An A-Z of Film Themes

G Is for Gettysburg

G Is for Gettysburg


The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. (Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address).

I’m not joking when I refer to our country as the United States of Amnesia. (Gore Vidal).


If you’ve cried at the cinema lately and hated yourself for doing so, or endured endless goose-bumps, chills and trembles and wondered why; if you’ve wanted to cheer at a film’s conclusion, even if it was rubbish, then the likelihood is you’ve suffered a dose of Gettysburg Gut. More stomach churning than an Odeon Frankfurter, Gettysburg Gut (or Iconic Speech Syndrome, as the psychiatrists call it) causes a severe emotional response to any form of populist rhetoric: ‘Four score and seven years ago … a government of the people’ – sniff – ‘by the people’ – blub – ‘for the people’. Taking its name from Abraham Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address, the condition is alleged to be prominent amongst adults, especially fans of ‘quality’ drama. I suffer from it myself.

For a long time I denied my Gettysburg problem; the fact that the slightest hint of ‘four score and seven years ago’ got me so worked up with emotion I could barely think. And I know I’m a sucker for doing so, because Gettysburg (or indeed ‘I have a dream’ or any other famous speech you’d care to recall) has, in the movies, been so twisted and misremembered that it usually functions as little more than a lazy bromide. Or, at best, a homage to democratic values yet to be fulfilled. When Gettysburg kicks in, all is right with the world. God bless Sandra Bullock.

So consider the following words both an apology and a spot of self-administered therapy. Let us celebrate but also interrogate the words that make us feel funny inside. And, most importantly, let us remember, along with Tom Hanks and Kevin Costner, that, when the circumstances are noble, allowing a solitary tear to trickle down your cheek is fine. But no one likes a Californian cry baby.


Emanci-mother-fuckin-pator of the slaves’ (Hair, 1968).

It’s highly unlikely that people back in 1863, when Lincoln first gave his celebrated speech, thought that the Gettysburg Address would have so lasting an impact. It certainly was not – as we have been led to believe – an explicit stand against racism and slavery. Publicly, at least, Lincoln was not a strident abolitionist. He would never have been elected president if he was. He campaigned for the United States, for the Union. If preserving the Union meant preserving slavery in some states then, by many accounts, he would have done so. Lincoln’s speech was intended to appeal to soldiers and citizens who had fought for the USA, many of whom were not particularly interested in freeing slaves (or if they were, thought they should all be shipped off to Liberia).

According to the cultural historian Barry Schwartz it wasn’t until the mid 20th century that the Gettysburg Address became central to discussion of racial equality and civil rights. Schwartz charts the rise to prominence of the speech in public culture from the early 1910s, when politicians began to recall Lincoln with more fondness than had the previous generation of civil war veterans. Suddenly, Lincoln was a symbol of democracy, decency, honesty and freedom. Just as important for our purposes, the enshrinement of Gettysburg in the public consciousness occurred about the same time as cinema was becoming a mass phenomenon. As has been the case so often throughout its history, film would rewrite the past for its own ends. Or, to quote the classic western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962): ‘When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.’

The Lincoln legend began pretty early on. In films like When Lincoln Paid (1913), The Reprieve (1908) and Abraham Lincoln’s Clemency (1910), the president becomes a noble figure who doesn’t do much more than wander around pardoning naughty soldiers. The association of Lincoln with a Jesus-like sympathy for the wayward continues in the present. It reached an unfortunate peak recently. In the late 1990s, the Lincoln scholar Thomas Lowry discovered a letter in which Lincoln pardoned a Union deserter. The letter was dated April 14, 1864. Lowry decided to change the date to April 14, 1865, the date of Lincoln’s assassination. This made it seem as if the last correspondence written by Lincoln before he was assassinated was a pardon. For ten years, Lowry was able to bask in the unwarranted attention and notoriety he gained from his ‘revelation.’

While Lowry’s criminal tampering with documentary evidence is extreme, his re-writing of history is certainly not an isolated case. Jumping on the back of Lincoln for the purposes of self-aggrandisement can be found in all number of films and political speeches. Frank Capra, the director of such classics as It’s a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, liked to see himself as heir to Lincoln’s values. In the latter, he has a little boy read out the Gettysburg Address while his elderly relative smiles. A black man enters the screen and humbly removes his cap. In another film, this might work as a call for racial equality: a demand that the United States live up to the principles uttered by one of its greatest luminaries. In Mr Smith it seems pretty ridiculous. Just moments prior to this scene, Capra presented us with a gaggle of black buffoon-layabouts who sneak off from our hero,  Mr Smith (James Stewart), in order to avoid having to carry his bags. Hardly an earnest contribution to the civil rights struggle.

1930s cinema may reference Gettysburg, but black-white relations were rarely emphasised. D.W. Griffith, director of Birth of a Nation (1915), made a Lincoln biopic in 1930. He cobbles together bits of Gettysburg along with other Lincoln speeches at the film’s conclusion. Thus Lincoln says the ‘government of the people’ in a theatre full of America’s upper classes. The elite address the elite. With Lincoln’s assassination coming seconds after he makes the speech, one could almost say that Griffith is symbolically killing off any lingering hope of an egalitarian, democratic America – a bleak thought for a country descending into economic depression.

Other movies injected the speech with relevance to 1930s geopolitics. The 1934 film Are we Civilized? was a rare American movie to criticise Nazi Germany at this time (see my ‘E for Economics’ blog). While not explicitly referring to Hitler and company, it is less than veiled in its criticism of the Fuhrer’s policies. The film focuses on an American-based newspaper baron who returns to the country of his birth (clearly coded as Germany, yet this is never explicitly stated). In an attempt to convince his former boyhood friends of the error of their ways, the baron makes a heartfelt (if somewhat ham-fisted) speech. He refers to Lincoln while visually we are presented with a handwritten copy of The Gettysburg Address.

From the 1960s onwards, representations of the Gettysburg Address increasingly promoted the speech as Lincoln’s stand against slavery. Schwartz refers to civil rights activists invoking Gettysburg in the early 1960s as well as illustrated copies of the speech, which came with pictures of Lincoln addressing an African-American audience. ‘Has anyone seen my old friend Abraham’ sang Dion in 1968, ‘he freed a lot of people, but it seems that the good die young.’ Going on to say the same thing about John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the song (also covered by Marvin Gaye) presents a civil rights lineage that begins with Lincoln and ends with the 1960s assassinations.

In film there have been some interesting versions of a civil rights Gettysburg. Mel Brooks’ comedy western Blazing Saddles (1974) contains a scene in which the randy southern governor hires a black sheriff for the first time. To begin with he is thoroughly against the idea of a black law enforcement officer. However, the railroad owner, Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman) convinces the governor that this could be his Abraham Lincoln moment. With the governor’s ego sufficiently flattered, he begins marching around the office as if he were the President. He even begins reciting the Gettysburg address, but is cut short by his lover who demands he get back behind the curtain and, well, put the ‘score’ back into four score and seven years ago.

Just as interesting is the decision of those behind the film production of Hair (1979) to cut a satirical song about Gettysburg. The song’s ironic take on Lincoln’s role in the emancipation serves as stark contrast to the more sombre treatments we are familiar with in discussion of Lincoln’s life (I’ve heard the actors Jeff Daniels and Gregory Peck, for example, recite the Address in booming tenor voices). Here he is just another white guy making beautiful speeches, while not really doing great deal. The video below offers a recorded performance of the song.

More recently, Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991) has Kevin Costner recite part of the speech during his final courtroom summation. This film had throughout attempted to portray president Kennedy as a great civil rights campaigner and thus heir to Lincoln. ‘He did so much for coloured people’ says a black woman after his assassination. That Kennedy did little to further the civil rights cause until the last few months of his life – and even then, he didn’t do much more than express a general support and begin to call for bills to be drafted – doesn’t stop him from being here presented as a symbol of egalitarianism. ‘Do not forget your dying king.’

The civil rights-themed sports film Remember the Titans (2000) features a scene shot at the Gettysburg cemetery. It is here that Coach Boone (Denzel Washington) finally begins to get through to his black and white students. It is here where the racial integration begins. As Schwartz points out, in reference to broader reimagining of Gettysburg, ‘By the last decade of the 20th century, historians began to represent the Gettysburg Address as a prelude to the civil rights movement.’ It might be considered honourable enough of us to want to reinvest this most iconic of speeches with a civil rights edge. And I am not enough of a Gettysburg Scrooge to want to humbug every attempt at presenting Lincoln as a civil rights figurehead (if celebrity endorsements have taught us anything it is that associating big names with a cause is definitely beneficial).

This rewriting of Gettysburg would, however, seem to me to have a negative side. Centuries’ long freedom struggles are telescoped into the rhetorical eloquence of a lone white protagonist. The implication being that whites had wanted equality all along and it was only a few bad apples that had impeded the march toward equality. And is this not the story that is time and again told in civil rights-themed films more generally? In 1950s and 1960s-set pictures like Mississippi Burning, The Long Walk Home, Cry Freedom or The Help it’s always a white person who ‘wins’ freedom for her black counterparts. ‘White redemption stories’ are, as film and American studies scholar Sharon Monteith notes, the standard in Hollywood portrayals of the civil rights movement. So too do they seem to dominate stories about racial injustice at any point in time – whether this be in films about the American Civil War (Cold Mountain), or films about South African Apartheid (Cry Freedom).

Such portrayals, I would argue, come from the same impulse that constructs Lincoln as, in the words of author and sometime Lincoln revisionist Gore Vidal, a ‘plaster saint.’ Vidal’s own contribution to Lincoln literature, his epic novel Lincoln (1984, subsequently a television series, 1988), might, if his critics are to be believed, have its moments of dodgy historical accuracy. But I certainly came away from it feeling more kindly disposed toward a figure who to me had always been McLincoln: a sanitised and simplified cut-out. There was something refreshing in reading the disgruntled President complain to an aid that his Gettysburg Address had just fallen on the audience ‘like a wet blanket’. He is fully aware that a few rousing words alone could not solve the world’s problems. Nor can one individual change the course of history on their own. Sometimes, I wish Hollywood would think along similar lines.

That’s about it. Next up: H Is for Holidays.

Works Cited

Monteith, Sharon, ‘The Movie Made Movement: Civil Rights of Passage,’ in Paul Grainge (ed.), Memory and Popular Film. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003.

Scwartz, Barry, ‘The New Gettysburg Address: fusing history and memory,’ Poetics 33 (2005), 63-79.

Vidal, Gore. Lincoln. London: Abacus, 1994.

Vidal, Gore, ‘Vidal’s Lincoln: An Exchange’, The New York Times, April 28, 1988.


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