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Film Review: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012; Directed by Timur Bekmambetov)

The fantastically-titled Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter was greeted by moviegoers with tepid box office numbers and by film critics with either offhand dismissiveness or calculated offence. Possessing several wildly creative action sequences and buckets of spurting, artful blood, it was generally considered to be a sincerely-mounted collage of genre influences, ludicrous quasi-history, and performances of unconvincing conviction. Even if some of the frenetic visual invention came in for limited praise, the film was generally acknowledged to be every bit the messy exercise that a film about an icon of American history dispatching undead bloodsuckers directed by a former Red Army artillery officer was likely to be.

But all of these reactions, you see, totally miss the point. I would humbly propose that Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter manifests as a fictionalized and inadvertent allegory of the distortions perpetrated on historical fact and truth by the popular mythmaking impulse of American culture. Its prevailing contingent argument is that the heroic construction of figures like Lincoln represents the streamlining and paring down of the complex, knotty social and political implications of American history. The very real moral failings of the United States are attributed to literal inhumanity, and the divisive, politically complicated conflict over the nation’s founding sin of slavery is rendered as a face-off between virtuous good and demonic evil. This critique is no less potent for its being cartoonish, ridiculous, and entirely, ironically accidental.

Consider the vampirically-tinged perversion of history provided by screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith, who also wrote the so-called “mashup novel” of the same name as well as the best-selling Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Vampires rely on human blood to keep them sated in their undead existence, and, in the specific case of Grahame-Smith’s fictionalized antebellum America, they maintain (or at least piggyback on) the slaveholding order of the Southern States to provide them with fresh specimens. It is implied at different points that this exploitation of the human capital of slave-owning societies goes back to the ancient Egyptians at least, and that early vampiric colonists in the New World participated centrally in the large-scale reduction of Native American populations that proceeded from European colonization (it’s not made clear in so many words, but this model could equally be applied to the Nazi Final Solution and to Stalinist purges, should subsequent atrocities be required for dramatic effect).

Am I not destroying my enemies when I make friends of them? No, I am destroying them when I strike them with a silver axe!

Before being faced with this unholy alliance of slave-owners and slave-eaters in later years, the young Abraham Lincoln (played with near-comic earnestness by the graceful Benjamin Walker) cultivates a personal grudge against vampires from his childhood in Indiana, or at least one of them in particular. Abe’s father Thomas (Joseph Mawle) is in the employ of the sashaying Southern dandy shipper Jack Barts (the scenery-chewing genre vet Marton Csokas), and intervenes in the beating of an African-American boy who is a friend of his son’s. Fired on the spot by Barts, Thomas incurs a debt that he cannot pay in funds, and thus pays with the life of his wife and Abraham’s mother (Robin McLeavy), who is bitten in the dead of night by the vampire Barts.

Now a young man, Abraham seeks revenge on Barts for his mother’s death, but his indignance is diverted into vampire-hunting by the mysterious Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper), who trains him to dispatch the undead with a silver-edged axe (Abe prefers that to shooting irons, since he “used to be a rail-splitter”). While working in the shop of Joshua Speed (Jimmi Simpson, whose character is never acknowledged as the possibly gay Lincoln’s likely longtime lover) and courting the lovely Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, whose character is never acknowledged to be the daughter of a slave-owning clan), Lincoln also toils at night, learning not only the profession of the law but also that of the secretive vampire assassin. His success at this practice earns him the notice of plantation-owning Southern vampire siblings Adam (Rufus Sewell) and Vadoma (Erin Wasson), who pursue him and those he loves through to his eventual Presidency and the fateful battle for the nation’s soul that was the Civil War.

By transforming the reflective and pragmatic “Honest Abe” into a crusader against slavery whose unshakeable principles are driven by personal vendettas, Grahame-Smith satirizes the simplifications of American historical myth by thoughtlessly participating in them. The thoughtful, philosophic politician who was never a firm abolitionist, favoured gradual changes to standing slave laws and the repatriation of freed slaves back to Africa or to a new colony in the Caribbean, and issued the Emancipation Proclamation as much as an act of political propaganda as a result of personal ideals becomes a determined idealist whose every action in public and private life relates back to his opposition to an evil whose absolute threat only he and his inner circle can properly appreciate. Will Johnson (Anthony Mackie), his valet in real life, becomes a bosom pal and action-hero sidekick, allowing even Lincoln to be able to repeat that truism of paternalistic liberal concern for civil rights: “One of my best friends is black.”

A body divided from its head will not stand, you Confederate bloodsucker!

Most penetrating, however, is the critique of the adapted modern view of the Southern slave-owning society contained in the apparently frivolous exposition of its hidden vampiric aims. Americans whose current views are derived from either the Union or the Confederate perspective have likewise always found it difficult to face up to the moral horror of the enslavement of African-Americans, and have long coped in their own ways. Neo-Confederates celebrate a proudly white supermacist social order with commemorations and by stubbornly unmooring its symbols and heroes from the discriminatory ideology they represented; they have founded a litany of institutions to accomplish this, from the Ku Klux Klan and the Sons of the Confederacy down to Civil War re-creationist societies and even the current reactionary incarnation of Lincoln’s own Republican Party. Neo-Unionists have migrated to an Abolitionist stance that few of their general ideological counterparts shared in the period in question, and have lain much of the blame on the aristocratic excesses and inbred degeneration of the South of stereotyped legend.

This latter view, the knee-jerk ideology of American progressives, is the one that is reified with unintentional parody in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Slavery is therein rendered as not merely a moral crime but as a demonic aberration from the norm of American society. Never mind that it was the norm of a significant portion of American society at the time of the Civil War, and that it was driven not only by racial absolutism but also that most American of character traits, economic self-interest. The mass responsibility of not only Southerners but also Northerners for an economic regime that reduced human beings to chattel to be bought and sold is thus disavowed in a way similar to that favoured by modern conceptions of slavery. Namely, that slavery was bad and only bad people (in this case, vampires) practiced it. Good people stopped it, and Abraham Lincoln was paramount among those good people.

This is a comforting bastardization of history, and one that Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter echoes with a species of goofy, unintentional irony. This critique is only strengthened by association with a non-American outsider (hell, practically a Soviet) like Kazakh director Timur Bekmambetov (who seems more interested in staging spectacular, impossible action set-pieces like a hilarious chase through a horse stampede and the climactic knockdown-dragout on a train hurtling through the night towards Gettysburg with evidently precious cargo). It’s a bit baffling that so many otherwise perceptive film critics could have missed this element so completely. Perhaps they all made the common mistake of judging a film like this on what it sets out to do and then on what it actually does accomplish, when we all know that what is really important is what a film doesn’t intend to do at all. Because Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter succeeds as an ideological critique via its failure as one.

Categories: Film, History, Reviews

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