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'My Captain!': history and storytelling in Steven Spielberg's Lincoln.

   O CAPTAIN! my Captain! our fearful trip is done;
   The ship has weathered every rack, the prize we sought is won;
   The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
   While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:
   But O heart! heart! heart!
   O the bleeding drops of red,
   Where on the deck my Captain lies,
   Fallen cold and dead. (1)

Walt Whitman's now-famous poem was written in 1865 as an explicit text of mourning for, and celebration of the life of, Abraham Lincoln. President Lincoln was assassinated on 14 April (Good Friday) of that year, five days after the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Court House, which spearheaded the end of the American Civil War. Whitman's poem presents Lincoln as the beloved captain of the ship of the state the one whose skills and courage have steered it through almost unimaginable horrors to its twin 'prizes': the end of the war and the restitution of the Union; and the legislative abolition of slavery. For Whitman, like director Steven Spielberg after him, not only was Lincoln the one who brought the nation out of chaos and into its emergence as the modern United States of America, but he was also 'father' in an almost personal as well as national sense. As Daniel Day-Lewis comments in an interview about his portrayal of Lincoln in Spielberg's 2012 film, 'There has never been a human being I have loved as much [as Lincoln] and I doubt I ever will.' (2) Lincoln is a personality who has inspired love as well as loyalty, and whose legendary status has transformed him into a kind of philosophical king of the American nation. This same sense is evoked in the monumental proportions of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, where a towering and thoughtful Lincoln sits, seemingly pondering the welfare of his beloved and loving people. Its inscription--'In this temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever'--elevates him to a godlike position; Lincoln is viewed as a founding father who redeemed the vision of those first architects of American independence, (3) with their emphasis on the rights of liberty and equality, and who--through personal suffering and sacrifice--brought his ravaged country to a point of resolution and healing.

Early in the film, Lincoln relates a dream to his wife, Mary (Sally Field), in which he stands alone on the prow of a ship, heading into frightening and unknown territory. The visual effects that accompany this story are disconcerting: we feel Lincoln's visceral fear, the dream's passage into darkness. (4) While Mary is first tempted to interpret the dream as concern about the imminent attack on Wilmington, she soon realises it refers to the difficult passage through congress that Lincoln anticipates for the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, which would outlaw slavery and any involuntary servitude (except as punishment). In terms of the film's themes and iconography, the dream is significant: not only does it presage the main narrative trajectory of the amendment (the political dimension of the film), but it also intimates the other, more personal trajectory towards Lincoln's death. With his assassination implicitly hanging over the film's other narrative of success--of the war and the amendment--the dream gives us insight into the vulnerability of the individual, isolated and alone on his journey towards death. Here, the loneliness of leadership blurs into the isolation and extremity of death. When, later, he jokes with James Ashley (David Costabile) that his tenacity to win the amendment likens him to Captain Ahab harpooning the whale, (5) we see the motif of the sailor again: vulnerable in a small whaling boat and pitted against a monstrous foe, Lincoln will never give up and will, if necessary, go down with the whale rather than allow it to escape. Complicating Whitman's image of the president's heroic identification with the ship, these later references tell us much about the man and his vulnerability as he sails, alone and exposed, towards national triumph and personal disaster.


Although the film presupposes some knowledge about the swirl of history that led up to these momentous events, Lincoln also provides some contextualisation. The narrative begins with a map showing the division of the American states into those belonging to the north and those to the south, and with a series of captions that seek to situate the story of the American Civil War and the role that slavery and the abolition movement played in that conflict. Perhaps echoing Ken Burns' groundbreaking television documentary The Civil War (1990), Spielberg attempts to give his audience a sufficient understanding of this complex period before he can begin to build a narrative that will move the viewer. As with any historically situated drama, Lincoln presented its creators with the issue of what modern audiences already know about the period and the person, and decisions had to be made regarding what is necessary to convey.

The American Civil War, or the War Between the States, began in 1861 and ran until 1865, resulting in the loss of approximately 620,000 soldiers and an unknown number of civilians. (6) It cut a vicious swathe across an entire generation, and remains America's deadliest conflict. Historian John Huddleston estimates the death toll at 10 per cent of all northern males twenty to forty-five years old, and 30 per cent of all southern white males aged eighteen to forty. (7) In brief, the conflict can be understood to have been triggered by two main elements: a number of southern states resisting state unification, as they considered it equivalent to being 'ruled' by the north; and the interrelated conflict over slavery, and the role of slaves, particularly in the cotton-driven economies of the south. That the war arose from tensions relating to states' rights versus federal rights and the ethical/economic issue of slavery makes its actual causes difficult to pin down--a slipperiness evident within the film's narrative and, arguably, still apparent within American culture and politics today. When Lincoln, from the newly formed Republican Party, was elected in 1860, it was primarily on the grounds of maintaining the Union and preventing the secession of southern states. However, the two issues of the Union and slavery were impossible to separate, as the southern or slave states viewed the continuation of slavery as central to their economic prosperity, if not survival, and considered the new president's increasingly evident opposition to slavery as a means of undermining their political and economic power. While the US had ratified an act prohibiting the importation of slaves in 1807, slavery continued as an institution in the southern states, and so in 1863 (in the context of the raging war) Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which determined all slaves in the still-rebelling states to now be free--free to run away from their southern masters and to take up arms in the Yankee cause. While the Emancipation Proclamation had been effective enough in catalysing the outlawing of slavery, Lincoln recognised its limitations: it was the desire to enshrine abolition into legislation before the end of the war (and the political impetus it brought with it) that saw him focus so fiercely on winning the vote for the Thirteenth Amendment.

The history of human slavery and the rise of abolition movements, both in America and elsewhere, is complex. (8) Indeed, slavery can be seen as a particular consequence of European colonisation, with its imperialist assumptions about the non-human status of indigenous and, more broadly, non-white peoples. But abolitionism emerged from a confluence of the objections of Quakers in the seventeenth century, discourses of eighteenth-century enlightenment --with their (sometimes patchy) emphasis on freedom and embryonic human rights (9)--as well as unrest among the enslaved themselves. In an interesting twist, it was some of these same discourses that contributed to the rhetoric of the American Revolution in 1776, with its rejection of imperial oppression and emphasis on equality and freedom--at least for some. Thomas Jefferson, for example, was a slave owner as well as an architect of the American Constitution. (10) The convenience of the institution of slavery; its links to an imperialist, almost feudal hierarchy that rendered the non-white individual subhuman; and its imbrication within the economies of the southern 'slave states' thus initially overwhelmed any sense of an ethical objection. It took the momentum of another set of events to finally turn the tide against slavery in America. In England, William Wilberforce had introduced the Slave Trade Act of 1807, abolishing the slave trade. In America, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin was published in 1852, horrifying the world with its tales of slavery. In 1856, a Supreme Court judge (a southern sympathiser) shocked many and sparked debate when he deemed black Americans 'so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to accept'. (11) In 1859, John Brown decided that armed insurrection was the only way to stop the abomination of slavery and launched a raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia. The country was torn and in moral and political uproar. 'A House divided against itself cannot stand,' said Lincoln in his nomination acceptance speech in 1858, 'I do not expect the house to fall--but I do expect it will cease to be divided.' (12) The issue of slavery was eating away at the very ethical and political core of American life; one way or the other, it needed to be addressed, both in terms of America's view of itself and how it was seen on the international stage.


One way to find a sustainable dramatic scope within such a broad historical canvas is to narrow the window of observation. Drawing closely on Doris Kearns Goodwin's 2005 book, Team of Rivals, Spielberg and scriptwriter Tony Kushner refined the focus of the film's narrative to the last four months of Lincoln's life--in particular, to the events leading up to the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment in the House of Representatives on 31 January 1865, and concluding with the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Court House and Lincoln's assassination. This focus makes a huge amount of detail manageable and enables viewers to identify with Lincoln, as well as bringing the narrative to a viable point of crisis and resolution. Given the multifaceted nature of both the American Civil War and the (political and personal) life of Lincoln, Spielberg finds an effective way to condense the narrative into a kind of metonymy, representing a large, rambling whole in a comparatively tight 150 minutes of drama.

In some respects, Spielberg borrows from the Hollywood convention of the biopic, in which the narrative usually follows the chronological sequence of events in either a significant person's life, or the life of a person who can be seen to be representative of a broader group. However, by offering only a small slice of Lincoln's life, entwined as it is with such portentous events in American history, Lincoln is not strictly a biopic; we have little sense of his childhood and background, and only suggestions of his private life against the large-scale narratives of war, slavery and nationhood. As Edwin Stanton (Bruce McGill) says when Lincoln dies, 'He now belongs to the ages'; Lincoln's story will always be indistinguishable from the story of a pivotal time in American history, which America looks back to as part of its national mythology. In this sense, Lincoln might be referred to as an epic as readily as a biopic. Indeed, Spielberg himself is attracted to the larger-than-life effects of the epic canvas, with its grand themes and focus on the heroic individual. (13) The dramatising effects of the soundtrack and the occasional touches of sentimentality are both indicative of Spielberg's style, as an almost-auteur, and of the epic genre a filmic salute to various notions of greatness.

The film utilises a colour scheme of steely blue and grey, often overlaid with the vividness of red. Not only does this schema mirror the pale January light in which Lincoln and the Republicans labour towards their goals, but it also symbolises the conflict itself --the blue of the north, the grey of the Confederate army, and the red gash of war as well as a presentiment of Lincoln's spilt blood. In this way, the film also highlights one of its central dichotomies: the contrast between the essentially sedentary and interior world of furious politicking, which takes up most of the narrative, and the fields of blood and extreme violence, which directly underpin the political narrative. We glimpse this shockingly intimate violence in the film's first few scenes of combat: in the barrow of amputated, dripping limbs; with Lincoln as he sorrowfully surveys the battlefield of Petersburg; and finally in the trickle of blood on the president's pillow. This visceral slash of red is the largely unseen and unspeakable subtext that determines and haunts the orchestrated 'battleground' of politics.


The enormous, iconic weight of this history and of the much-admired persona of Lincoln certainly provided a challenge for Spielberg as a filmmaker. In such a context, where a subject is so well-known, or at least recognised, there are the difficulties of including enough historical detail (although not too much to overwhelm the narrative), and of presenting the character in a manner that is respectful, while not dull and predictable. In addition, while this film clearly focuses on the tall and dominating figure of Lincoln as an individual--as its title would suggest--it is also situated in the context of a very specific part of American history that may or may not be known by contemporary audiences, especially outside the United States. The film thus juggles the Lincoln of history and myth (including the almost adulatory light in which he is viewed) and the details of a complex period in American history.

Spielberg's Lincoln may be great, but he is also complexly humane and humanly flawed. As well as being the political father of the nation--particularly at the point of its 'rebirth' into unity (14) --Lincoln is also often depicted within the personal sphere. These two sides to Lincoln are seen as interrelated and interdependent. Not only is he prepared to make difficult leadership decisions --being, as he recognised, 'clothed in immense power', he sometimes overrides the advice of his own cabinet--but he is also a humble man with a sense of humour, a man who tells long and rambling stories that, eventually, contain a moral that conveys a call to action. We see him in his loving but difficult relationship with Mary as she struggles to maintain a balanced family life under great political and personal pressures. Additionally, her psychological fragility in the wake of the death of their son Willie is clearly evident beneath any superficial calmness she can muster, waiting to break through; their shared parental grief at this loss--one so comparatively small in the context of the hundreds of thousands dying in battle, but so personally significant--continuously threatens to divide as much as unite the couple. We also see Lincoln in relation to his son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), whom he would like to see follow him into law but whose desire to be part of the war he must struggle with, like many a father of the time. When Lincoln takes Robert with him on a visit to a military hospital, Lincoln is presented both as commander-in-chief of the Union army--bringing a sense of order and comfort to suffering young men--and as a father who is anxious to preserve his own son from harm while also maintaining parental control and family peace. When Robert is shocked by the grisly sight of a wheelbarrow of limbs being rolled past him, we are being shown not only the grotesque and literal dismemberments of war, but also the visceral fears of a young man confronted with mortality. Perhaps the most significant humanisation of the figure of Lincoln comes through his tender relationship with his youngest son, Tad (Gulliver McGrath). In the intimacy of this connection--carrying the sleeping child to bed; humouring him through even the most momentous of state matters; the physicality of their embraces; standing together at the window, framed by gauzy curtains, as the bells peal out the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment--Spielberg emphasises Lincoln as an individual, loving and emotionally open in a way that often seems at odds with his role as a shrewd political operator. Thus, the Lincoln we witness within the political sphere--bribing senators for votes, juggling the demands of the various radical and conservative elements of the Republican Party, prepared to send Ulysses S Grant (Jared Harris) and the Union forces into bitter and violent conflicts --is always tempered by these images of Lincoln as family man, as a complex individual struggling with the great conundrums of ethics and political expediency.

Another means of focusing this expanse of history and legend, and of mitigating the grandiose feel of the epic style, comes through the persona of the actor playing the role of Lincoln. Daniel Day-Lewis had already established a reputation as an intense and ethically principled actor. He had undertaken roles in films such as My Beautiful Laundrette (Stephen Frears, 1985), My Left Foot (Jim Sheridan, 1989), The Last of the Mohicans (Michael Mann, 1992), The Age of Innocence (Martin Scorsese, 1993), In the Name of the Father (Sheridan, 1993), Gangs of New York (Scorsese, 2002) and There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007). Known for his commitment to his roles and method acting techniques of character immersion, Day-Lewis brings a presence and immediacy to his portrayal of Lincoln that elevates the film to the level of great drama. Having researched the figure and the period and become well-acquainted with Goodwin's influential biography of Lincoln, Day-Lewis is able to embody the man--enabling the viewer to recognise both the larger heroic movements of history and the many dimensions of the man himself. As portrayed by Day-Lewis, Lincoln is a person of courage and wisdom, tenderness and humility, perspicacity and even ruthlessness--especially when a noble end justifies doubtful means.

Spielberg resists any temptation to make Lincoln's assassination a dramatic event--and its representation is all the more effective for this. In fact, we don't see the event at all--although we may all have some image of it in mind, or a memory of the sketch by Currier and Ives. (15) Instead, we are watching Tad's young, eager face absorbed in another play, in another theatre, when the news of the president's shooting is announced. The few moments' delay before Tad can process the information is profoundly moving; his subsequent wailing and attempts to hang onto a theatre railing powerfully demonstrate the catastrophic personal consequences of this political event. Similarly, Mary's puffy, distraught face and Lincoln's body lying crookedly on a bed, his brain matter leaking quietly and unobtrusively onto the pillow, emphasise the personal dimensions of this grief. Even Lincoln, as he himself had dreamed it earlier, is swept out into the open and turbulent channels of history and myth.

Rose Lucas is a Melbourne-based, writer and critic.


(1) Walt Whitman, 'O Captain! My Captain!', Leaves of Grass, 1865.

(2) Emanuel Levy, 'Lincoln: Interview with Daniel Day-Lewis', Cinema 24/7, < -interview-with-daniel-day-lewis/>, accessed 8 October 2013.

(3) See the preamble of the American Constitution, dated 17 September 1787, with its claims to liberty and democracy: We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.'

(4) Doris Kearns Goodwin, co-writer of Lincoln, records this dream as one that Lincoln actually had on 13 April 1865--the eve of his death: 'he seemed to be in some singular, indescribable vessel, and that he was moving with great rapidity towards an indefinite shore'. See Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Penguin, London, 2005, p. 731.

(5) Herman Melville, Moby Dick; or, The Whale, Penguin, Harmondsworth, UK, 2001 [1851].

(6) John Huddleston, Killing Ground: Photographs of the Civil War and the Changing American Landscape, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2002, p. 3.

(7) ibid.

(8) See, for example, Emily Morrell, Martin Steer, Jennifer Wallis & Jane Winters (eds), History in Focus, issue 12, 'Slavery', Spring 2007, < index.htmb, accessed 8 October 2013.

(9) A For example, Montesquieu argued: '[Slavery] is not good by its nature; it is useful neither to the master nor to the slave: not to the slave, because he can do nothing from virtue; nor to the master, because he contracts all sorts of bad habits from his slaves, because he imperceptibly grows accustomed to failing in all the moral virtues, because he grows proud, curt, harsh, voluptuous, and cruel [...] in monarchical government, where it is sovereignly important neither to beat down nor to debase human nature, there must be no slaves. In democracies, where everyone is equal, and in aristocracy, where the laws should put their effort into making everyone as equal as the nature of the government can permit, slaves are contrary to the spirit of the constitution; they serve only to give citizens a power and a luxury they should not to have.' See Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws, Book 15, Chapter 1, Anne M Cohler, Basia Carolyn Miller & Harold Samuel Stone (eds & trans.), Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1989 [1748], p. 246.

(10) This apparent contradiction in Jefferson's philosophy has been hotly argued by historians. In a letter dated 22 April 1820 to John Holmes, a former senator from Maine, Jefferson wrote of slavery: 'we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.'

(11) Chief Justice Roger Taney, cited in Goodwin, op. cit, p. 188. As Goodwin describes, rather than settling the question of the role of the black man in the American state, Taney's contentious decision initiated a flood of debate, particularly within the newly formed Republican Party--thereby indirectly fuelling the path towards the Civil War.

(12) Abraham Lincoln, cited in Goodwin, op. cit, p. 198.

(13) For example, from Spielberg's extensive filmography: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), The Color Purple (1985), Jurassic Park (1993), Schindler's List (1993), Saving Private Ryan (1998), Munich (2005), War Horse (2011).

(14) The film's opening sequence of Lincoln talking to a group of ordinary soldiers, black and white, refers to his famous Gettysburg Address of 19 November 1863, in which he claimed that through the efforts of the war, 'this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom--and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.' Available in full at Abraham Lincoln Online, <>, accessed 8 October 2013.

(15) Currier and Ives, The Assassination of President Lincoln at Ford's Theatre, Washington, D.C., April 14, 1865, which can be viewed at the Library of Congress website America's Story from America's Library, <>, accessed 8 October 2013.
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Title Annotation:FILM AS TEXT
Author:Lucas, Rose
Publication:Screen Education
Date:Jan 1, 2014
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