Joshua Reviews D.W. Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln [Blu-ray Review]

With the 2012 election now a full week-plus in the  rear-view  mirror, and director Steven Spielberg’s latest effort, his Abraham Lincoln biopic Lincoln making its way into wide release, one of classic cinema’s largest names is getting one of his masterpieces thrust back into the spotlight.

Tuesday brought with it the release of a new DVD and Blu-ray from the team over at Kino Lorber, a new release of the iconic D.W. Griffith-directed and Walter Huston-starring Abraham Lincoln. Often compared to the shockingly similar John Ford film, Young Mr. Lincoln, Griffith’s film is a plaintive meditation on the man who was hell bent on keeping the Union together through a time of dramatic turmoil, and while it lacks the same bravado and grandiose cinematic language of Griffith’s earlier efforts, it is a loving ode to the greatest President in US history.

Like Ford’s film, Abraham Lincoln is a stately look at a broad swath of Lincoln’s life. Even hinting at a romance prior to his marriage to Mary Todd-Lincoln with Ann Rutledge, the film attempts to look at the man as if he were something more. Featuring beautifully composed dialogue sequences connected throughout its 90-minute runtime via thrilling flights of cinematic fancy (be it a montage portraying the Lincoln/Douglas debates, or a line of soldiers counting off), Lincoln ultimately lacks the scope of a film like Griffith’s deplorable but cinematically definitive Birth Of A Nation, but makes up for it by continuing Griffith’s appreciation for a patriotic sense of Americana found within the frame of films like this, or his Way Down West adaptation. Griffith loved this era in American history, and his appreciation for the time and the aesthetic of the period bleeds throughout the body of this film.

So where does this film, creatively, stand  among  fellow films portraying the 16th President of these United States? With it being drawn as inspiration for both of the aforementioned Lincoln films, Lincoln and Young Mr. Lincoln, the film plays like a perfectly distilled mixture of the two. Any film portraying this icon will be held up by its performance, and Huston’s turn as the man himself is thrilling. It lacks the larger than life connotation that an actor like Daniel Day-Lewis brings to the role, but it makes up for it by blending the comedic storyteller as shown by Day-Lewis in Lincoln, and giving it the Henry Fonda-esque ‘politician next door’ as seen in a film like Young Mr. Lincoln. That film’s director, John Ford, has always seemed to be a large inspiration on the work of Steven Spielberg, and all three films here feel aesthetically connected. Lincoln is at times both Spielberg’s most cinematically inventive, and also his most muted, something that can be said for both Griffith and Ford’s attempts at capturing the life of this legend. All three play like kindred spirits, lost in time but connected by filmic blood.

Kino’s Blu-ray is impeccable. The film looks gorgeous, and while it doesn’t have much in the way of supplements, it makes up for it with one hell of a transfer. Restored by the Museum of Modern Art and mastered from that 35mm restoration, the film looks and sounds utterly fantastic, and it even includes sequences that had been exalted from previous releases of the film. It does include Griffith and Huston introducing both parts of The Birth Of A Nation, and it’s entertaining to see these two men talk about that picture.

Overall, while the supplements may be lacking within this release, as a historical piece, this is a must own. A brilliant look into the life of this nation’s greatest president, Griffith’s film is a loving ode to an icon who made this nation better. Filled with his patented sense of cinematic Americana, Abraham Lincoln is one of the greatest historical dramas ever committed to the big screen, from one of the greatest auteurs in all of film.

Joshua Brunsting

Josh is a critic, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, a wrestling nerd, a hip-hop head, a father, a cinephile and a man looking to make his stamp on the world, one word at a time.