior to the conclusion of the American Civil War. However, as is the case with many figures when studied through the looking glass back through history, people see what they want to see. Lincoln is a much more complicated figure to study, because at the same time this country was experiencing its single greatest moment of political dissent, Lincoln was dissenting against his own government and party, and sometimes, even himself. His views, which began as quite simple ones began to change and morph over time to what we know them as today, but to ignore the journey that he went through would be a disservice to both the man and the history of this nation.
I have conducted many investigations, tours, and lectures over the years. Some have been with my team privately, and others public, even to include fundraisers for haunted museums or old buildings. Because of this, I have had a chance to “hunt” alongside a wide range of people, from the most die-hard of skeptics to the fanciful believer of everything (and many in-between). After more than four years of doing this, I have realized that there are very distinct types of people who come to my ghost hunts and lectures, and I have placed them on a scale based on their severity. As you read, try to decide, which one are you?
With more than a hundred film credits to his name, actor Bill Oberst Jr. is a well-known star on the B-level horror circuit, cranking out what seems like an endless amount of movies every year, each one portrayed with his legendary creepiness. He has been honored by almost every horror movie organization out there, and has even been nicknamed the contemporary “Man of a Thousand Faces”. Even with solidifying himself to a genre where he is instantly recognizable, Bill is no stranger to American history, and the Civil War in particular. In 2007, he played Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman in the History Channel documentary Sherman’s March, and in 2012, more comically, he appeared as Abraham Lincoln in Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies. Even with such a title and content, Bill was determined to play Lincoln in a dignified manner, because as he explained when I interviewed him two years ago, “I really don’t like to see historical figures played for laughs and stripped of their dignity. As I saw it, I had been given a chance to play one of America’s great heroes and I was going to do that, regardless of the bizarre context. So I guarded the character against anything that would make him look ridiculous…”. Now, after many horror films in between, Bill is set to return to the screen in a “normal” role, again, in a Civil War-related movie called The Retrieval, which was made last year and has had a limited release, but is hoping for a broader one this coming spring.
History-based films always work the best when we can watch a particular story and relate to the characters, and then in our minds, just change a few things around, and all of a sudden, a movie set during a particular time period becomes very relevant to almost any era. This is what happens with Ron Maxwell’s Copperhead, a film so incredibly distanced from Gettysburg and Gods and Generals (both in content and style), in a sense that it takes the both-sides-are-right mentality and completely smashes it, instead, choosing to come right out and say that war is wrong, because no matter what side you are on, or what the result is, good people acting as mere pawns in a chess game for generals and politicians, will be killed and wounded regardless. The families and conflicts present in this movie could quite literally be anybody. Yes, they are dressed in 1860’s clothing and talk about far-gone politics, but switch a few items around, and the Beeches and Hagadorns (the two main families of this film) could be any, everyday people dealing with their children being sent off to fight in Vietnam, or perhaps more recent actions in the Middle East. It is a film that can reach out and touch us, bringing us into the history in a more intimate, down-to-earth way.
Copperhead does leave some to be desired, by way of certain actors needing more screen-time, and some characters who are not developed well-enough, but overall, this is a movie that people will be able to relate to and discuss, which is definitely very important for something so laden with politics. As has been said ad nauseum, this is nothing like Maxwell’s other Civil War movies, because the battleground is not of open fields and cannons, but of vitriolic politics, families divided, and homesteads being threatened by fire and rope. The civilian is an oft forgotten facet of all wars and their history, but thankfully this movie begins to show us that the men, women, and children far away from the battlefields were just as much warriors as the soldiers doing the fighting. All of this is helped along by the outstanding soundtrack by Laurent Eyquem, which contributes much to the feeling of the movie.
Dissent: often scorned, sometimes praised, always misunderstood. The American Civil War is sometimes called the Second American Revolution or the Second War of Independence, yet the American Revolution is never referred to as our country’s first Civil War. And why not? One could argue that the situations are exactly the same. In both cases, a percentage of the population wanted to remove themselves from a ruler they perceived as tyrannical. Don’t think Abraham Lincoln was a tyrant? Well, there were plenty of people that didn’t think King George III was either.
If there is a film that is going to be new and innovative regarding the Civil War or battle of Gettysburg, chances are its director is going to be Robert Child, the man behind Gettysburg: The Boys in Blue & Gray, Gettysburg: Three Days of Destiny, and the very popular Lincoln and Lee at Antietam: The Cost of Freedom. When I interviewed him two years ago, he hinted at what possibly might be coming for the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg, which he will be tasked with directing and producing the official commemorative film for, titled, Gettysburg: Final Measure of Devotion, which I guess you could say will act as the capstone to his unofficial Gettysburg documentary trilogy. The actual film itself is slated to be released on Remembrance Day in November, on Blu-Ray and DVD. There is also plans of a broadcast on PBS next year, in addition to it hitting local theaters in the fall.
Some people were expecting the worst from National Geographic’s Killing Lincoln, for two reasons: Bill O’Reilly’s book of the same title was littered with inaccuracies, and the production team of Ridley and Tony Scott, along with director Adrian Moat, recently produced one of the most inept and historically insulting documentaries ever made, Gettysburg, back in 2011. Hosted and narrated by Tom Hanks, this is a docudrama which surpasses Gettysburg, distances itself slightly from the book, yet at the same time, does not adequately deliver the entertainment one would expect here, which I will address later. Billy Campbell, whose other Civil War-era film, Copperhead, is slated to be released in June, does a decent job as President Abraham Lincoln. It would be absolutely unfair to compare him to Daniel Day-Lewis, so on his own he is fine. The performance is very calm, quiet, and subdued and I have no problem with the voice he used, which is not accurately high-pitched, but also is not the typical Hollywood deep voice we have heard over the years. The production team used Campbell and his talents as best as they could. However, considering that this film is about killing Lincoln, and Lincoln dies just after the midway point, it did leave a lot to be desired.