Thursday, November 15, 2012

"Lincoln" and Bringing History to Life

Updated April 2018
With the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's assassination only days away (as of this updated 2018 writing), I thought it to be appropriate to re-publish this posting, which centers on an amazing movie about the last days of Lincoln, as well as something very special pertaining to our 16th President that is in our own backyard (for those of us living in the metro-Detroit area).
I hope you enjoy it, as well as get a chance to see the movie as well.

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When the 2012 movie about Abraham Lincoln starring Daniel Day Lewis and Sally Field was released all those years ago, a number of my reenacting friends and I saw it at the theater on its date of release while wearing our period clothing. Yeah, but that's what some of us reenactors like to do (18 of us!) - I guess it just kind of adds to the entire experience of historical movie watching. Sort of like "you are there."
Like I said, we can be a little bit off.
And we all tended to agree with the reviewers and gave it two thumbs up. It was done in a very real manner - true to history. And I'm here to tell you for this movie they went the extra mile, for some of what I read really made me stand up and take notice: it had to do with the sound effects. To help make this movie come alive, the film makers actually used original sounds to give it that note of accuracy. For instance, the pocket watch Mr. Lewis (as Lincoln) has is a prop. But the sound you hear coming from it is not. That's because the sound man, Ben Burtt, recorded the ticking of one of the real time pieces Abraham Lincoln owned.
But that's not all...
The ringing of the steeple bell from St. John's Episcopal Church, of which our 16th President attended often, is heard as well, along with the sound of the church floor boards - the very same that Lincoln walked upon 150 years ago. The sound techs went as far as to even record the sound the his pew made as he sat down and got up.
But there's still more:
In the executive office of the White House, there is a clock that's been there since the time of Andrew Jackson, and the sound of that clock is used in many office scenes. Other sound effects from the White House includes door latches and the opening and closing and the knocking upon those doors - the very same doors when Lincoln was there.
But the capper may be having the opportunity to hear the squeaks from the springs of the original carriage that took the President and his wife to the Ford Theater on the evening of April 14, 1865.
As for the movie...
A scene from "Lincoln" is very well done, by the way; and not the typical Lincoln movie you've seen previously. It was an intense drama about the passing of the 13th Amendment - did I say intense? - and everything about it lent to a strong taste of authenticity. Danile Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, and the other actors did an amazing and realistic job portraying men and women from history. As far as I could tell, the clothing and fashions were spot on and the sets were exceptional - very authentic. And, as I mentioned, many of the sound effects are the real deal and truly did lend that strong taste of authenticity. Daniel Day-Lewis’ portrayal of Lincoln very exceptional; all of the mannerisms I've read on the man and of his contemporaries were here. But the best part of this movie, to me, was they didn't deify Lincoln and make him out to be some god-like mythological creature. They, instead, showed him as a human, they showed the whys and wherefores of those who didn't like the man, and spoke of his own questionable 'trampling' of the Constitution (as many of our contemporary Presidents are also accused of). They also showed him as one who believed strongly in his case and cause. It was as balanced as I have seen of the man yet on film, and for Hollywood that is very commendable.
Logan County Courthouse from 1840 where Lincoln once practiced law
It's these little things like sound-effect details that bring history to life for me, whether in a movie or while at a museum or even at reenactments. But guess what? I have been lucky enough to have heard sounds that Lincoln heard as well; inside of Greenfield Village is an original courthouse where Mr. Lincoln practiced law in the 1840's. Wanting a building that was associated with our 16th President, Henry Ford found a forgotten and dilapidated structure that was, in 1929, being used as a private residence, and since the folks in Lincoln, Illinois (formerly known as Postville) had no means (or previous intentions) to restore this historic building, Ford took it upon himself to do so.
But when the residents of Lincoln heard of Mr. Ford's purchasing the building, they suddenly became interested in it and tried to legally prevent Ford from removing it to Dearborn, Michigan for his Greenfield Village. One columnist from a local paper stated: Because the city of Lincoln did not realize its heritage, the building has been kept up by a private citizen. Henry Ford entered the scene and purchased the building to move to his historic museum at Dearborn, Michigan. He plans to tear it down and rebuild it in Michigan, but when he does, Illinois loses another famous homesite, not through fire, but through the inaction of its own people.
The structure was quickly shipped to Michigan and up in time for the opening of Greenfield Village in the fall of 1929. Ford spared no expense restoring this structure: even the original plaster was preserved, having it reground with new plaster and included in the restoration.
Beautifully restored as our 16th President would have seen it.
Residents of Lincoln ignored the old building as a bit of Americana until the late Henry Ford, in 1929, bought it for his collection of memorabilia. Other organizations had chances to salvage the building but none took action. Not until the building was gone did they sense the historical significance of the building.
My opinion? Thank God Henry Ford did save this building, whether he removed it from its original location or not, for there is not another original like it anywhere else in the world. And who knows what outcome would have beheld this historical gem.
Research showed that when he was a young attorney Abraham Lincoln once practiced law in this walnut clapboard building, which was built in Postville (now Lincoln), Illinois in 1840. Being a circuit-riding lawyer, Mr. Lincoln would travel upon his horse to the tiny country towns within a certain perimeter - Lincoln and the other handful of circuit riding lawyer companions with him covered the Eighth Judicial Circuit which covered around 11,000 square miles - and they would follow Judge David Davis to the courthouses of the towns.

Court was in session only twice a year, and could be a raucous affair in the first three quarters of the 19th century. It was quite entertaining for the folks sitting on the hard wood benches or peeking through the windows (which were usually opened due to the heat from all of the bodies inside). In fact, it was quite the "to do" for the country townsfolk, for this was about the only time a small town could have some real big-time excitement. People from all around the neighboring communities would travel to the court building to be enthralled by the legal battles at hand; I liken it to a modern-day court-room television drama that are always so popular today. Of course, the local businesses always had red-letter days during the time the court was in session as well.
Inside the 1840 Logan County Courthouse. Notice the clock and cabinet: they once belonged to Lincoln
Some of the furnishings in this building are original Lincoln associated pieces: the John Birge wall clock, the empire chairs, and the swivel-top card table with brass paw feet are from Lincoln's Springfield home. Also, the walnut corner cupboard was made by Abraham and his father.
The resonance of my period shoe wear as I stepped on the very same floorboards as Lincoln inside this courthouse has always intrigued me. I have sat on the bench and stared at the historic items inside this building, imagining - almost hearing and seeing - the above-mentioned 19th century courtroom scenario.
Can you just see (and hear) Mr. Lincoln as a lawyer in this room, stepping heavily upon the boards? I can...
I highly recommend this movie, as well as a follow up (though released on film a couple years before), The Conspirator,  which, also went the extra mile to bring authentic history to life.
As is written on Amazon:
In the wake of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, seven men and one woman are arrested and charged with conspiring to kill the President, Vice President, and Secretary of State. The lone woman charged, Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), 42, owns a boarding house where John Wilkes Booth (Toby Kebbell), 26, and others met and planned the simultaneous attacks. Against the ominous backdrop of post-Civil War Washington, newly-minted lawyer Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), a 28-year-old Union war hero, reluctantly agrees to defend Surratt before a military tribunal. Aiken realizes his client may be innocent and that she is being used as bait and hostage in order to capture the only conspirator to have escaped a massive manhunt, her own son, John (Johnny Simmons). As the nation turns against her, Surratt is forced to rely on Aiken to uncover the truth and save her life. From director Robert Redford, The Conspirator is a riveting thriller that tells a powerful story about America then and now.
A scene from "The Conspirator"
And, from the website:
In the production, great pains were taken to recreate the look and feel of 1865. The characters and events featured in the film were exhaustively researched by our entire team. Screenwriter James Solomon and historical researcher Melissa Jacobson pored over hundreds of books, courtroom transcripts, and other primary documents to ensure that the film was as accurate as possible. Jacobson even created a historical “bible” that was distributed to the entire team during pre-production. In addition, our consulting historians provided pages of notes that were integrated into the script and were on hand for any questions that may have arisen during the shoot. The facts surrounding the case we explore in The Conspirator, I believe they’re all historically accurate.  They were drawn from the National Archives and transcripts from the trial and other sources. The writer, Jim Solomon, had worked on the script for something like 15 years and was meticulous about his research.  We also hired historians to vet the script but history doesn’t record every single moment, every conversation or thought.  So you have to take some dramatic license and fill in those gaps, and do that in a true and dramatic way. Robert Redford started his career as a painter and was very interested in the work of both Rembrandt and Vermeer as examples of the use of light and shadow for the movie. Add to that, the dust created by dirt streets, wood-burning fires and the ubiquitous cigar and pipe smoke, and the result is the shafts of light and shadow treatment that many people have noticed in the film.
Pretty amazing, eh?
Now watch these two movies back to back, for  I do not believe you will find as accurate a depiction of these historical events put to film anywhere. I simply cannot recommend them enough.
And don't look for action heroes...they're not here - - 
Why, we're here to see "Lincoln," can't you tell?
The wearing of period clothing while watching accents the experience for a few of us, as it almost always does.
Yes, I became so excited upon hearing of the attention to detail, whether it be in sound - this small, seemingly insignificant detail - that Spielberg included in his "Lincoln" movie, or the sets, scripts, and minute details Redford included in his "The Conspirator."
It's the small details - the background - in these movies that bring them to life, for sometimes, that's where history can be found.

And you can find
The Conspirator
at (click the movie link)

And to read about the chair that Abraham Lincoln was sitting in when he was shot by John Wilkes Booth, and of its whereabouts today, please click HERE

Until next time, see you in time.

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1 comment:

GinaBVictorian said...

Hi Ken! I am so excited about seeing the Lincoln movie. I meant to check our theaters before getting on my blog and forgot. Thanks for sharing what you know about the sound effects. That's great and I think dressing in your period clothing to see the movie sounds like so much fun! I'm sure you all will get the looks but have fun anyway! :)