Thursday, November 08, 2012

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Abraham Lincoln is the great American hero and legend: the original rags to riches tale, Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill, rail splitter, martyr fallen in service to his country.  More books have been written about Lincoln than about all the other presidents combined, maybe excepting Jefferson. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (dir. Timur Bekmambetov, 2012) takes the barest outline of the Lincoln biography, accepts at face value the Great Man’s heroism and legendry, and creates a parallel history in which Lincoln sets out from boyhood intent on killing the vampire who killed his mother.  After meeting another man experienced with killing vampires, Lincoln decides to become a vampire hunter, learns the skills of this secret vocation, and swears to live his life in solitude—a vow he commences to violate throughout the entire film. As we learn, vampires have invaded the nation and marked out the Southern states as favored territory.  They prey especially on slaves, ally themselves with slave traders and slave holders, and in the Civil War, at least in the Battle of Gettysburg, they fight on the Southern side. 

Early in his career Lincoln wields a silver-tipped ax against vampires.  (He chooses the ax, rather than a rifle, because he is so adept at splitting logs).  At first his quest to kill his mother’s murderer is purely one of revenge, but as he becomes aware of how vampires are preying on people, especially slaves, he learns more about the issue of slavery.  Lincoln in the film has progressive views about slavery from an early age, and the film gives no hint of the struggles and ambiguities in the real Lincoln’s mind concerning slavery.  His only real struggle in the film is when to declare slaves free.  He goes into politics because he realizes that he can wage the battle he wants to wage with words and puts the ax in the closet.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter builds parallel connections between the historical situation leading up to the Civil War and the one in the film.  In the real South, white men exploited slaves for economic gain.  To this the film adds the fact that vampires see in slaves easy victims, so they ally themselves with the slaveholders who are also exploiting slaves.  In one scene Lincoln is captured and taken to a grand Southern mansion where the head vampire lives.  The iconography of the great Southern mansion with its columns and moss-draped trees makes clear the connection between slaves, slaveholders, vampires, and the South.  Interestingly, only one brief scene suggests that vampires should have rights like normal humans and be permitted to live in the open (presumably with a good supply of slave blood at hand).  The film doesn’t exploit the notion of vampires as a marginalized victims as the HBO series True Blood does.

We never see, for the most part, the Band of Rivals whom the historical Lincoln enlisted as advisors and members of his cabinet.  Instead Lincoln relies on two main counselors, his childhood black friend Will Johnson (Anthony Mackie) and Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper), who is waging war against the head vampire who killed his fiancée many years ago in the past.  He warns Lincoln against seeking revenge, but revenge seems to be pretty much what he is after.  On the night that Lincolns rides off to the Ford Theater and its fateful play, he even offers to make Lincoln a vampire so that they can continue their battle as immortals.  Lincoln declines the offer, explaining that there are other ways to become immortal.

The film distorts, changes, or ignores virtually all the facts about Lincoln’s life and presidency.  In particular, it makes Mary Todd Lincoln (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) into the President’s sympathetic ally.  There’s not much of a hint of the sour, depressive Mary Todd who was Lincoln’s real wife.  She’s a flirtatious, attractive, heroic figure and in no ways the cypher that many find the historical Mary Todd to be.  In the film Lincoln vies with Stephen Douglass for Mary’s hand.  Later, she leads a band of escaped slaves through the woods towards Gettysburg, carrying loads of silver to be melted down into bullets.  You can guess what the silver bullets are for.

No doubt Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a silly film, in practically every way.  But I thought the lead actor Benjamin Walker impressive in his role as the Great Emancipator.  It will be interesting to compare his portrait of Lincoln to that of Daniel Day Lewis in the newly released Lincoln, directed by Stephen Spielberg.  But in this film Walker makes Lincoln an impressive comic book super hero.

The film is heavily laden with visual effects.  Often, scenes seem only partially rendered.  In others, film and digital effects seem to fuse in a visually confusing way.  The railroad trestle scene in which Lincoln and friends battle vampires on the top of a train speeding across a burning bridge that spans a deep gorge is over the top.

It makes little sense to complain about the historical inaccuracies in this film about a vampire hunting Abe Lincoln.  Its absurdity makes it worthwhile.

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