…based on the book by Seth Grahame-Smith, directed by Timur Bekmambetov, starring Benjamin Walker, Dominic Cooper, Anthony Mackie, Rufus Sewell, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead.
We are of two minds about Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter around these parts. One one hand, it’s a fun summer popcorn movie that takes the semi-ridiculous and makes it cool. On the other hand, my history major hand, it takes a pivotal historical figure and series of events, and throws it in the pop culture schlock-o-meter.
Four Score and Seven Decapitations Ago…
The vampires brought forth onto this continent, a new nation, conceived in darkness, dedicated to the concept that slavery provided a steady food supply and also helps explain why there’s always so many vamps in the south.
Young Abe Lincoln learns the truth when, after he and his father’s disagreement with a river merchant over the treatment of a young slave, Will (Mackie), that merchant pays the Lincolns a visit. Yes, he’s a vampire, and he gives Abe’s mom a little bite-and-drain. Abe watches, horrified, from the attic. She quickly becomes ill and dies, and Abe vows vengeance.
Years later, when Abe returns to exact his vengeance, he’s of course ill-equipped to deal with blood-suckers. He put a bullet in the vamp’s head before realizing the mistake. Then Henry (Cooper) intercedes to drive off the enemy. Abe begs Henry to teach him how to battle and kill vampires. Training sequence ensues as Abe takes his rail-splitting skills with his trusty ax to a new level. In return, Abe has to agree to kill vampires at Henry’s behest.
So Abe moves to Springfield and begins his grisly work (who knew my adopted home-town had so many blood-suckers). He meets and falls in love with the beautiful, slender Mary Todd (har-har, Winstead), studies law, and continues to search for the vamp who killed his mother.
It turns out the vampires, under the leadership of Adam (Sewell), have infested the South and their plantation economy. They’re using the slaves for food as well as labor, and they like it that way. Of course this makes Abe hate slavery even more. And this made my historian’s sense start to tingle a little bit.
Abe decides to turn to statecraft and politics as a more effective means of dealing with the vampires in the South, and as events progress and the Civil War ensues, we find him in the White House, signing the Emancipation Proclamation and worrying about secret reports that the vamps have supplemented the Confederate Army.
The showdown culminates in Gettysburg, where the blue-coats need silver-imbued weapons to deal with the vampire regiments (the movie having established the ability of these vamps to operate in daylight from the beginning). And by this point my historian’s sense was tingling a lot.
This is not to say I didn’t enjoy the movie – both the wife and I thought it was keen. The action-sequences and fight scenes are first rate and make deft use of the 19th century landscape and backdrop. Russian director Bekmambetov, is known for his action flair (the only decent thing about Wanted – the fighting). Props to the writer – for getting this book made as a movie and for launching his career with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. The storytelling is competent with just enough historical flourish to keep your disbelief suspended (if you’re willing). Ben Walker is great as Abe. He’s suitably forthright and somewhat awkward with Mary, but projects the kind of uncompromising decency many of us would like to associate with Lincoln. When he puts on the beard and age-makeup later in the movie, he even looks like Abe. No, cinematic experience is not the issue here.
The history is the issue. It dawns in certain scenes, for example when you think about slavery in the South and Lincoln’s changing stance on the issue. Very complex, very important. But in the movie, we have vampires keeping and eating slaves, which strengthens Abe’s resolve (a cheap an easy narrative ploy). You have the real specter of child mortality and illness juxtaposed on getting secretly bit by a vamp. You have a freed slave sidekick who is treated normally by pretty much everyone else associated with him. You have Abe narrating the Gettysburg Address as Union soldiers impale fanged gray-backs with silver bayonets.
After we left the theater, and thinking about it the next day, I found myself worrying that for thousands and thousands of the young and the ignorant, this action-horror mash-up is their best and only frame of reference for Abraham Lincoln. And this saddened me. Even though the movie experience itself was fun.