The Day Lincoln Was Shot (1998)


One of the most memorable dark days in the Civil War came long after the last Yankee and Confederate bullet was fired. It was after General Lee surrendered and slavery was abolished in the south. It was the day when a respected Southern actor and gentleman donned the legacy of an assassin and murdered President Lincoln, who is considered one of the greatest men in American history. This film, while being profoundly dark and beautifully accurate, is a haunting glimpse into those few fatal hours preceding and after the death of the man who has since been regarded one of the greatest presidents we have ever known.


Screams fill the theater as a great tremulous voice shouts the ode which has gone down in history -- "Death Unto Tyrants!" Hooves pound down the muddy lane. Burning embers alight the night sky, turning the barn into an inferno. Through the smoky crack in the frail old timbers, the end of a revolver appears. A shot is fired...


We travel back in time into the Ford Theatre where a handsome and distinguished young man sits in front of a photographer's lens impatiently waiting for his image to be forever captured in time... little knowing the same image will soon be distributed to every newspaper and bounty hunter across the nation. John Wilks Booth (Rob Morrow) walks in the footsteps of his father, a magnificent thespian, and his older brother Edwin, also an actor currently touring the south to lift the spirits of the troops. Determined to make a name for himself he seeks every opportunity for fame... and to denounce President Lincoln's war against the South. A smuggler of arms and ammunition to the Confederacy, he keeps up a respectable front. But behind the scenes Booth is scheming his way into the history books.


Abraham Lincoln (Lance Henriksen) is a much respected and honored man saddened by the war ravaging his nation. His wife Mary is much concerned with the death threats he's been receiving in the past several months... even more concerned is his head of security, who thinks Lincoln takes too many idle chances in his leisurely lifestyle. The president loves people. He allows them audiences without batting an eyelash. He enjoys taking carriage rides with his wife in the country. He takes his son Tad for walks. He's also a man determined in his resolve, praying for some swift solution to the death all around him. 


Much to their relief Richmond falls to the Yankee army and General Lee shortly thereafter surrenders. Booth's plans to kidnap President Lincoln and demand a release of all Confederate prisoners of war in return folds in on itself like a house of cards. Infuriated by this sudden turn of events, the young man decides to take more desperate measures. Lincoln. Seward. Johnson. The men who are the very foundation of the Union. The South will have one last great triumph -- and bring an end to all tyrants who have oppressed their attempts at succession...


There is something darkly captivating about this TNT production. The overall value of the piece relies primarily on its historical accuracy; the costuming is generally accurate but seems to falter slightly in the ballroom setting. The acting wavers between exceptional and commonplace... the cast seems a little uncertain of themselves at times and waver between stiff reactions to compelling dialogues. Overall I would say it's a wonderful achievement but not for the faint of heart. It's an emotional roller coaster ride through a piece of American history. Fascinated as I am by this time period as well as the Civil War, I found it very engaging. The screenwriter did a wonderful job. Booth is utterly chilling... there's a seductive attraction to him even as we loathe and come to fear him. His courtship of Lucy Hale is positively spine-chilling, as are the final moments in the Ford Theatre. For the most part I think the filmmakers handled the actual assassination with delicacy.


The violence is more horrific because of its historical ramifications than actual gore factor, though I would repeat that it's not a film for the faint at heart. Few people realize Lincoln wasn't the only man to suffer that night from a vengeful attack -- Secretary of State William Seward and his household were also brutally attacked by one of Booth's cohorts. In this scene, a man forces his way into the house and bludgeons a servant numerous times with his revolver. Then leaving bloody footprints in the hall, he stabs the bedridden senator half a dozen times before being dragged away by Seward's son, who is also stabbed in the chest. It was made even more horrific for me because I'm a descendent of William Seward. Other violence lends itself to some blood on gowns, gloves, pillow cases, floorboards, and fingers after Lincoln is shot. Language is not overly a problem; a dozen or so minor abuses of deity are present along with mild profanity and two uses of SOB.


I'd hoped this would be a sensuality-free film since in all other respects it looked to be quite a promising historical production. But the filmmakers chose to incorporate a fairly graphic and unnecessary scene between Lucy and John Wilks Booth. The coverlets and the fact that she is dressed cover up any nudity, but the scene is still lengthy (several minutes long) and obvious that they're engaged in sex, with necking and heavy breathing. If you're a history buff or just interested in Lincoln in general, this film is well worth a watch with the remote handy. Highly accurate in its portrayal of both the president and his assassin, it's too bad brief sexuality intrudes, because otherwise it's a fascinating emotional epic.

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