Look, we understand: You had every intention of showing up to American History 319: The Civil War and the Rise of the Republican Party. You were going to do all the reading; you were going to contribute to discussions. Then you fell asleep one night reading 200 pages of The Political Economy of Slavery, and there was this other Econ midterm, and you had to watch like twelve hours of Homeland because usually you finish what you start, and so here we are, finals time, and you haven’t been to class in weeks. It’s fine! Many a term paper has been written at three in the morning after watching two vaguely historically accurate films; it is the college way. So for those of you in a bind over this semester’s history exams, here is a handy guide to which Lincoln film will best help land that A. (Okay, more like a B-, but you haven’t been to class in a month, just take it.)
Who plays Lincoln: Daniel Day-Lewis
What it’s About: The passing of the Thirteenth Amendment.
Watch if your term paper is on: Parliamentary procedure in the U.S. House of Representatives; Appomattox; historical lessons for President Obama’s second term; weird beards.
Abraham Lincoln (1930)
Who plays Lincoln: Walter Huston
What it’s about: A soup to nuts biopic of the man — log cabin birth to Ford’s Theater assassination.
Watch if your term paper is on: The basics and you’re too lazy to even read Wikipedia; the ouevre of director D.W. Griffith, the early film pioneer (The Birth of a Nation) — this was his first sound film and one of his last films overall.
Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)
Who plays Lincoln: Henry Fonda
What it’s about: A pre-political Lincoln moves from Kentucky to Illinois to begin practicing law. There he defends two men against murder charges and meets his future wife.
Watch if your term paper is on: Life in frontier-era Illinois; the multi-film collaboration between Fonda and director John Ford; given the film’s historical inaccuracies (the case on which the film is based involved only one man, among other things) not much else.
Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940)
Who plays Lincoln: Raymond Massey (a Canadian!)
What it’s about: Pre-Washington Lincoln — the Ann Rutledge romance, meeting Mary Todd, debating Stephen Douglass, and some extracurricular pig wrangling.
Watch if your term paper is on: Mid-eighteenth century courting rituals; farming; or foreign actors playing great American heroes.
The Blue and the Gray (1982)
Who plays Lincoln: Gregory Peck
What it’s about: The Civil War, but through the eyes of a family ripped apart by the conflict. Cousins fight cousins, as apparently they did back then.
Watch if your term paper is on: The Gettysburg Address — Peck delivers the entire speech with serious Atticus Finch–ian import.
The Civil War (1990)
Who plays Lincoln: Sam Waterston, in voice over
What it’s about: The Civil War.
Watch if your term paper is on: Civil War–era music or poetry; the Ken Burns effect; battle tactics; or really any paper that needs a primary source. This one is all about the primary sources.
Who plays Lincoln: Sam Waterston, for reals.
What it’s about: This two-part TV movie looks at Lincoln’s presidency, with particular focus on Mary Todd Lincoln, played here by Mary Tyler Moore.
Watch if your term paper is on: Whether or not Mary Todd was “crazy”; the dynamics of presidential power couples.
Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter (2012)
Who plays Lincoln: Benjamin Walker
What it’s about: How Abraham Lincoln ended slavery by killing all the vampires who invented it.
Watch if your term paper is on: The decline of 21st-century cinema.