It’s not surprising, in a movie such as Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, to find a great deal of hunting vampires, but I did find rather more than I expected of Mr Lincoln. Part of the point of such a piece is of course the glorious joke of its title. Given the basic setup is pretty much explained before reaching the cinema, even more so for those who saw the earlier novel, the challenge is to put something else behind it.
Critics have come out uniformly negative, like a line of Union soliders wielding Springfield rifles of hate. Actually, Timur Bekmambetov and writer Seth Grahame-Smith don’t do too bad a job. Abe: VH has its problems. It doesn’t take the approach (I would think a mistake) of being just a fight movie in 1860s costume. The second act even takes time out for political exposition and smaller scale Whitehouse family drama; a saggy but welcome variation from a simple progression of action scenes. It’s an action movie that makes time for the Gettysburg address. It’s not a long speech, but somehow a little more than expected.
Some parts are flawed. Others are freaking awesome. They are freaking awesome in the same way as Brad Nelly’s George Washington. They combine mythic fragments of the American Civic Religion with mythic fragments of American action movies and mythic fragments of vampire lore in a mosaic that celebrates their symbolic role while signalling it is also a fiction.
Bekmambetov and Grahame-Smith play the material straight. Again I think this is the right choice when presenting such a flagrant counterfactual. Winking at the content would destroy the premise of the fantastic world. The viewer can always step back to laugh at the absurdity of the hook; they shouldn’t be pushed back. There are some good fights, much influenced by the post-Matrix martial arts style. At 105 minutes it doesn’t overstay its welcome.
American presidents have a role not unlike saints or Hellenic gods in the American Civic Religion. And many-named Lincoln is at the heart of the pantheon, equal to the founding fathers in symbolic weight, the great hinge on which the chronology of American statecraft swings. Lincoln even sounds mythic. He had, in Adam Gopnik’s words, “mastered the sound of the King James Bible so completely that he could recast abstract issues of constitutional law in Biblical terms, making the proposition that Texas and New Hampshire should be forever bound by a single post office sound like something right out of Genesis”.
This movie’s Lincoln is not the Lincoln of history books, though the complexity of the man lends him weight as an action hero. Don’t all politicians have secret lives run in parallel with their very public lives? This story reverses the usual superheroic trope – the secret life is the one of clean hits and unambiguous moral purpose. The famous, public life is the compromised one beset by moral quandaries. (Batman is a variation where both identities are famous.)
How much of the real Lincoln is really told by popular history? The Lincoln of this movie doesn’t say anything like those dismaying words of the First Inaugral,
I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.
… and yet, how often does that enter the foreground in the history of poular memory? Lincoln is the great American nationalist, and the great liberal imperialist too. I view this from a non-American vantage point, so maybe I’m missing some cultural context. Maybe all elementary schools tease out the multifarious economic, demographic and historic causes of the War between the States and all Fourth of July barbeques are accompanied by nuanced discussion of the political factions faced by the 16th president. Many Americans do know their own history well.
I suspect that even when the history is well known the myths of civic religion require certain narrative simplifications. Conor Cruise O’Brien argues much the same about Jefferson. (Jefferson para-scholarship is also largely silent on whether he was a vampire.) The virtue of a movie like this is acknowledging that mythic need while separating it somewhat from history. Grahame-Smith even constructs a scene where Pickett’s charge makes sense – vampires need not fear bullets and can infiltrate an enemy line with invisibility. It’s far more rational than the psychology of armies and generals failing to learn new tactics in the face of new tech.
Civic religions are worthwhile when they support worthwhile ideals. The American variant supports liberty and democracy and a system that for all its flaws is the great exponent of the same. They let us make the transformation from merely thinking republican democracy is a good idea and truly believing it.
Maybe it’s for the best that in these days of targeted US drone assassinations a movie imagining a president individually killing evildoers with a silver coated axe has not swept all before it. When I put it next to such monumental pieces of kitsch as Harrison Ford’s Air Force One or Mt Rushmore it hardly seems out of character. At least Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is honest about what it confabulates.