That Abe Lincoln fellow was one foul-mouthed son of a gun. This is one of the surprising historical tidbits to be found in the new motion picture “Lincoln,” Steven Spielberg’s much-ballyhooed biopic about the late president.
Or so we’re told by The Hollywood Reporter, at any rate. We haven’t actually seen the movie, partly because we’re among the tiny minority of Americans who are not enamored of Spielberg’s work and partly because Netflix isn’t yet able to mail it to our front porch, but the report seems plausible enough. It seems to be a rare flick these days that doesn’t have plentiful cussing, and there’s no reason that a supposedly serious tribute to one of the few remaining revered figures in American history should be an exception to that rule.
The Hollywood Reporter’s reporter found some disagreement among Lincoln biographers about the historical accuracy of the language in the movie. Doris Kearns Goodwin, the hottest Lincoln scholar ever since her “Team of Rivals” hit the best-seller list a few years ago, said she had no problem with it and that she even encouraged the screenwriter to include one of the president’s favorite ribald jokes. James McPherson, whose Lincoln scholarship includes a well-reviewed book about the president’s “Strategy of Unconditional Surrender,” said it was unlikely that The Great Emancipator was prone to such frequent outbursts of profanity.
Such disputes cannot be definitively settled, of course, because until recent times writers rarely resorted to impolite words. People have always cussed, and it’s likely that a backwoods rail-splitter such as Lincoln would occasionally let loose with some saltiness, but his contemporaries would not have recorded it for prosperity. Our guess is that someone in Lincoln’s more rigidly moral times would have made note of it if he had made a habit of cursing in respectable circles, and we also note that Lincoln was a man of such legendary eloquence that he probably saved his cursing for only the most appropriate moments, but one never knows for sure.
There’s also no certainty that whatever cussing Lincoln did was comparable to what’s in the movie. Just as the rest of the English language has evolved over the past many years, for better and worse, cussing has also likely changed. The etymology of curse words is difficult to trace because of the lack of written citations, but we suppose that someone of Lincoln’s rural background was more prone to scatological rather than sexual language.
Although we have no objection to cussing in the movies whenever it is necessary for verisimilitude, such as in the fine “Patton” biopic of the famously salty general, it hardly seems necessary in a movie about Lincoln. The intention was probably to make Lincoln seem more human to modern audiences, but surely there were ways to do so that would haven’t provoked historical debates or kept younger children away from the movie. Spielberg has generally kept clean in previous movies, which may be one reason for his extraordinary popular success, and it’s hard to figure why he would deviate from that habit for a Lincoln flick.
Critics have been mixed about “Lincoln,” and the ones we trust most have panned it, but apparently the movie doesn’t try to portray the first Republican president as a 21st Century lefty of the spread-the-wealth variety. That’s a welcome relief, given that Hollywood routinely does sanitizes even the likes of Queen Victoria in biopics and that liberals have been trying to claim Lincoln as one of their since at least the days when the Lincoln Brigade went off to fight for the commies in the Spanish Civil War. If “Lincoln” had turned out to be another bit of Tinseltown agitprop, we’d have been cussing up a storm.
— Bud Norman