The official holiday honoring Washington’s birthday being moved to a Monday has resulted in our having a traditional national holiday honoring all our Chief Executives. Some presidents’ lives are more filmable than others. I’ve narrowed the field to Lincoln, Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Andrew Jackson, and John F. Kennedy.
1. The Blue and the Gray (1982) with John Hammond, Stacy Keach, Lloyd Bridges, Warren Oates, Sterling Hayden, and Gregory Peck as Abraham Lincoln: I assigned this television mini-series to my U.S. history students for extra credit, gambling that anything that persuaded Gregory Peck to do a film for TV had to be pretty good. I was stunned to overhear one of my students ask a friend, “Who’s Gregory Peck?” The superstar, one of the most handsome men to ever grace the screen, had always wanted to play his hero, reputedly the homeliest man to ever occupy the White House. This was his first and only chance to do so, and we have been the beneficiaries. The series shows how the Civil War divided families: John Hammond plays a young man who leaves his family in Virginia to work for a relative in Gettysburg as an artist correspondent for a newspaper. And then the war comes. It was filmed in the Fayetteville area of Northwestern Arkansas. We U of A grads really appreciate this. The scene when Mr. Spencer exhibits his rifle to Lincoln takes place in front of Old Main at the University of Arkansas. John Hammond’s girlfriend lives with her father (Robert Vaughn) in Sen. William Fulbright’s mansion. The doctor that proclaims the death of Lincoln is Arkansas Razorback icon Frank Broyles. A Fayetteville friend conveyed the following anecdote: One evening, a cast member dined alone at the Farmer’s Daughter, a popular restaurant in the area at that time. He left a $50 tip to his young waiter, who thought he had made a mistake. The actor explained to him, “I appreciated your leaving me alone.” The confused young man, who apparently knew nothing about movies, told his boss, “That man left me $50!” “That was Gregory Peck,” he was told. Veteran director Andrew V. McLaglen does a fine job with this spectacular with one possible exception. Those viewers who are unfamiliar with the Battle of Bull Run may not understand what is taking place during that particular segment. I have had to explain the events to friends and family so they could appreciate it more. Overall, the three-part mini-series’ span from the trial of John Brown to the death of Lincoln is quite well done. Peck, as Lincoln, is exceptional!
2. George Washington (1984) with Barry Bostwick, Patty Duke, David Dukes, Jaclyn Smith, Lloyd Bridges, James Mason, Trevor Howard, Richard Kiley, Jose Ferrer, and Hal Holbrook: This four-part TV miniseries depicts the life of the great man from the French and Indian War through the Revolutionary War with amazing historical accuracy. Barry Bostwick is adequately tall and imposing, and he even makes us like George Washington as a person as well as a hero. I should point out that Bostwick may be a little too animated for the more reserved George Washington, and Bostwick flashes his winning grin much more than the closed mouthed American monument would have dared – he truly did have bad teeth. This is a major production worthy of its subject. Highly recommended.
3. In the Blood (1989) with Tyssen Butler, Robin Hurt, R. L. Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt IV, Theodore Roosevelt V, and President Theodore Roosevelt as himself: A modern-day safari in Tanzania, Kenya, and Botswana is assembled by George Butler consisting of relatives or admirers of Theodore Roosevelt. Archival footage of TR’s year-long safari with his son Kermit in 1909 is intertwined with the modern expedition. Joe Earley, as the voice of TR, narrates the archival segments, while young Tyssen Butler narrates the present-day adventure. This one is wonderful. More on this one in April 2006 with Films for Earth Day.
4. The Missiles of October (1974) with Martin Sheen, Howard Da Silva, Ralph Bellamy, John Dehner, Andrew Duggan, Dana Elcar, Larry Gates, William Prince, Kenneth Tobey, and William Devane as JFK: A stellar cast recreates the thirteen days of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. How the Kennedys (John and Robert) and Khrushchev guided their respective administrations and negotiated their way out of a nuclear holocaust is brilliantly reenacted. This was performed on a sound stage and was reminiscent of the golden years of live television drama like Playhouse 90. The ABC switchboard was flooded with phone calls thanking the network for airing such an incredible production. This one is as historically flawless as you can get. I recall that a journalist who had written a book on the crisis sued ABC for using his work without permission. I had never read his book, but there was nothing in this show that I was not well familiar with. Needless to say, he lost the lawsuit. When you see the advisors and leaders we had then and then think about who we had in the run-up to the Iraq War, it almost makes you want to cry for our country. Johnny, we hardly knew ye.
5. The Perfect Tribute (1991) with Lucas Haas, Campbell Scott, Katherine Helmond, Jose Ferrer, and Jason Robards as Abraham Lincoln: This historical fiction drama stars Lucas Haas as 13-year-old Ben Blair who leaves his family in Atlanta to bring his brother home. His brother Carter, played by Campbell Scott, was severely wounded at Gettysburg and is a prisoner/patient at a hospital in Washington, D.C. Also part of the story is that of Lincoln’s preparation for and delivery of his Gettysburg Address. We hear the full address two times during this heart-tugger and each time it receives “the perfect tribute” – silence. Jose Ferrer, as the main speaker at Gettysburg (Edward Everett), says that Lincoln said in two minutes what he was unable to say in two hours. Jason Robards superbly captures Lincoln’s anxiety and doubts over the speech. Keep the tissues handy.
6. The President’s Lady (1953) with Susan Hayward, John McIntyre, Jim Davis, and Charlton Heston as Andrew Jackson: As soon as Alfred Newman’s rousing music score starts up after the 20th Century Fox fanfare, you know you are in for a real treat. Nobody can play Jackson like Charlton Heston – he even looks like Old Hickory. This is the romantic story of Andy and his beloved Rachel, superbly played by Susan Hayward. Rachel was married to Lewis Robards, thought she divorced him, married Andy, officially divorced Lewis, and married Andy a second time. Andrew had to defend her honor more than once. A few historical liberties are taken – like Andy’s defeat in the presidential Election of 1824 being completely left out – but this one takes us from the day they first met to Andrew’s Inauguration Day. They don’t make movies like this anymore, and ain’t it a shame!
7. The Buccaneer (1958) with Yul Brynner, Claire Bloom, Charles Boyer, Inger Stevens, Henry Hull, and Charlton Heston as Andrew Jackson: Yul Brynner – with hair! – plays pirate Jean Lafitte, a man without a country who longs for U.S. citizenship. The British have burned Washington, the government is on horseback, and it is up to Gen. Andrew Jackson to save the nation at the Battle of New Orleans, but he is short of powder, flints, and men. He and Lafitte make a deal. Charlton Heston is never better than when playing Old Hawk Face, and this is no exception. Cecil B. DeMille supervised this remake, but he had retired from directing and turned that task over to his son-in-law, the great actor, Anthony Quinn. In fact, Quinn’s reenactment of the famous battle was so spectacular that DeMille butchered it in the editing room so that he would not suffer from comparison. Disgusted, Quinn never directed again. As a result, the battle sequence is anti-climactic to all that comes before it, but this is still a good production. Elmer Bernstein’s music score may remind you of his Oscar-winning score for The Ten Commandments, and it is powerful.
8. Sunrise at Campobello (1960) with Greer Garson, Hume Cronyn, Jean Hagen, Tim Considine, Zina Bethune, and Ralph Bellamy as FDR: This is basically the filming of the stage play, but you will enjoy it if that is not a problem for you. It is historically inaccurate in what it leaves out: FDR was not the faithful husband depicted here, nor were he and Eleanor the perfect parents we are shown. Hume Cronyn, as the loveable/repulsive Louis Howe, nearly steals the film. The usually gorgeous Greer Garson wears fake teeth to make her look like the “plain-Jane” Eleanor, and she was robbed of an Oscar that year by Elizabeth Taylor, who won for the mediocre Butterfield Eight (Liz, herself, had been robbed several times before, and the Academy apparently was trying to make it up to her). Ralph Bellamy makes us believe he is FDR as he takes us from swimming at Campobello, to paralysis, to crawling up the stairs, to standing before the Democratic Convention to nominate Al Smith. Franz Waxman’s inspiring music score is quite appropriate.
by David Offutt, February 2006 (slightly updated Oct. 27, 2009)