The Presidency in Films
Hollywood was in the business of building an image of America - and of the presidency - that would unite a heterogeneous culture
OVER the years, Hollywood's attention to the presidency has been a gauge of the public's sentiments and expectations. The films that have been made about historical presidents tend to reflect what Americans most wish for in the individual who rises to the highest office in the land.Skip to next paragraph
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Oliver Stone's JFK portrayed a man of uncompromising principles who would have banned the bomb, retrieved the troops from Vietnam, and secured the civil rights of all minorities if only he had been allowed to live. Director Stone's President Kennedy is a visionary nobleman who loved the common man, a Robin Hood who lived within the law.
No matter what one may think of Stone's historicism in general, or President Kennedy in particular, "JFK" projects an image of the presidency that is as reverent as that of old Hollywood. Not even the vilification of Lyndon Johnson in the same film dampens the veneration Stone invokes toward the office of president. The reverence with which the filmmaker treats Kennedy, and the extravagant lengths he goes to to assure us of Kennedy's virtues, create a mythos not seen on the big screen for decades.
Until the 1960s, Hollywood movie moguls were in the business of building an image of America - and the presidency - that would help unite a heterogeneous culture. When directors like D. W. Griffith, John Ford, and Frank Capra zeroed in on the presidency, the qualities they depicted may not have belonged so much to the real men who held office, as to ideals of the presidency held by the American public.
If Hollywood is any indication, Abe Lincoln is the most idolized of all American presidents. In Griffith's "Abraham Lincoln" (1930), Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln, (1939), and John Cromwell's Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940), Lincoln represents wisdom, honor, humility, dignity, and above all, common sense.
Ford's vision is arguably the most compelling of the three. Made at the brink of World War II, his "Young Mr. Lincoln" shows the young man (Henry Fonda) quietly moving toward destiny, earnestly pursuing the law and justice. He may ride a jackass into town, his sleeves may be a trifle too short, and his stove-pipe hat a bit too tall, but the gangly fellow knows that the law is really about right and wrong - and he knows the difference between them.
So when an angry mob tries to lynch a couple of strangers accused of murder, Abe appeals first to their sense of humor, then to their common humanity, and finally to their best instincts, dispersing them without incident.
When Lincoln later rescues the strangers from false witness in the courtroom, it is his peculiar combination of homespun humor, penetrating intelligence, and modest assertion of right that turns the tables on the bad guy. Ford's Lincoln is an awkward dancer, but the greatness of his soul is undeniable.
As the film ends, and the strains of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" swell, Ford links the young Lincoln with his destiny as president - a yardstick for all who come after him to measure themselves by.
Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) of Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (also 1939) does measure himself and everyone else by Lincoln's example. When lost in shame and anger over political corruption, he turns to Lincoln's statue for inspiration and to his precepts for guidance.